Anyone who knows me knew that this was coming in one form or another. In my 60 years on this planet no other actor or actress has influenced and entertained me more than Miss Lucille Ball.
My romance with this amazing red head began when I was just old enough to understand language and what was happening on the television screen. As I have told elsewhere mom would do her chores and to keep me occupied set me down in front of our black and white TV set to watch I Love Lucy and The Jack Benny Program. I had to have the highest paid babysitters in the neighborhood.
I liked Jack Benny or at least his cast. I enjoyed the show most when Mary Livingston or Rochester were featured. Rochester had a unique, gravel like voice that was unforgettable. Jack’s brand of comedy was more adult. Not dirty, but sophisticated and sometimes was beyond me. As I watch his show now, I can appreciate the comedy much more than when I was pre-school.
Lucille Ball was different. Her comedy, thanks to her brilliant writers and her willingness to go on with any gag, could appeal to anybody in the family. She fought with her husband, adult comedy, she got covered in chocolate, kid comedy, she was overdrawn at the bank, adult comedy, tries to sell vacuum cleaners door to door that makes more of a mess than it cleans up, kid comedy.
I think the show was more family friendly than anything else on Television and Lucy reigned supreme for more than twenty years at her 9 pm timeslot on the CBS television network. In the 60s I had to be in bed by 9 so I missed all of those shows on their first run. It wasn’t until the 70s that I was able to stay up and watch my favorite actress every week. But I had the reruns, and they were golden to me.
Not many people realize all the firsts I Love lucy gave to the world of television. And there are a lot. But let’s look at why I Love Lucy came into being.
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, a Cuban immigrant, met while they were both working for MGM studios in a film titled Too Many Girls. Lucille fell in love with the suave Cuban immigrant almost immediately and they eloped in 1940. Lucille was 29 when she married Desi. She wasn’t the biggest star in Hollywood, but she had a good career with some solid roles working with the likes of Bob Hope, Henry Fonda, and Katherine Hepburn. Desi was a band leader and though he made a few films his life was on the road going from concert to concert with his signature song Babaloo.
After being married the marriage was tested. Desi was on the road and Lucy was in California. They both wanted children but being separated made this difficult. It was in the early 1950s that they realized the best way to save their marriage and to have kids was to work together. They decided the best medium to do this in was television.
Television was still in its infancy in the early 1950s. Hollywood stars looked down on the TV box and thought the actors working in television not quite as good as themselves. It was a big leap for Lucille to make this jump, but she did. Her timing was right too. The star system that had dominated Hollywood for many years was beginning to break down. Contract players were becoming less and less the usual thing. Radio was still the biggest way people got their at home entertainment, but TV was slowly catching up. Lucille was doing a radio show called My Favorite Husband it was this show that she hoped to bring over to television. Her husband on radio was played by Richard Denning. He would be replaced by Desi Arnaz.
The first obstacle in getting the show up and running was to find a studio to help them make it. They approached the major networks and were turned down. The reasons the networks gave was that no one would believe an all-American girl like Lucille would be married to a foreigner. That, of course was nonsense. Men and women from different national backgrounds were married all the time in The United States. We are all immigrants or descended from immigrants and have different backgrounds. My mother was Dutch and my father Italian. Second or third generations removed from the original immigrants but still with widely different ethnic backgrounds. The whole country is that way in one form or another.
Lucille and Desi made some sort of deal with CBS. They would go on the road with a show and see if America would except them if they did well than CBS would help produce the show. Needless to say, the couple was a hit wherever they went. They even developed the relationship they would eventually have in the TV show while on the road. The first dividend from the doing the live show on the road was that Lucy got pregnant.
The success of the show gave them permission from CBS. Now they had to figure out how to make their show. Most TV shows in the early 50s were being filmed in New York City. Lucy and Desi were Californians and wanted to remain in California. It was at this time that the two went into professional partnership together. The bought The RKO studio. The movie lot where Lucille got her start and christened it Desilu Studios. They knew they would have to film their show and send it to the east coast for broadcast. The early TV shows weren’t filmed or recorded they were made on kinescope and aired live. Desi proved he was a genius and a good businessman. He brought on Karl Freund who developed the three-camera technique for filming I Love Lucy. The show would be filmed as a play but with each camera doing different work. The show was also performed before a live audience. The laughter from the I Love Lucy soundtracks was actually sold to other shows that weren’t performed live to tell the TV audience when to laugh.
Desi also made a great casting director. Lucille originally wanted Bea Bernadette and Gale Gordon to play Fred and Ethel Mertz. Neither was available as they were both contracted in other shows. Lucille would eventually work with Gale Gordon on I Love Lucy as a guest star playing Ricky’s Boss. She would work with him for years in the 60s and 70s in Lucille’s other shows. Desi knew William Frawley and was well aware of his talents. Frawley had been a character actor for years and worked with Bing Crosby in Going My Way and Bob Hope in The Lemon Drop Kid. He felt he would be perfect for the part of Fred. A friend sent Desi to see Vivian Vance in a play in nearby California town and in her he knew he had found his Ethel. Frawley was struggling with alcohol, but he pulled himself together and the cast of I Love Lucy was born.
No one needs to have the plot of I Love Lucy explained. An American housewife finds herself in all kinds of jams and comes up with zany ways to solve her problems. Lucille was pregnant with Lucie Arnaz when the films pilot was filmed and gave birth to her on July 17, 1951. I love Lucy was first aired on October 15, 1951, one year and two births.
I Love Lucy was of course an immediate hit. It changed the way the world worked on Monday nights. Department stores closed early because no one came in after eight thirty they all wanted to be home for Lucy. Water usage went down. The political world was affected the bottom line was no one not even a presidential speech had the right to interrupt Lucille Ball and her antics. The fashion world was hit too and the dresses that Lucille wore on the show became very popular. The whole country loved Lucy in the 1950s.
The show had its scares. Lucille was investigated briefly but publicly for possible ties to the communist party. This could have ruined the show and there was some truth to it. Lucille’s grandfather believed in the party in its early days and made all of the family become associated with them. Lucille was simple humoring the man who helped raise her. She was a staunch American and believed in this country and what it had given her and Desi. She was called to testify in front of The House Committee and was exonerated. She had to film an episode of I Love Lucy that night and she was scared to death. How would her audience treat her? These were frightening times for anyone even remotely connected to communism. Movie career and TV careers were being ruined, not to be salvaged, if ever, for years to come. Desi came out and gave an amazing speech before the audience. One memorable line was,” Here is my wife and the only thing red about her is her hair and that comes from a bottle”. The audience gave Lucille Ball a standing ovation.
Desi Arnaz Junior was born during the run on I Love Lucy. Lucy was the first actress ever to appear pregnant on television and it took a lot of work to pull it off. The sponsors and the network had to agree and a priest a minister and a rabbi were called on to oversee each show. The word pregnant couldn’t be used so expecting was substituted. The shows were taped in advance of the delivery but since Lucille had delivered Lucie via C-section Desi Jr would need to be delivered the same way. So on January 19, 1953 Desi Arnaz Jr was born to Lucille and Desi Arnaz and Little Ricky was born to Lucy and Ricky Ricardo. Desi’s baby picture was the cover of the first TV guide and television was forever changed.
Of course, I wasn’t born yet. Desi Jr. and I are several years apart and when I came along in the 60s I Love Lucy had gone off prime-time TV. Despite all their effort Lucille and Desi could not make their marriage work and divorced in 1961. The I Love Lucy show which in the end was called The Lucy Desi Comedy Hour went off the air of April 1, 1960.
The studio was still producing wonderful TV shows. Desilu was responsible for The Untouchables, Our Miss Brooks, The Danny Thomas Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show and so many others. If they weren’t made directly by Desilu the shows were shot on their lot.
It would be two years before Lucy would return to television, but she would not go off the air. Because of the genius of Desi Arnaz all the I Love Lucy shows were taped and so could be reshown at any time consequently Desi invented syndication and the rerun. Since I love Lucy first aired in 1951 it has never been off the air. The show will be 70 years old this October and still makes each new generation laugh.
Lucille, after her divorce, took a shot at Broadway and starred in a show called Wildcat. It was successful, if only because of her. It did have a popular song come out of it called Hey Look Me Over. After the run of the show, she would return to television in her second show The Lucy Show. The first episode of this show was aired October 1, 1962 and would reunite Lucille Ball with Vivian Vance.
In The Lucy Show Lucille Ball played Lucy Carmichael a widow with a son, Jerry and teen-age daughter. Chris. Vivian would be her best friend and lodger a divorcee named Vivian Bagley with a son named Sherman. They lived in a small town named Dansfield in New York. This was my Lucy show. Of course, I was too young to remember its first run but to me Lucy explored more of her comedic talent and other abilities than on I Love Lucy.
The first season was shot in black and white. Then Desilu took another bold step and began shooting in color with the second season. Color televisions were very rare in the 60s but always looking ahead Lucy and Desi still partners could see what was coming and got on board early. They were right.
I have watched I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy over and over again. Her outing on Life with Lucy not so much as it only became available to purchase recently and has never been shown in syndication. Basically, Life with Lucy failed. I like it. But to me Lucy could do no wrong. But this show was made in the 80s and people just couldn’t accept a mad cap grandma that got into physical trouble. I think old people seem to be frail to young people and the image of an old lady lying on the floor pushing her panic button and saying, “Help I.ve fallen and I can’t get up!”, is more in tune to a young person’s mind than Lucy being hurled back and forth by a runaway electric armchair and walking away no harm done. Still The Lucy Show remains dearest to my heart.
The Lucy Show had some of Lucille Ball’s zaniest and most inspired moments. Lucy and Vivian arguing over every detail as they spend their first Christmas together is hilarious especially when Lucy appears with an ax to start taking chunks out of Viv’s “white” Christmas tree. Then there was the episode where a contact lens is supposedly lost in a well decorated cake. Needless to say the crumbs flew.
She had some amazing guest starts too. In fact, I think all old Hollywood made a guest appearance on The Lucy Show or Here’s Lucy. She had to start Ethel Merman, Jack Benny, Shelley Winters, John Wayne, and Carol Burnett to name a few. Then there were the marvelous character actors such as Mary Wickes, Hans Conried, Mary Jane Croft and Ann Sothern.
Then there was Gale Gordon. There have been many amazing pairings down the ages, Peanut Butter and Jelly, Batman and Robin, Hamburgers and Cheese, Holmes and Watson and right up there is Lucille Ball and Gale Gordon.
Gale Gordon allowed more to be done to him than any man on Television. Vivian was Lucy’s friend and partner in crime Gale Gordon as Mr. Mooney, the banker who was the trustee for Lucy’s money left to her by her deceased husband, was Lucy’s nemesis. Gale Gordon knew comedy well. He was the long-suffering principal to Eve Ardan’s Miss Brookes in Our Miss Brooks. He was the second Mr. Wilson in the live action television series Dennis the Menace. In those shows he honed and perfected his craft with Lucy it all came together.
Lucille, Gale and all of her cast members gave it their all to make entertaining funny television. Lucy decides to save money by cutting her son’s hair, she ends up giving Mr. Mooney’s son a mohawk. Lucy locks herself and Mr. Mooney in the bank vault by accident, Lucy tries to make money by catering children’s birthday parties and end up flying away on a string with a hundred helium balloons, Lucy has a special vault made in the bank for Jack Benny’s money that includes quicksand. All of these and hundreds of other situations came up over the years and they all make me smile now.
After the Lucy Show Lucille would go onto to star in Here’s Lucy. Vivian Vance had gone into semi-retirement only appearing the show occasionally. Lucy would have a whole new beginning in Here’s Lucy. She was still a widow with two children only now her kids were played by her own teen age children Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz Jr. Gale Gordon stayed with her but the character of Mr. Mooney was gone. He was now now Harrison Carter, the owner of Carter’s Unique Employment Agency. He was also Lucy’s brother in-law and boss as Lucy worked for him as his secretary. Having her own kids on the show gave it an added dimension. I was old enough to stay up and watch this and I liked Lucie Arnaz but I thought Desi Arnaz Jr. was just cool and was very disappointed when he left the show to follow his own career path.
Here’s Lucy was still zany comedy. Hollywood guest starts would make regular appearances. It was on Here’s Lucy where she got got Elizabeth Taylor’s famous diamond ring stuck on her finger. And it was on Here’s Lucy where she got to dance with Ginger Rodgers her old chum from her days at RKO and whom she worked with in the movie Stage Door. Wally Cox, Tony Randall, George Burns, Liberace Jackie Gleason and a host of other made appearances on her show.
On April 26, 1989, Lucille Ball passed away and a legend left this earth. She was a beautiful woman, hardworking, and a perfectionist. Toward the end of her life, she proved to the world that she could do drama as she played a bag lady in Stone Pillow. I remember the day she died. It was like losing a much-loved relative. I shed more than a few tears. I wish I had met her, and I wish I could have told her all that she meant to me and all the joy she has given and continues to give me. When I watch her shows now, I still laugh but there is a little sadness in the laughter for what can never come again.
Gale Gordon summarized what Lucy gave to him and to the world in his forward to the book Loving Lucy. “Mainly dear heart, my thanks for letting me participate, in a very small way, in concocting the world’s most need tonic, laughter -the miracle drug! It’s good for what ails you, it has no injurious aftereffects, and it is well-nigh impossible to take an overdose!”
Gale continues, “The world loves you dear physician. You have soothed our aches and pains, you have lightened our burdens and made our lives a little brighter, and you have given television an added dimension by using it as a vehicle for making house calls!
I couldn’t write anything better. Let me finish this by saying I too will always love Lucy.