Interview: Sandy Renda remembers working with Jackie Gleason on The Honeymooners
We chat with one of the last surviving cast members of the classic sitcom.
Classic sitcoms loved a good vacation. The Brady Bunch flew to Hawaii and motored to the Grand Canyon. The Ricardos and Mertzes took a long and winding tour across Europe for much of season five on I Love Lucy. You remember, Lucy stomped wine grapes en route to Rome.
Speaking of Italian getaways, a year later, in 1957, another quartet of New York City neighbors voyaged to the Eternal City. The Kramdens and the Nortons took a comical vacation filled with song, dance and mistaken identity on The Jackie Gleason Show. "When in Rome" is now considered one of "The Lost Honeymooners," one of the hundred-plus sketches and stories aired outside of the "Classic 39" episodes of the 1955–56 sitcom The Honeymooners.
Not long ago, Sandy Renda happened to be flipping through the channels at night in his New Jersey home, when he came upon a delightfully surprising image. He saw his 10-year-old self right there on the television screen. Renda stumbled upon his early guest appearance in "When in Rome."
It took him a bit to realize what he was seeing.
"I said, wait a minute, man. This thing looks very familiar," Renda tells us with a laugh over the phone. "Oh, my God. After all these years, I had never seen it."
Yes, while Renda had a memorable role in "When in Rome," he had not seen the episode for decades. The Jackie Gleason Show was broadcast live from Manhattan in the CBS-TV Studio 50, which is now known as the Ed Sullivan Theater. Because Renda was onstage, he obviously could not view his performance onscreen. Alas, the VCR was still decades away from invention.
Wait, he had never seen his own role on The Honeymooners?
He recalls catching a mere scene from the story in the late Eighties.
"Now, this has to be 30 years ago. That's how long ago," Renda says. The singer and guitarist was downstairs in his basement playing with his band. "Penny Marshall a had special on. A friend of mine calls my house, and my wife comes running downstairs. She said, 'You won't believe but your Honeymooners is on!' We went upstairs to watch it, and we all got a kick out of it — but it was only one of the scenes. I believe it was the last scene."
The special was The Best of Gleason 3, a collection of highlights hosted by Marshall in 1989.
Aside from that fleeting glance of his childhood brush with fame, Renda had never seen "When in Rome" in full, aired in order with other "Lost Honeymooners" episodes. He takes us back to 1957 when he won the role that earned him a place in television history.
MeTV: How did you get the part?
"My mother got a call at the house, because I was 10 years old. The agency that I was with called my mother and said, "There's a part on The Jackie Gleason Show. I had done summer stock [theatre], The King and I and The Rose Tattoo. Nobody got the part yet. They can't find the right boy."
MeTV: Do you remember the audition?
"My dad drove us to the city for the audition at The Park Sheraton Hotel with Stanley, possibly an assistant director. [It was likely Stanley Poss, assistant producer of The Jackie Gleason Show – ed.] There were about four other kids there. I sang "Getting to Know You" from The King and I. They wanted to hear my vocals and reciting some of the lines. So, they came out later, pointed to my mother and said, 'We're going to use your son.' Well, she could've fell through the floor! Now, this was on a Wednesday. The show was on that Saturday."
MeTV: That must have been nerve-racking! That is not a lot of time. Did you rehearse a lot?
"Right. I must have gone to rehearsal. I learned the song. My father helped me with the Italian pronunciation. I don't know if you're aware of it or not, but Jackie Gleason had a full photogenic memory and did not like to rehearse. What if I was backstage and all of a sudden I froze and I didn't go out? You know what I mean? I asked them, what happens? That whole show was really built around my character, the shoeshine boy who develops a crush on Audrey Meadows."
MeTV: Fortunately, you nailed it! Gleason even brought you out on stage for the encore at the end.
"They were running short on time. They normally would introduce the four major characters. Jackie brought me out, which is very gracious."
MeTV: What was your impression of meeting Jackie Gleason?
"Because I was 10, a small 10, he looked like an avalanche of a man."
MeTV: You shared most of your screentime with Audrey Meadows. What are your memories of her?
"Really, really very nice. I think that in all honesty. I didn't see Art Carney as much, nor Joyce Randolph. But Audrey Meadows and I had to rehearse the song together."
MeTV: Can you still picture yourself standing on that stage? What did the audience look like?
"They were well-dressed. It's not like today, where they don't worry about a dress code. Back then, it was just, like, automatically understood — look, we're going to the theater. We're going to a show. We should be dressed."
MeTV: Did you keep anything from the set?
"I have the script, the original script of the show. They must have given it to me. I have an autograph from Jackie Gleason. I recently dug this up. It's on a Horn & Hardart coaster. My mother and father must have brought back a coaster from the restaurant. We must have gone in between rehearsals to eat."
Aside from The Honeymooners, Renda's adolescent acting career earned him an uncredited role on The Phil Silvers Show (a.k.a. Sgt. Bilko) as well as a stage production with Tony Randall. Music remained — and remains — his first love.
"I never wanted to travel," Renda says, explaining why he avoided television. "And in this business, that's, you know, you really have to do that. I fell in love with music at a very young age and I started playing guitar at 12 or 13."
Today, Renda continues to play around the New Jersey and New York City area with the same band he has led for decades, Sandy & The Wanderers. "We do everything from Glenn Miller to the Rolling Stones," Renda says. Over the years, his band career has also led him to share the stage with Fifties and Sixties legends, musicians like Johnny Tillotson and Little Anthony and the Imperials.
Sandy & The Wanderers played the Copacabana. They even played "The Ralph Club," a gathering named in honor of Ralph Kramden. They staged an reenactment of "When in Rome," which local actors in the roles of Trixie, Ed, Alice and Ralph.
"I think Ralph was played by a wrestler," Renda fondly recalls with a chuckle.