STORY WRITTEN BY NEAL ZOREN
For Digital First Media
Jennifer Childs is one of the great students of comedy, particularly comedy from the era when stand-ups, television hosts, and icons like Red Skelton, Jack Benny, George Burns, Gracie Allen, and Phyllis Diller were household names welcomed regularly into American homes via frequent television appearances.
Perhaps the two most outstanding figures from early television were Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason, the featured stars of “I Love Lucy” and “The Honeymooners.”
Childs is also a Jackie Gleason fan. Or has become one. Although resistant at first, she looked at the life of Gleason and the content of “The Honeymooners” and wrote a play about a man who, like Gleason and his best known alter ego, Ralph Kramden, has ambitions to be rich, famous, and important. Called “To the Moon,” based on the destination Ralph often threatens to send his beleaguered wife, Alice, it fits in with Childs’ quest to find and create original works her theater company, 1812 Productions, can perform for its loyal and growing audience of comedy enthusiasts. “To the Moon” runs Thursday through Sunday, May 17, at the Christ Church Neighborhood Theatre.
Mention a play about a Gleasonesque character, and one Philadelphia actor springs immediately to mind, Scott Greer, who happens to be Childs’ husband and another Gleason fan. Greer has the size, range, sensitivity, and comic instincts for the role. He even moves like Gleason, lightly and gracefully in spite of his extra largeness. Greer is easily among the best and most versatile of actors seen on local stages and is remembered for both his great comic in this year’s “La Bête” for the Arden and his heartbreaking Lenny in “Of Mice and Men” at the Walnut.
So the formula for “To the Moon” is set, but deciding to write and produce it was not a no-brainer for Childs. She gave the idea considerable thought and, at one point, rejected it. Especially when CBS, owner of “The Honeymooners” rights, denied 1812 Productions the use of any material from the show because it is optioned by a company that is developing a Broadway version of the classic.
Another television great, Sid Caesar was actually the conduit to Jackie Gleason.
“The genesis of this play was an audience member who liked our tribute to Sid Caesar,” Childs said. “He introduced himself as Greg Marx and told me his father, Marvin Marx, was one of the principal writers for Jackie Gleason and ‘The Honeymooners.’ He asked if I would be interested in seeing some of his father’s trunk material, including some unproduced scripts of ‘The Honeymooners.’
“Of course I was interested in the material, but as the artistic director of a theater, I have to put on my producer’s hat and ask if my audience, or a Philadelphia audience, would be interested in Jackie Gleason. I can love the performer and his show, but that doesn’t mean anyone else will care. I was thinking about how to say ‘no thanks’ when I had an inspiration.
“1812’s tribute to Caesar, ‘Our Show of Shows,’ didn’t use Caesar’s scripts. We wrote our own sketches in the style of Caesar’s comedy. It allowed us to say what we wanted using a format devised by great writers and comics.
“It’s important for me to have something to say, and I saw something in Jackie Gleason’s life that was a paradox and that was reflected in his characters, not only Ralph Kramden, but Reginald van Gleason, Fenwick Babbitt, and the Poor Soul. Scott and Tony Lawton (an actor who will appear in a Ed Norton-like role in “To the Moon”) were on the journey with me from the beginning. We discussed why Gleason and ‘The Honeymooners’ engage us and what a play about Gleason would be like, and the course was set.
“We learned a lot, for instance that Gleason was fascinated by UFOs and had a large library of books about extraterrestrial life. We also looked at the poverty Gleason endured as a child, his affection for romantic music, and that he lived opulently in Florida, so he could golf every day, but that he remained pretty isolated and guarded his privacy. We already knew from CBS that we couldn’t draw on ‘The Honeymooners’ or its characters, so we invented a Gleason-like character of our own and made him interested in Jackie Gleason.”
“Tony and I play actors,” Greer said. “And not very successful ones. We do all kinds of things to make money, pose as patients to test medical students, dress up as Colonial characters, do commercials. We squeak by, supported mostly by our wives, but my character constantly believes a break will come. He dreams big. As Gleason says, he lives a life larger than his paycheck allows.
“My character, Scottie, imagines himself as Gleason in all of his roles. He finds one of Gleason’s lost scripts, and he sees it as a big opportunity and a way to keep his wife from nagging him to get a steady job. He becomes obsessed with Jackie Gleason and can’t let go of the idea Gleason will lead him out of his struggle.”
“He reads a Gleason bio and buys all kinds of Gleason memorabilia and things associated with Gleason, such as a telescope to look at the moon, as Gleason would,” Childs said. “It’s important to me to have kernels of information that lead directly back to Gleason.”
Greer said he is a big “Honeymooners” fan and admires Gleason in movie roles such as the sheriff in “Smokey and the Bandit.”
“He’s hilarious,” Greer said. “Even in a role he can walk through, there’s that Gleason touch that makes it funnier and more authentic.
“What’s amazing is he never rehearsed. He hated it. The script would come on Wednesday. Gleason would golf on Wednesday. Marx said his father would wait in the clubhouse of Gleason’s country club to find out how well he did on the course. If he had a good game, he gave him the script right away. If he had a bad game, he’d wait until Thursday. Gleason would do the studio on Saturday and do the show for the first time. In the meantime, he enjoyed a lot of good food and good wine. He was also quite lonely. He made people laugh, but he was often miserable.”
“As a writer, I want to include everything at my disposal,” Childs said. “Mostly I want to create something new or to give a different perspective. I’ve always written, but I realized how much I enjoyed it when I wrote the vaudeville pieces for ‘The Big Time.’”
Since then, Childs has composed several pieces. She is a seven-way threat in theatrical terms. She not only acts, sings, and dances, the latter with trepidation she’s noted in one of her plays, but writes, teaches, directs and produces as well. “To the Moon” will be the first show Childs wrote that she is not directing. Matt Pfeiffer has that honor.
Potholes are on the mind of many local drivers these days. The pits in the road as you try to cross from the Platt Bridge to I-95 can double as craters on the moon.
Walking to work, Channel 29 “Good Day” host Mike Jerrick saw the ultimate tribute to potholes, an orange cone sitting in one.
The cone in question was situated on South Seventh Street where Locust Street meets Washington Square. Jerrick said one day he saw the cone preventing people from killing their tire in a pothole. The next day, its base was stained with tar and it was next to the thoroughfare. He passed it again, and the cone was back in its original position.
The cone became so fascinating, Channel 29 Bruce Gordon did a story about it.
“The poor thing kept moving and playing a variety of roles,” Jerrick saids by telephone from Charles Town, W.Va., where he is attending a family get-together. “I talked about it so much, one day we decided to do a segment in which I interviewed the cone.
“Frankly, I didn’t expect the bit to turn into such an indictment of pot holes and the Philadelphia Streets Department. That was the idea of Daryn Jackson, who did the voice of the cone, using Dan Aykroyd from ‘Coneheads’ as his model. I agreed with Daryn’s sentiments. I’ve been on several cab rides where coffee spills all over because of the potholes. Like my bid for mayor last week, the joke got a lot of attention. The interview appeared on all kinds of websites and was cited on Time Magazine’s set.
“One disclaimer. The cone used in the broadcast was a stunt stand-in for the real cone. We had a cone among the props, put some tar on it and allowed it to play the actual cone. I wouldn’t want to touch the real cone. That’s all I need, someone taking a video of me moving a traffic cone on their cellphone and sending it viral. The stunt double did just fine.”