It was 1955 when the American television audience was introduced to a lovable group of characters known as “The Honeymooners”. Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, Audrey Meadows and Joyce Randolph were the stars of the show. Gleason, who was in charge of production, portrayed Brooklyn bus driver “Ralph Kramden”, a hapless spirit in search of his next big break or investment scheme. His best friend, “Ed Norton”, was a bumbling sewer worker who wasn’t exactly blessed in the brains department. Their wives, “Alice and Trixie”, may have seemed subtle in their roles, but they frequently kept their husbands in check or got the upper hand in each episode.
This was also the year that the civil rights period was launched. On December 1, a weary seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on an Alabama bus. The real joke is the fact that Parks was actually sitting in the “colored” section when good old “Cracker Joe Bus Driver” ordered her to move. She was well within her rights to remain seated when the monsters called racism and segregation reared their ugly heads and attacked. Parks, like the biblical David, stood up to the beasts and issued the initial blow in the form of defiance. As a result, a force of one became an army of thousands. The “Black Brigade” came forth and boycotted the Alabama bus system, and within a year or so they managed to slay these evil beasts.
Several days after news stations reported the death of Rosa Parks, I caught an episode of The Honeymooners. I laughed as usual, but this time I actually stopped and thought about Ralph Kramden’s character. I thought about the fact that he drove for the Gotham Bus Company and would have no problem getting in someone’s face if they pissed him off. He may have come off as a big blowhard in each episode, but he was always level-headed, kind, and reasonable in the end. Moreover, I don’t think Ralph had a racist bone in his body. Why do I say this? Well, any man that was willing to admit that he grossly misjudged someone and their culture, as he did in the episode with “Carlos”, the Mambo dancer, you have to believe that man was on point with regard to race.
The bus segregation that Rosa Parks fought against was a common practice in southern states. However, if it had been a common practice in New York, and had Gleason decided to tackle the issue in an episode, I strongly believe Ralph would’ve defended Rosa Parks that fateful day. I’m pretty sure that Ralph would’ve gone as far as to tell anybody that hassled Parks, “Keep it up pal and YOU are gonna get yours!”
I’m sure the other characters would have stood firmly behind him. Alice and Trixie gave you the impression they were always willing to engage in “girl talk” with anyone, and Alice frequently associated with people in her building like “Mrs. Manicotti.” The wives probably would have wasted no time inviting Parks over for dinner upon hearing about the incident. With Ed Norton, you always got the sense that he was cool with everybody; especially if they had a refrigerator that was always fully stocked. He probably would have summed up the situation by saying, “Geez! You did the right thing there Ralphie Boy! It’s like we say down in the sewer. White or black, we all smell the same!”
There is no doubt that if Gleason had been able to write and produce such an episode, it would have been a monumental television event. Perhaps he did consider it, but given the state of race relations in the country at that time, and the fact that he couldn’t risk angering the CBS station managers during the show’s first season, he may have decided to dismiss the idea. In my honest opinion, I believe he may have given serious consideration to writing the episode. I offer the following to validate my claim.
“Keeping Time: The Life, Music and Photographs of Milt Hinton” is an amazing documentary film that chronicles the life of legendary jazz bassist Milt Hinton. Hinton, who died in 2000 at the age of 90, played with Cab Calloway and other legends of the Big Band era. The documentary noted the following: “After the disbanding of the big bands many blacks were not able to get work as studio musicians because of the racist belief that they could not read music. Hinton became one of very few blacks to break the color barrier and secure a job as a studio musician thanks to a chance meeting with longtime friend Jackie Gleason. Gleason insisted that Hinton join his television show orchestra.”
Furthermore, Gleason, who had an intense love for jazz, frequently showcased major black talents, such as Nat King Cole, when he hosted The Jackie Gleason Show. Airing in 1952, the show made Gleason a national star, while providing a forum in which many black stars could perform. Based on these revelations, I feel more than confident stating that if Gleason had written the episode, the legendary, tough talking character we all know and love as Ralph Kramden would have tossed any racist jackass off his bus and said “Bang, Zoom!!” to racism.