Her stage and TV credits span more than four decades--and a roster of famed titles. Still, it's "The Honeymooners" for which Jane Kean remains best known.
"There's something about the show--people relate to it," acknowledges Kean, who joined the ensemble during its '60s revival as musical comedy segments in "The Jackie Gleason Show." Kean was Art Carney's long-suffering wife, Trixie. Sheila MacRae did the honors as Alice, opposite Jackie Gleason.
Interviewed at her home earlier this week, Kean reminisced about her adventures with Gleason and company and discussed her latest outing, the two-woman show "We." The mini-musical comedy, which will be presented tonight at 8 p.m. at the Forum Theater in Yorba Linda, was written by Kean, who teams with Barbara Perry for comedy, vaudeville numbers, impressions and songs and dances from numerous Broadway shows the two women have appeared in.
Perry, a leading lady at London's Palladium before she made her way to Broadway, was recently seen dancing away in the 1989 movie "Tap." Thus, her repertoire for "We" will include the dance/monologue "What Ever Happened to Tap Dancing?"
Kean's repertoire, not surprisingly, will include a tribute to Gleason, entitled "How Sweet It Was."
"And it was . People believed the show was real. And that we really were the characters we played," says Kean, who did the "Honeymooners" for five years. Then came a spate of "Honeymooners" specials. They capped a long professional relationship with Gleason, which included several stage productions in the '50s and, earlier, work on the same vaudeville circuit. "He did a stand-up act," Kean recalls. "I never guessed he'd become such a huge star. I mean, his stand-up work wasn't his best. He was an actor. He needed someone to play off."
The idea for "We" came about after Kean and Perry collaborated on musical numbers through a Los Angeles theater group. "We clicked," she explains. It's now one of many shows that Kean keeps busy with.
Recently returned from a guest-star stint in a college musical production, she performs on cruise ships, the dinner-theater circuit and Florida's "condo circuit."
This summer, Kean heads to Connecticut for rehearsals of the Broadway-bound "Arthur" a musical adaptation of the 1981 film comedy that starred Dudley Moore. Kean will play Arthur's snobbish grandmother (Geraldine Fitzgerald in the movie).
She also does extensive voice-over work for commercials (a recent spot found her putting her mimicry talents to work, "playing" Mae West), and is known to fans of ABC's "General Hospital" for her ongoing role of Gravel Gertie. (This marks the second time she's checked into the popular soap. "About five years ago, I played a rich Texas lady," she says.)
She politely declines to reveal her age, saying, "Can you keep a secret? Well, so can I." And in fact, the trim Kean looks wonderfully ageless. (Unlike many veteran performers who provide handout photos that one suspects were taken in years past, she looks just like the glossy she handed over.)
Kean's credits date to the '40s, when she played the ingenue. Then came starring roles on Broadway in '50s shows including "The Pajama Game" and "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" (in the latter, she replaced Jayne Mansfield.)
In the '50s, she also teamed with her sister, Betty, for a popular nightclub act. The Kean sisters, known for their mix of song, dance and comedy--and glamorous gowns--headlined at clubs from New York to Las Vegas. They did 20 performances on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and had a successful run at the Palladium. (Betty Kean died in 1989.)
Though both Kean sisters signed Hollywood contracts in an era known for its movie musicals, neither managed to make the transition to the screen.
To this day, admits Kean, she laments that she signed her contract with 20th Century-Fox, which offered more money than MGM, which had also come courting. "Yes, I've wondered what might have been," she says, recalling that at Fox, there were so many other blondes under contract--led by such established stars as Vivian Blaine, June Haver, Vera Ellen, Celeste Holme and Betty Grable--that she went virtually unnoticed. "I did lots of photo sessions--including those bathing suit shots that were so popular. But I never got the films," she says.
If Kean wonders what might have been, she quickly stresses that she feels "very blessed" by her life, which includes a 21-year marriage to Joe Hecht, her personal manager and a former actor. "I've had it good," she says. "And I've got my health. And your health is more important than anything."
Indeed, Kean is frequently asked how she stays so energetic. Her answer: "I just keep going. I have a theory that when you're active, it helps to keep you young."
She also remains ambitious--revealing that if given the opportunity, she'd jump at the chance for a prime-time TV series. "I'd just love to do a 'Golden Girls,' " she says.
"We," starring Jane Kean and Barbara Perry, will be presented tonight at 8 p.m. at the Forum Theater, 4175 Fairmont Blvd., Yorba Linda. Tickets: $8.50. Information: (714) 779-8591.