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."

Meadows gives Renda a hug after their song and dance.

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."

Renda as Tony in the final scene

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.

Watch The Honeymooners on MeTV!

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Wiseguy 44 months ago
DECADES currently shows The Lost Honeymooners weeknights at 11pm ET/10pm CT. They also show a new batch of 31 episodes including all the musical vacation shows, the Pert Kelton as Alice skits and a couple of "Interviews with Ed Norton" (without Jackie Gleason) episodes.
JeffSchafer 44 months ago
BTW ~ Joyce Randolph is another original cast who is still around.

Her birthdate & location is listed as "October 21, 1924 in Detroit, Michigan, USA".
She will be 96 next month.
JeffSchafer 44 months ago
@MeTV ~ Since you found Sandy Renda, you should have him fill out these pages (birthdate, shows & year of show, etc):

Many young Actors/Actresses from Classic TV shows have virtually no info on them on IMDB.

The one that Played Porky on "Jeff's Collie" is credited as "Donald Keller" in the closing credits, but now goes by his real name "Joey D. Vieira".
JHP 45 months ago
A very golden show - THEY are on my DVR forever - don't want Me-TV to axe the show without warning (but keep saved by the bell and mamas family - YUK!)
justjeff 45 months ago
Sorry, Stephanie - but it was James Darren who sang the theme song to "Gidget" (Colpix 113 - 1959). Johnny Tillotson had numerous hits, including "Poetry in Motion". "It Keeps Right On A -Hurting", "Dreamy Eyes", "Talk Back Trembling Lips" and "Without You" on both Cadence and MGM Records
texasluva justjeff 45 months ago
There is a Gidget movie in 1959 with Sandra Dee with James Darren singing. The 1965 TV series Gidget with Sally Field (1965-66) theme song by Johnny Tillotson. Many more Gidget movies. The TV series only lasted one year but it was up against The Beverly Hillbillies (CBS), The Virginian (NBC), later Gilligan's Island (CBS).
justjeff texasluva 45 months ago
Interesting! I stand corrected... However, I think [perhaps] more people know the James Darren version because of the hit single on Colpix. Apologies to Stephanie as well...
texasluva justjeff 45 months ago
Most of the time James Darren is the go to guy. People remember him back in the 60's not only with music but movies, Guest appearances, The Time Tunnel, TJ Hooker and Deep Space Nine episodes. Gotta love the guy. Still trucking at 84.
moax429 justjeff 44 months ago
I have the Varese Vintage CD of all of Johnny Tillotson's original Cadence and MGM hits, called "Poetry in Motion." "Gidget" is the last track on the disc.

But getting back on topic: I just bought the DVD box set of *all* the "Lost Honeymooners," and saw the above episode about two weeks ago. I liked these original "Trip to Europe" episodes *much* better than the remakes from the 60's which had Sheila MacRae as Alice and Jane Kean as Trixie. (I didn't know Joyce Randolph could sing, either, but also on that box set there was an interview with her, and Joyce said she had worked before with Audrey Meadows in live musical theater.)
cperrynaples 45 months ago
You can see this episode on Amazon Prime! Fun Fact: One of the "Glea-Girls" that introduces the show is a young Ellen Burstyn!
stephaniestavropoulos 45 months ago
Johnny Tillotson probably is best remembered for having sung the theme to the short lived Sally Field, tv version of Gidget.
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