Thursday, March 16, 2017

What'd you do with the money, Ralph?

Jackie Gleason's 101st birthday passed a couple of weeks ago on February 26, but that's not why I was thinking about him. I was shoveling snow and remembered (if I remembered correctly) that bus driver Ralph Kramden met his wife Alice during a snowstorm in New York during the Depression, while he joined a work crew digging out the city. Alice was handing out the shovels.

Ralph Kramden, her of The Honeymooners, always wanted to get rich, but he was not a lazy dreamer. We know he worked hard; driving a bus in a major city is not an easy way to make a living. But one thing has started to bother me about the show:

What'd you do with all the money, Ralph?

It always bothered me a little that the Nortons had considerably more than the Kramdens. Ed Norton worked for the sewers, but that was 1955, long before John Lindsay was giving away the store. And yet the Nortons had things and the Kramdens had nothing. Why?

I was trying to run the numbers, but numbers are hard to find for a casual researcher. I do have these:

In 1958, according to the Census Bureau, the average transportation worker made $5,808 annually. Maybe they earned a little more in the big city, so we'll say Ralph scored that as early as 1955. According to Curbed, in 1955 a three-room elevator apartment on West 88th Street was advertised at $98 a month. Now, no way did the Kramdens pay that for their two-room apartment in Bensonhurst, but for ease of financial calculation let's say the postwar boom drove rents way up ten years after the end of the war, so they had to pay $1,200 a year for their crappy apartment.

What happened to the other $4,608, Ralph?

Of all the poor families ever seen in American sitcoms, the Kramdens may be the poorest. They had nothing. No phone, no TV, no decent furniture. Alice had nothing but dowdy dresses. They made the Evanses from Good Times look like the Drummonds from Diff'rent Strokes. But the Nortons had nice furniture, a TV, a tape recorder, curtains, a telephone, and generally were a step up. Where did all the Kramdens' money go?

There are some theories to account for it:

It went into Ralph's stomach. We know Ralph loved to eat, and was a sucker for that Neapolitan knockwurst. But Norton, like other skinny comedy guys Jughead Jones and Shaggy Rogers, may have been even more voracious. And neither of them could hold their liquor, so they didn't drink. They smoked (never on camera) but cigs were dirt cheap back then. It doesn't seem like Ralph's appetites could have ruined his family.

Ralph blew it on extracurricular activities. Bowling, pool, miscellaneous gambling, and of course the Raccoon Lodge. Could he have spent that much? Ralph and Alice would fight about money, sure, but it's hard to believe that a woman of her fiery disposition would allow herself to sink into poverty for the sake of the Raccoon Lodge or games of pitch penny.

Ralph's get-rich schemes. This may have some currency, so to speak. Ralph certainly took a bath on that Chef of the Future business. But Norton got pummeled in that one too. I'll just say it's a possibility.

Hidden generosity. Ralph's blustery exterior concealed a heart of gold, as we all know. Maybe even a philanthropic nature. But I guess that would be a non-canon theory, since throwing money around to help the destitute never played into an episode.

Here's my theory: The show did not have an accurate picture of the life of a teetotal bus driver of simple tastes in New York in 1955. But it may have accurately portrayed the financial straits of a boy and his mother in 1925, when Jackie was nine and his father abandoned the family. His mother went to work for the subways, as a subway attendant, a job of lower skill and lower pay than a bus driver, at a time women really did get paid less for the same jobs as men. (The theory then was that a man would be supporting a family and a woman who had to work must be single and childless.) The only other member of the family, Jackie's brother Clement, had died at 14 in 1919.

In short, I think Gleason was thinking of his Brooklyn childhood when he developed the show, but his creation did not jibe with the facts for an honest working man in 1955's Brooklyn. Which was why it was even so much sadder when, in later decades, he made Honeymooners revivals that showed Ralph and Alice still childless, still living in the same dump.

I don't know if it's true that behind every comedy genius is a deep well of pain, but Gleason surely suffered a lot of pain in his life. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, he created an enduring and much copied TV show with unforgettable characters and brilliant comic situations. He was a comedy genius, no question about it. But 1925 never left him.

And so while good things could be allowed to happen to Ralph Kramden, he was never going to be allowed to hit that high note.

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