Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Ralph Kramden Statue -- Port Authority Bus Terminal


photo by Alice Lum
For two centuries New York City erected statues and monuments to great achievers—poets like Milton and Shakespeare, millionaire philanthropists like Carnegie and Vanderbilt, statesmen, politicians and military figures.  The city became ornamented with bronze and marble tributes to men who had done great deeds.

But in 2000 the common guy would get his turn.

The American family depicted in 1950s television shows was an affluent suburban one.  Ozzie and Harriet, Ward and June Cleaver, and Jim and Margaret Anderson raised mostly well-behaved children in impeccably clean homes on manicured streets.  The housewives prepared breakfast wearing outfits appropriate for a garden party.

It was a lifestyle not shared by Ralph and Alice Kramden.  The Honeymooners premiered on CBS on October1, 1955 and introduced America to a New York City bus driver and his wife who lived in a Bensonhurst, Brooklyn tenement building.   The overweight Ralph, played by comedian Jackie Gleason, struggled to stretch the $62-a-week salary he earned on his Madison Avenue bus route.  Like normal, everyday married couples the Kramdens argued, were sarcastic to one another, and made up.

Unlike Beaver Cleaver’s or Ricky Nelson’s dads, Ralph shot pool, attended lodge meetings, drank beer and bowled.   The Kramdens’ best friends were upstairs neighbors, Norton, a sewer worker, and his wife Trixie.

Alice put up with Ralph’s repeated get-rich-quick schemes, making television viewers laugh with her mocking one-line comebacks.  When Ralph promised that “This is probably the biggest thing I ever got into,” Alice replied “The biggest thing you ever got into was your pants.”  Alice was played by Audrey Meadows and her deadpan delivery and timing were impeccable.

But despite their poverty (Alice once said “I’m the only girl in town with an atomic kitchen.  This place looks like Yucca Flats after the blast!”), their arguments and their back-and-forth insults, Ralph and Alice were visibly in love and most episodes ended with Ralph holding his wife and telling her “Baby, you’re the greatest.”

The true-to-life married couple was beloved by television audiences across America.  Despite the success, the show was canceled the following year after only 39 shows, the final episode airing on September 22, 1956.

Then as the century drew to a close TV Land began airing The Honeymooner reruns on cable television—introducing Ralph and Alice, Trixie and Norton to an entirely new generation.  In 1999 the TV cable channel came up with the idea to erect a statue to Ralph; a common guy who represented millions of Americans and who had become an icon of 1950s television.

With the cooperation of Jackie Gleason’s estate the plan went ahead.  New Jersey sculptor Lawrence J. Nowlan, Jr. was given the commission to design the statue.  The Philadelphia-born artist was known for his ability to capture moments in time—camera-like—in his stirring monuments.

The site chosen for the 4,000-pound bronze was inspired.  Ralph Kramden did not belong in Central Park with Giuseppe Mazzini or in Union Square with Abraham Lincoln.  He belonged at the Port Authority Bus Terminal.   

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey accepted the gift gladly.   Ken Philmus, director of tunnels, bridges, and terminals said “Who better Than Ralph Kramden to greet commuters and bus drivers in front of the place where more than 200,000 commuters and 7,000 buses pass through every day?”

photo by Alice Lum
On August 29, 2000 The Honeymooners theme drowned out the roar of taxicabs and buses as Joyce Randolph, who played Trixie, unveiled the statue.   Nowlan had captured Ralph happily strolling to work, his leather jacket zipped up nearly to the neck.  In his hand is his lunchbox which undoubtedly holds sandwiches wrapped in wax paper by Alice and a thermos of coffee.

The 8-foot statue did what it was intended to do:  it connected with the common Joe.  According to The Los Angeles Times, construction worker Tino Riveria commented “I like that guy Kramden.  He was a big mouth, but there are millions of big mouths in New York.  So naturally, people here are going to identify with him.”

Below the statue a plaque reads “Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden:  Bus Driver—Raccoon Lodge Treasure—Dreamer.  Presented by the People of TV Land.”

photo by Alice Lum
The statue stands not only as a memory to an iconic television character; it is a tribute to the hard-working, uncelebrated American workforce—the millions of Ralph Kramdens nationwide.

2 comments:

  1. A classic television show. Nice tribute and well deserved.

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  2. "To the moon, Alice. To the moon!" A fine and fitting tribute to a great comedian who invented a truly memorable character. Hail New York.

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