From Sitcomboy.com: The Lucy Archives

LucyArchives.jpgI have finally—well, it only took a few years!—repurposed my award-winning website, sitcomboy.com, as a blog. Before adding new material, I wanted to catch you up on some of the pages I curated as Sitcomboy, starting with The Lucy Archives, a look back at news coverage that I began in 2008. I’ve had to pick and choose the pieces you’ll read below, since the word file I kept them in is 94 pages…and I can’t imagine anyone having the time to scroll through and read it all (Trust me, just the 2008 selections will keep you very busy…and entertained, of course!) So welcome to the Lucyverse…circa 2008-2013. First up: 2008.

02.01.08 Lucy was at the end of her MGM contract when the studio put her in its lavish, Technicolor spectacular, Ziegfeld Follies, in 1946. But instead of using her in one of the comedy sketches, such as the one future I Love Lucy co-star William Frawley did with Fanny Brice about a winning lottery ticket, our redhead was wasted in an opulent, but pointless, opening number, “Bring on the Beautiful Girls.” In dazzling Technicolor, Lucy rode herd over a bevy of gorgeous chorus girls, some dressed as panthers, and wielded a whip to make them “dance.” Although campy beyond belief when viewed today (and Lucy has rarely looked more beautiful), the role was a five-minute cameo, and a perfect example of how MGM, among many of the other big studios like RKO and Columbia, just did not know what to do with Lucy onscreen, a beautiful star who could also clown around with the best of them. But that’s okay — Lucy found her medium several years later, a new-fangled thing called TV, for which she and husband Desi Arnaz (also woefully misused at RKO and MGM) created the sitcom as we know it today with I Love Lucy. Eventually, their studio, Desilu, bought their old studio, RKO. Yes, revenge can be sweet.

Vivian Vance 193904.01.08 Vivian Vance, as some of you certainly know, had a long and successful Broadway and touring stage career before she landed on I Love Lucy. Her stage productions are covered extensively in the new Fourth Edition of Lucy A to Z: The Lucille Ball Encyclopedia, which also includes pictures for the first time, many of them rare and not seen for decades. This picture (at left) is one of those, when Vance was just beginning to make noise on Broadway; it’s an artist’s rendering of her, circa 1939, that ran in one of the New York papers. Around that time she was co-starring in her first non-musical hit, supporting star Gertrude Lawrence in Skylark.

04.11.08 Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz loved Palm Springs, California. They had a house there together for many years, and after they divorced, each settled there with their new spouses, Gary Morton and Edie Hirsch. Desi was known for his carousing, and often Lucy had to send a trusted friend to go get him after a night out of gambling, drinking and God knows what else. Ball was content to enjoy the atmosphere and play games like tennis or backgammon. The 50th Anniversary collector’s edition of Palm Springs Life (its April 2008 issue, on newsstands now) features several pictures of Lucy (one with Arnaz, from the 1950s, and one with Morton, Magda Gabor (Zsa Zsa and Eva’s mom), and George Sanders (who was married to Zsa Zsa for five years (1949-’54) and married to Magda (!) for one year—1970-’71, probably the period when this picture was taken—and co-starred with Lucy in the 1947 movie Lured). You can read much more about Lucy, Desi, and Palm Springs in the 4th edition of my book, Lucy A to Z, under the entry “Palm Springs.”

This issue of Palm Springs Life is a must-have for any Lucy fan, or fan of Golden Age Hollywood in general. There are articles and pictures about every major star who ever vacationed, visited or lived in the desert playground. And if you visit the magazine’s website and do a search for “Lucille Ball” you’ll come up with more than a dozen articles, including one on I Love Lucy director William Asher and his wife, Meredith (Asher notes, “Lucy was a great talent and a great lady. And she worked for perfection in all she did.”) and one on Bob Hope’s film career in which he discusses his 1960 movie with Lucy, The Facts of Life. Writer Jill Borak reported in January 2000, “The Facts of Life was a daring picture for Bob. ‘It was the story of two handicapped people who fall in love. Their handicaps were his wife and her husband,’ Hope told her. “Hope writers Norman Panama and Mel Frank wrote the script. ‘But not for Lucille Ball and me, the fools,’ Hope said. ‘Norman and Mel wanted to explore the adultery theme of Brief Encounter with an American story starring William Holden and Olivia de Havilland. The comedy in the last third of the film would have to go, unless … the writers brainstormed. Yes! We can save it by making it with Bob Hope and Lucille Ball!’ The deal was made. Recalls Bob: ‘Half of the profits went to a very worthy cause. And Lucille got the other half. It was a lot different from when Lucy and I made Sorrowful Jones and Fancy Pants together. Now she was the biggest star in television and owned her own studio. It was the first time I ever kissed a studio head.’ Pause. ‘Face-to-face.’” [I’m pretty sure Hope was joking about the money. In any case, he was perhaps one of the few in Hollywood wealthier than Lucy, and the two were close friends.]

Finally, there’s another article you can find on the magazine’s site titled “In the Swing,” by Howard Johns from 1999, about the popular Palm Springs celebrity hangout, Chi Chi. Johns notes that, “The media described this giant supper club as ‘The second biggest nightclub west of the Mississippi,’ where some of the brightest names in showbiz gathered for more than 25 years. Bigger than Ciro’s, better than the Trocadero, and more fun than the Mocambo that jammed L.A.’s Sunset Strip, the Chi Chi was a veritable shrine to live entertainment. Located on Palm Canyon Drive, it was the scene of many outstanding debuts, several exciting comebacks, and a few tearful farewells.”

Johns recalls one night in particular, October 10, 1950, after some refurbishing, when “The Chi Chi’s houselights were dimmed, and an amber spotlight illuminated the center stage of the newly completed Starlite Room, where 500 VIPs and celebrities sat shoulder-to-shoulder, white-linen-covered tables packed with bottles of Champagne, highballs, and Cuban cigars. A timpani drum roll hushed the excited audience as the curtain rose to reveal bouquets of tropical orchids, birds of paradise, stuffed green macaws, and the evening’s star attraction: Desi Arnaz, wearing a straw hat and twirling a cane, accompanied by his 17-piece orchestra.
“Arnaz welcomed the distinguished guests, many of whom had traveled by plane, train, and automobile for the special occasion. He then grabbed a conga drum, flashed a wicked grin, and launched into a pulsating rendition of his chart-topping song, ‘Babalu.’
“The audience stomped and hollered their approval. ‘Busby Berkeley,’ Arnaz yelled over the microphone, referring to the movie director and choreographer of kaleidoscopic Hollywood musicals, ‘Eat your heart out!’
“Sitting in the front row on that unforgettable opening night was Arnaz’s wife, Lucille Ball, wearing a pink chiffon evening gown. Arnaz dedicated a medley of songs to his beloved redhead and blew her a kiss.”

04.23.08 [[Note: This interview is no longer online, but the KSAV radio site is, along with Dave White, still offering 90 minutes of weekly entertainment.]] Yours truly recently had the pleasure of being interviewed by pop culture critic and television historian Dave White as part of his Talking Television Internet radio series on KSAV.org. Dave, his cohosts Wes Britton and Ron Turner, and I talked about Lucille Ball, naturally, and my book, Lucy A to Z. It was the first of two parts (next week I’m on Tuesday, the 29th, 11 p.m. to midnight East Coast time, 8-9 p.m. in L.A. Feel free to e-mail questions or call in.). An hour plus commercials is not really time enough to even begin to cover Lucy and her career, but we gave it a good shot, and the show is already archived at the KSAV site. Click on the link, then click Archives on the left menu when you get to the home page, then click “Talking Television with Dave White,” and finally click the date 04/22/08 (Lucille Ball Part 1) or 04/29/08 (Lucille Ball Part 2). Note that there’s a half hour or so before the interview where Dave and his co-hosts discuss other subjects, most of them related to TV, of course. And during the interview itself, don’t skip the commercial breaks — the commercials are all nostalgia-related, and in this case you’ll hear Dino Desi & Billy plugging RC Cola, and Vivian Vance as Maxine, the Maxwell House Coffee spokesperson, among others. I want to thank Dave, Wes, and Ron for having me, and yes, I had a Ball!

05.06.08 Oh, for corn’s sake! Here’s a typical question about this subject: “Fred Mertz [William Frawley, below] on I Love Lucy always used to say “Oh, for corn’s sake!” whenever he was annoyed or exasperated at one of Lucy and Ethel’s crazy schemes. But I don’t remember ever hearing that phrase anywhere else, in the movies, theater, radio, or TV. Can you tell me what the origin of the phrase is and whether it was a popular expression of that era (the 1950s)?”

Fred Mertz For Corn's SakeWell, I can tell you a little about where it came from, but not exactly when or where it was first used. The phrase itself does not come up when you search for it on any of the dozens of regular dictionaries and word usage sites, or even slang dictionaries. It’s as if it doesn’t exist. However, a general Google search will yield results, most of which lead to a book called Walter Tetley: For Corn’s Sake, about the character and voice actor who became best-known as Leroy, the nephew of The Great Gildersleeve on the popular radio show (1941-1954) of the same name. (Gildersleeve was actually one of the first spin-offs, focusing on a popular character from the hit radio series Fibber McGee and Molly.)

Anyway, one of Leroy’s favorite phrases was…you guessed it, “For corn’s sake!” That’s as far back as I can go. Several further points: Lucille Ball’s writers — head writer Jess Oppenheimer, Bob Carroll Jr., and Madelyn Pugh — all had lengthy careers writing for radio before joining up on Ball’s radio show, My Favorite Husband (which, of course, served as the template for I Love Lucy). So they had all heard the phrase “For corn’s sake,” perhaps many times, and it’s likely they appropriated it as an expression to help define the Fred Mertz character.

It must also be noted that show business in the electronic age has a long tradition of substituting “normal” or like-sounding words for profane words that would not make it past the censors. “For corn’s sake” might have originally been a substitute for “For Christ’s sake.” On TV currently (2008), you can catch another bowdlerized word on Battlestar Galactica, first popularized on the original 1978-‘79 version: “frack(ing)” or “frak(king),” used as an acceptable (for TV) expletive instead of “f—k(ing).” The new version has expanded the use of the word to such expressions/words as “What the frak?”, “Are you frakking her?” and “motherfrakking.” (Another cult sci-fi series, Farscape — 1999-2003 — created its own substitute words: frell for f—k, and dren for s—t.)

That’s all I can come up with for the origins of “For corn’s sake”: a made-up expression by the Gildersleeve writers, taken on by the Lucy writers, as a saltier or funnier (i.e., instead of “For goodness’ sake”) and less profane way of making a point, or defining a character. (And for frak’s sake, I think it’s enough!)

05.12.08 On May 9, The Paley Center for Media Broadcast a special honoring TV’s All-Time Funniest in a variety of categories, including Dads, Moms, Kids, Neighbors, Friends, Relatives, and Coworkers. There were none of the typical categories like Best Sitcom or Best Comedic Actress, which explains why Carol Burnett, Carroll O’Connor, Jean Stapleton, Elizabeth Montgomery and many other television legends were not acknowledged. According to the Paley Center, “TV fans across the country were asked to choose their funniest characters in … eight categories,” with the results tabulated by Nielsen Media Research (the weekly TV ratings people). Lucille Ball, I guess, had to be mentioned one way or another, and Lucy was crowned TV’s No. 1 all-time funniest mom, though that’s not the first attribute we usually apply to Lucy Ricardo. But she was, indeed, a mother, and one wonders why, in that case, the Paley Center chose to illustrate her “Funniest Mother” honor with a clip of Vitameatavegamin, instead of one from “Lucy Goes to the Hospital,” i.e., the birth of Little Ricky (one of TV’s most-watched sitcom episodes, ever). Other good news: Fred and Ethel Mertz (William Frawley and Vivian Vance, above with Lucy and Desi Arnaz as the Ricardos) were chosen as the No. 2 All-Time Funniest Neighbors — behind Seinfeld‘s Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards), No. 1.

By the way, in 2005, the Paley Center (formerly The Museum of Television and Radio) created the “She Made It” honor, recognizing female achievements in all areas of media. Among the first group of honorees was, of course, Lucille Ball, described as leaving her “indelible mark” on the media as a television producer, executive, director and actress.

08.02.08 The Lucy-Desi Center in Jamestown, N.Y., reported, “On Saturday, August 2, in conjunction with Lucy’s Birthday Celebration —August 1-3 — all Lucy artwork donated to the Center for its Visions of Lucy exhibit [including pieces by pals Rick Carl and Dave Woodman] was incorporated into the Lucy-Desi Memorabilia Auction. “In addition to the artwork, the auction offered over 100 vintage Lucy-Desi memorabilia items, plus special one-of-a-kind collectibles, including memorabilia from the estate of Vivian Vance. The auction was sponsored and conducted by Ludwig Auction & Realty Co. and was held at the Reg Lenna Civic Center, 116 E. Third Street in downtown Jamestown.” As soon as I have information about the auction results, I’ll post it here. 

Of course, there were dozens more events happening at the Lucy-Desi Center throughout Lucy’s Birthday Weekend. These included a special sneak preview of the new Lucy-Desi Museum building, for Museum members only; 2-hour Lucytown Bus Tours, each featuring a special VIP guest; a tribute to Lucy’s costumer designer, Elois Jenssen; a talk with Lucy’s chauffeur, Frank Gorey, a great guy and a helluva raconteur; the always delightful Wanda Clark, Lucy’s personal secretary, at the annual fan reunion and picnic; screenings of films and TV shows featuring our favorite redhead, including the final, unaired episode of her last series, Life with Lucy; Lucy and Ethel impersonators extraordinaire Diane Vincent and Rhonda Medina, who entertained fans throughout the weekend; an improv class taught by Vivian Vance’s sister, actress Lou Ann Graham; and an evening with Lucy’s friend and co-star, Ruta Lee, “I Remember Lucy.” Lee was charming and her show was a delight. For more information about the Lucy-Desi Center [now The Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum], visit http://www.lucy-desi.com.

08.19.08 LUCY AND THE ALMOST GUEST-STAR
For the second episode of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, in 1957, Bette Davis (bottom left) was the original choice to play the title character, “The Celebrity Next Door.” Basic plot: Lucy Ricardo, in Connecticut, finds out she’s living next to a famous star, and tries to draft said star to play the lead in a community theater production. Wackiness ensues. Davis, who had indeed gone to the John Murray Anderson School for drama training and was the star pupil there when Lucy arrived some 30 years before, said yes…but demanded a huge salary (reportedly $20,000), a paid trip back to her New England home, and equal billing in the show with Lucy and Desi.
Desi Lucy Tallu Lucy was so eager to act with her former classmate she agreed to all the demands, which became a moot point when Davis injured herself during a riding accident and was unable to perform in the show. She was replaced by Tallulah Bankhead, ironic since many believed Davis classic performance as Margo Channing in 1950’s All About Eve was based at least partly on the real-life Bankhead. Bankhead was a terror during the rehearsals, but pulled it together for the show, and the episode (Left, Desi Arnaz, Lucy and Tallulah) is usually cited as one of the best of the 13 Comedy Hours. But for some reason, later in life Davis professed to her friend and biographer Roy Moseley that she wasn’t a big fan of Lucy’s. Excerpts from Mosely’s 2003 book, Bette Davis: An Intimate Memoir, follow:

Bette Davis: An Intimate Memoir
By Roy Moseley
Published by University Press of Kentucky, 2003

“She once told me that she had done 13 pilots for [TV] series, not one of which was taken up. I think this was a slight exaggeration, but she certainly did make a great many. She ran one for me in which she acted with the actress Mary Wickes, who had played the nurse in both The Man Who Came to Dinner and Now, Voyager years before. Miss Wickes was a close friend of Lucille Ball’s. Bette decided not to like her. After working together as much as they had done, Bette’s dislike of Mary is a slight mystery. I believe that she heard of the friendship that Mary had developed with Lucille Ball, whom Bette did not like.” …

“When I met Lucille Ball, she told me that she had been at the same acting school as Bette. Lucy had been a ‘new girl’ just as Bette was leaving, and she remembered seeing Bette on stage and thinking, ‘That girl is going to be a star.’
“When I next saw Bette, I told her I believed she had been to school with Lucy.
“‘No.’ Bette shook her head.
“You must have been, Bette,” I insisted. “She said so.”
“I don’t remember her!” Bette flared.
Soon afterward, Bette was appearing in her one-woman show in Long Beach, California, and one of the first questions from a member of the audience was, ‘Is that Lucille Ball in the third row?’
“Bette shielded her eyes from the lights and called out into the audience: ‘Is that you, Lucy? Are you there?’
“‘Yes, Bette,’ Lucy called back.
“‘We go back a long way, don’t we, Lucy? We went to acting school together, didn’t we?’
“‘Yes, we did!’ shouted the delighted Lucy.
“Bette had decided to hedge her bets and trust that my information was correct.
“After the show, I went backstage, and Lucy was also there with Mary Wickes. Bette was visibly unhappy.
“Bette later told me she didn’t much like Lucy; perhaps she was too much competition [for Miss Davis].”

Or perhaps Davis held a weirdly misplaced grudge against Bankhead and Lucy for not being able to appear in the show.

Lucy Viv11.04.08 It doesn’t amaze me anymore to regularly see references to Lucille Ball, I Love Lucy, her co-stars and/or the characters they played, in pop culture, almost every day. I can’t report each one because I wouldn’t have time for anything else. But this one tickled me, so I thought I’d share in case you missed it: The 10-31-08 issue of Entertainment Weekly had a sidebar on catfights (headlined “Girl-on-Girl Action”) its TV section. Most of us love a good catfight, and they rated three current ones on a sliding scale that began, on the left end, with Lucy and Ethel (Ball and Vivian Vance; their fights were described as “frumpy” and “slapsticky”) to Dynasty‘s Alexis and Krytsal (Joan Collins and Linda Evans) on the right, whose fights were described as “the gold standard of scratching and clawing.” There were small pictures of Lucy and Ethel, and Alexis and Krystal, accompanying the article. [Granted, there was never any real physical harm inflicted during Lucy and Ethel’s fights, but theirs will always be my personal gold standard of funny.]

LucyVivStamp12.29.08 Lucy Honored With Third USPS Stamp Are you ready for the third Lucille Ball stamp? According to an AP story released today, the U.S. Postal Service plans to release a set of 20 stamps on August 11, 2009—five days after Lucy’s birthday—called The Early TV Memories set. Lucy and Ethel (Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance) are to be pictured (left) losing their struggle wrapping chocolates for an assembly line in one of the most famous I Love Lucy episodes of all, “Job Switching.” This makes Ball one of the rare (if not only) entertainers to be honored with three postage stamps. The first one featured her and Desi Arnaz representing I Love Lucy in the 1950s group of stamps that was part of the “Celebrate the (20th) Century” series. The second stamp depicted Ball herself, drawn by Drew Struzan, as part of the Hollywood Legends series. Other stamps in the TV series honor Groucho Marx and his quiz show, You Bet Your Life; Dragnet; Dinah Shore; The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet; Alfred Hitchcock Presents; The Ed Sullivan Show; The Burns & Allen Show; The Honeymooners; Howdy Doody; Kukla, Fran and Ollie; Lassie; The Lone Ranger; Perry Mason; The Phil Silvers Show; Red Skelton; The Texaco Star Theater (which featured Milton Berle); The Tonight Show; and The Twilight Zone. Note that on the collectible sheet set of 20 stamps, all four I Love Lucy stars are pictured. Stay tuned to this site for more details as they become available.

This was my final post for 2008. Stay tuned to this blog for more peeks into the Lucyverse via The Lucy Archives. Hope you enjoyed!

 

 

 

 

 

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The Television Series of Lucille Ball, #3: The Lucy Show

lucyshowcolorcredits

Animated color credit sequence from The Lucy Show, featuring Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance.

The Lucy Show
Aired: 1962-1968
Stars:
Lucille Ball as Lucy Carmichael
Vivian Vance as Vivian Bagley
Candy Moore as Chris Carmichael
Jimmy Garrett as Jerry Carmichael
Ralph Hart as Sherman Bagley
Gale Gordon as Theodore J. Mooney

Premise:
In order to make ends meet, widow Lucy Carmichael (Ball) and divorced Vivian Bagley (Vance) share a house together with their kids in Danfield, Connecticut. Wackiness ensues.

Caricature by George Wachsteter used by CBS to promote its new hit, The Lucy Show, starring Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance.

Caricature by George Wachsteter for CBS’s 1962 hit, The Lucy Show, starring Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance.

Lucy returned to TV after a Broadway break (she starred in the musical Wildcat in 1960-1961, until exhaustion forced her out of the show). The Lucy Show was an immediate hit out of the gate, proving that audiences still loved her, even without a Ricky/Desi figure to rein her in. The situation was helped by having Lucy’s friend and comedy partner (and the erstwhile Ethel Mertz), the inestimable Vivian Vance, playing opposite Lucy.

Vivian (who’d had plastic surgery in between I Love Lucy and this series) looked dynamite, and insisted in her contract that her character be called “Vivian,” to help the audience forget her as Ethel. She portrayed the first divorced woman who was a regular character on a prime time series.

Based on the book Life Without George, and featuring three very likable kids—not cookie-cutter TV offspring—as the girls’ children, The Lucy Show was a delight, especially as it found its footing in the first two seasons, which were filmed in black-and-white. Audiences clearly adored Ball and Vance as a team, and when the two of them worked their magic—on stilts, installing a TV antenna, trying to fix a broken shower and nearly drowning, clowning on an electric mattress—the result was classic TV comedy.

The addition of Ball’s longtime co-star Gale Gordon as the blustery (what else?) president of Lucy’s bank in Season Two (replacing character actor Charles Lane from the first season) signaled a change in the direction of the show, and not necessarily a good one. The interplay between Lucy and Mooney (I always thought he barely acknowledged Vance’s character on the show) was fun shtick, to a point. But as the series ran on, and especially after Vance departed (she left after the third season, tired of her weekly East-West Coast commute), the Lucy/Mooney stuff became increasingly irritating and repetitive.

lucyvivxmas

Vivian Vance and Lucille Ball: close friends, longtime co-stars and television’s favorite comedy team .

The show seemed to lose its heart with Vance’s departure in 1965. Lucy relied on guest stars for the remainder of the show’s long run (until 1968) to fill Vance’s place, but no one could. Pal Ann Sothern stepped up to the plate for a half-dozen or so episodes, as a dissolute “Countess” who needed money, and she worked well with Lucy…but she was not Vivian. The success of any particular episode began to depend on how much viewers enjoyed the guest star of the week, and how well he/she fit in to the “Lucy” format.

As an example, when the guest was legend Jack Benny, as in the season six episode “Lucy Gets Jack Benny’s Account,” and the plot involved Lucy scheming to get his bank account moved to Mooney’s bank by building Benny a break-in-proof vault, the results were fine, clever and satisfying. But they were more often misfires.

Still, the audiences were far from tired of Lucy, and kept the show in the Top Ten for all six of its seasons. In fact, in its final season, 1967-1968, The Lucy Show exited as the Number Two show on TV.

Lucy had an end-of-season tradition: saying she wasn’t sure if she was coming back the following season. She always re-upped, but usually only after CBS came to the party with more money and steadfastly assured our favorite redhead how important she was to the network’s schedule (which, in fact, she was…for quarter of a century).

Ball might have had more incentive than usual to end The Lucy Show. It had begun life in 1962 as a Desilu production, and remained one. Since Lucy had sold her (and ex-husband Desi’s) company to Paramount in 1967, she no got profits from the show as an owner. By ending it and creating Here’s Lucy (coming soon) under her own banner, Lucille Ball Productions, at Paramount, the ball (pun intended) was squarely back in her court.

Celebrating Lucille Ball’s 105th Birthday

The Lucille Ball Comedy Festival starts today, in her hometown of Jamestown NY, sponsored by the Lucy-Desi Center for Comedy. Celebrating what would have been Lucy’s 105th (!) birthday on August 6, there are plenty of Lucy, I Love Lucy and comedy events in which to take part.

I attended the festivals regularly, and though I can’t make it this year, I wanted to honor our favorite redhead by posting a “Letter to Lucy” I wrote after attending one of the special weekends, circa the mid-2000s. So enjoy, and as soon as I have a picture of the new sculpture being unveiled tomorrow in Lucille Ball Memorial Park, childhood home of Celeron, NY — to replace what many have dubbed the “Scary Lucy” monstrosity that was removed from the park after fan uproar — I’ll share it with you on Facebook.

Happy Birthday to the woman who has bought more of the healing power of laughter to us than any other entertainer in history.

Dear Lucy,

MuseumFrontOh, how you would have loved the “Lucy-Desi Days” festival in Jamestown, N.Y.! Sponsored by The Lucy-Desi Museum (left), the celebration honors you, Desi Arnaz, and the cast and crew of I Love Lucy for bringing so much happiness to the world through laughter. A lot of your friends and fans showed up to celebrate: your I Love Lucy director William Asher; I Love Lucy film editor Dann Cahn (who told me a wonderful story about the making of Forever Darling, but more on that later); Wanda Clark, your personal secretary; your brother Fred; your “sister,” Cleo Smith; your daughter, Lucie; and of course, many, many fans, including myself.

I arrived at the Buffalo airport on Thursday night (05.26), and waited for William AsherAshers and wife Meredith (right) to arrive. Museum volunteer Everett Nelson took me out to dinner and in general took good care of me; when the Ashers arrived, we loaded up the car and headed for Jamestown. Lots of stories from Bill and Meredith — several of which I can’t share! — but I asked Bill (waving in pic below; Dann Cahn is in the cap and glasses) how he got involved with I Love Lucy and he explained that Lucy and Desi had asked him to edit the show in the first season (1951), but he wasn’t interested since he’d already moved on to directing. He recommended his friend, Dann, as film editor, and the rest is history. When I Love Lucy‘s first director, Marc Daniels, left after Season One, you and Desi asked Bill to direct, again. This time he accepted, and ended up directing more than 100 episodes. Bill also directed other Desilu series like Our Miss Brooks and December Bride, and then, in the 1960s, became best known for writing, producing and directing Bewitched, AsherWavewhich starred his then-wife, Elizabeth Montgomery. Bill and Meredith also noted they were very excited and looking forward to get to Salem, Massachusetts, their next stop, where, in the near future, a statue of Montgomery as her Bewitched character, Samantha Stevens, will be unveiled. Here’s a little secret: look for the couple in a cameo appearance toward the end of the updated big-screen version of Bewitched [2005], coming in early June. The Ashers were a delight and had nothing but nice things to say about you, Lucy; more on Bill a bit later.

That’s me with Wanda Clark (rightWandaMAK.jpg) getting ready to be immortalized in the Museum’s 2005-06 catalog (05.27). She was a sweetheart, as always, and one of the dearest people I’ve met…showed me pictures of her gorgeous new place in Oklahoma. She lives on a lake. Can we say, “Jealous!” I had a ball (forgive my pun) being photographed with Lucy archivist and fellow author Tom Watson, and illustrator Rick Carl. Afterward, I walked around downtown Jamestown, getting reacquainted with your home town, and especially Jones Bakery(!), where the cheese danish is heavenly. You used to have Jones’ Swedish limpa rye bread shipped out to Beverly Hills, didn’t you? At noon, downtown at Tracy Plaza, Mayor Sam Teresi proclaimed the official opening of Lucy-Desi Days 2005, with a little help from Lucy and Desi impersonators Diane Vincent and Adrian Israel (below).

Proclamation3.jpgI spent the rest of the day signing books at the Collector’s Show and the Lucy-Desi Fan reunion, held this year at the Celeron Fire Hall. The venue was appropriate for several reasons (normally, it’s held outside as a picnic): a devoted fan had bought Lucille Ball’s fire hat from the (future) Museum collection many years before, and took this opportunity to return it to the Museum. In addition, an episode of The Lucy Show was screened for the fans, “Lucy’s Barbershop Quartet,” in which the title group, including Vivian Vance and Carole Cook, calling themselves The Four Alarms (they were all volunteer members of the Danfield Fire Department), has to audition for a lead singer when theirs become unavailable. Guess who wants to sing? Well, you don’t have to guess, you were there! “Lucy” (Diane, a dear friend) and “Ricky” (Adrian) joined the fans for while, and the dinner ended with a trivia contest in which every correct answer was rewarded with a Lucy T-shirt or sweatshirt.

That night I was privileged to be one among many who watched a rare showing of the I The BenefitLove Lucy Movie. Long thought lost, the movie was produced in 1953, at the height of I Love Lucy‘s success, and was comprise of three Season One episodes (“The Benefit” — see pic of Lucy and Desi performing, right — “Breaking the Lease,” and “The Ballet”) put together with newly shot connecting footage. The new footage was shot by your longtime pal and director Ed Sedgwick (he directed you in perhaps your best MGM comedy showcase, 1946’s Easy to Wed). It was Sedgwick who suggested making the movie a “show within a show,” framing it around what it would be like to be in the I Love Lucy audience, so that the laughter and applause on a typical Lucy episode wouldn’t seem out of place. The movie opens as the audience files in to see the show, and ends as they leave. Up front, Desi Arnaz is seen warming up the crowd, and introduces his three co-stars. At the end, the actors break character to take a bow. We follow a couple in the audience (Ann Doran and Benny Baker) as they watch the movie.
Dann Cahn, who introduced the movie at the Lucy Fest, remarked that he had searched long and hard (for five years!) to find a print of the movie, which even “insiders” like your original I Love Lucy writers, Bob Carroll and Madelyn Pugh, thought might not have ever existed. Dann finally found the print in a Paramount vault, listed as a Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse production…probably a big reason why it was never found all those years, since no one would have thought to look for it in a Desilu series archive. And the real reason it was lost to begin with, said Cahn, was that “We’d previewed it before an audience in Bakersfield (California) including MGM production chief Dore Schary and producer Pandro Berman. They came to us afterward and noted they [MGM] were releasing The Long, Long Trailer the next Valentine’s Day (1954), and they’d appreciate it if our ‘little I Love Lucy Movie’ wasn’t competing with it.” Desilu graciously withdrew its planned release of the movie, and it was promptly shelved and forgotten…until now. This is only the second time in more than 50 years that the movie has been shown, and it was a true joy to see Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel cavorting on the big screen.

The next day (05.28) began (deliciously) with coffee and a butterscotch muffin at Kaldi’s Coffee Shop, near the Reg Lenna (Civic Center) Theater. I ran into your daughter Lucie and fellow author Elisabeth Edwards, and we chatted for a few minutes; then it was off to see a very special presentation at the Reg (as everyone now calls it in Jamestown): author Tom Watson introduced Dann Cahn, Bill Asher, and your brother Fred (marking his fDannStageirst appearance in Jamestown in 70 years!), to tumultuous applause, for the “Men of I Love Lucy” seminar. That’s Dann at left onstage at one point introducing what he affectionately called “the three-headed monster”: a special moviola device designed by Lucy’s Oscar-winning cinematographer Karl Freund for editing the then-groundbreaking I Love Lucy three-camera shots (Tom’s at right in the pic with Bill Asher, seated). The fans in the audience ate up every word Dann, Bill and Fred had to say. Their work behind the scenes helped shaped TV’s most famous comedy. A highlight: Asher’s telling of the first day he worked on the I Love Lucy set, and a run-in he had with you, Lucy, who was apparently giving him too much direction. Asher recalled saying, “‘Lucy, there’s one director here and that’s me, and you’re paying me to do it. If you want to direct, go ahead, and you won’t have to pay anyone!’ Lucy broke down in tears and ran off the set,” at which point Asher remembers retiring to the men’s room (he didn’t yet have an office!), and finally coming back to the set and meeting Desi, who starting yelling at him in Spanish, until Asher politely asked, “Desi, give it to me in English, please?” Asher said Desi was completely understanding, and agreed with him, but told the young director “to find Lucy in her dressing room and bring her back to the set.” Asher did,and he and you hugged and cried for a few minutes; then, “Lucy pulled herself together and went back to work. After that,” said Asher, “I never had another problem with Lucy.”

Lucy, I’ve heard you sometimes “tested” people in that way, in order to see if they were going to let you push them around (which you couldn’t tolerate). In any case, with you and Bill, it worked out to be a wonderful arrangement. The seminar ran long because no one wanted the three men to leave the stage, but eventually it was time for me to sign someLucyBirthHomeCel books at the Collector’s Show, which featured classic, collectible Lucy merchandise. That I did, and my last official appointment for the day was as the “mystery guest” on the 4:00 p.m. Lucytown Bus Tour. Tour guide Lucy Stubbs was a dream, the crowd was totally into Lucy trivia (Duh!), and I gave them as much as we had time for. Among the sites seen were Lucy’s birth house in Jamestown (left) and the house she grew up in, in Celeron. The latter home was recently bought by Buffalo’s Bill and Mary Rapaport, who renovated it back to its pristine 1922-era condition — when you actually lived there, Lucy! (Aside to Lucy: they invited your brother Fred and “sister” Cleo Smith, who lived in the home with you many years ago, to visit during the festival, so they could share memories and offer period detaLucyBedroomView.jpgils the Rapaports can put back in.) Mary and Bill, whom I met last year in Jamestown, were kind enough to take me on a private tour, and I snapped lots of shots, including the two you see here: the view from your second-floor bedroom (in the back of the house). It’s said that you loved to stand at the window and gaze at the lilacs that grew in the back. In this house, one really does get a sense of how you and your family lived and where your dreams to become a performer began, and it’s something no fan will want to miss. The other picture (below) is the original linoleum floor from the master bedroom of the house. I was literally walking through your childhood history, and it was amazing. 

MasterLinoleumAfter the tour I signed more books, then got ready for the Masquerade Ball, which started at 8:00 p.m. in the former Jamestown Hotel’s Crystal Ballroom (the hotel is now a well-kept residence for seniors). Lucy, I’m told you used to hold court for fans and the local media in the restaurant for breakfast at the Jamestown Hotel whenever you were in town. In the ballroom itself was a wonderful riot of people and costumes; many of the women came as you, Lucy, either in the familiar navy polka-dot dress or one of your adventurous incarnations (an Indian, a showgirl, etc.); one fan came as Ethel (and Fred) in an inspired two-headed dragon costume, from the dream sequence in “Lucy Goes to Scotland.” The hors d’oeuvres were great, the entertainment (by Adrian and Diane as Desi and Lucy) better, the fans were in rare form.

VitaMeataThe next morning (05.29), passing one of the many fabulous hand-painting murals (left) that decorate downtown Jamestown with scenes from I Love Lucy,  I met Dann Cahn for coffee at Kaldi’s (yes, it’s the best place in town to meet and greet!). This is when he told me the wonderful story about how he and Desi and a few others re-edited your film, Forever Darling, after a not-so-great preview. Look for the full story in my book, Lucy A to Z: The Lucille Ball Encyclopedia (https://www.amazon.com/Lucy-Z-Lucille-Ball-Encyclopedia/dp/0595297617). I was signing books by 10 a.m. and then broke at noon to attend the Lucy Ladies’ Luncheon. This special seminar featured Cleo Smith (your first cousin, but you always referred to her as your sister, since you grew up together); the delightful Wanda, and Marilyn Borden, the surviving Borden twin (Teensy in the I Love Lucy episode “Tennessee Bound”). Your daughter Lucie decided to show up and be on the panel, too. What an amazing gift it was, to hear Wanda tell of how she was hired (through Cleo; also detailed in Lucy A to Z.); to listen to Cleo speak of the five agonizing years she was separated from Lucy’s family after her mother, Lola, died, and she went to live with her father; and to hear Marilyn talk movingly about what it was like to go on without her identical twin, Rosalyn, by her side. Lucie sat there, entranced as the audience was, listening (she may have spoken up later, but I had to take a powder midway through to catch a plane on Sunday afternoon). I hated to leave, because it meant missing special guest Barbara Eden, but family ties drew me back early (i.e., they threatened bodily harm if I didn’t spend at least part of the holiday weekend with them!).

LucyOilPaintingThe oil painting at left decorated the lobby of my hotel, the Holiday Inn. So nice to come home to after a busy festival day.

Lucy, you should have been there. On second thought, you were. You were there in the smiles and laughter that echoed the streets and Reg Lenna theater throughout the weekend. You were there in the memories of friends and relatives, and of fans who consistently spoke about how much better they felt after watching your shows, no matter how many times
they’d seen them. And thanks to some keen foresight on the part of Desi Arnaz, you were literally on screen for most of the weekend, in your classic episodes with your equally fabulous co-stars, Desi, Vivian Vance, and William Frawley; and in special performances, some of which hadn’t been shown in years. Lucy, you still possess that magic ability to heal through laughter. Whoever coined the phrase “Laughter is the best medicine” surely had you in mind. For all these years, the Lucy Life Magzinemost I can do, strictly as a fan, is say a heartfelt “Thank You.” We still love Lucy. And we always will.

Love, Michael

P.S. If you haven’t already done so, would you mind saying hello to my mother? She always joked about how I had more pictures of you in my apartment than her, and I just wanted to let her know that I love her and miss her more than words can say. 

 

The Television Series of Lucille Ball, #2: The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show (a.k.a. The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour)

(Note: This series ran as specials in the 1957-1958 season, and was shown as part of the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse from 1958-1960. It was only in syndicated reruns that it was renamed The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour.)

Aired: 1957-1960
Stars:
Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo
Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo
Vivian Vance as Ethel Mertz
William Frawley as Fred
Mertz

Premise:
The further adventures of the Ricardos and the Mertzes, this time anchored in their life in suburban Connecticut (though at least half of the 13 episodes show the fab foursome in flashback — i.e., how Lucy and Ricky Ricardo met — or in an exotic locale other than Connecticut (Alaska, Japan, Las Vegas).

Desi Arnaz decided on an hour length for the series so that they could explore concepts that didn’t fit into the half-hour sitcom format. Sprinkled liberally with guest stars, à la I Love Lucy’s successful Hollywood shows, these longer shows were a mixed bag. Some were fabulous, some good, and some fell flat. Ratings for all, however, were excellent.

The very first episode, which aired November 6, 1957, ran overtime, a full 15 minutes longer than it should have been. Such was Desi’s clout at the time that he persuaded the sponsor of the show that followed it, U.S. Steel, to let the Comedy Hour run its extra 15 minutes into U.S. Steel’s show. Desi promised the big Comedy Hour audience would stay for The U.S. Steel Hour, and he was right.

The additional 15 minutes of footage from the first episode was never broadcast again, and was cut by CBS for syndication so the show would fit into an hour time slot. Most of the cut footage, which has recently surfaced, revolved around Lucy and Desi’s pal, Hedda Hopper, interviewing Lucy and Desi about how they first met. The story itself, involving a cruise to Havana, took place in flashbacks.

Lucy wanted Bette Davis to guest star in the second of the hour-long shows, but her price was too expensive and she wouldn’t come down. She was replaced by Tallulah Bankhead, who, though unnerving during the rehearsal period due to her fondness for alcohol, rose to the occasion and made her episode, “The Celebrity Next Door,” one of the series’ best. In this episode, Lucy enlists Fred and Ethel as maid and butler to impress Tallulah at dinner, but Tallulah is more impressed by maid “Ethel Mae’s” adoration of Bankhead.

LucyDannyVivDesi

Danny Thomas, Vivian Vance, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz backstage.

The funniest episode of this limited series featured Danny Thomas and his TV family, from the Desilu sitcom Make Room for Daddy. In it, the Ricardos rent their house for the summer to the Williamses (Thomas, Marjorie Lord, Rusty Hamer, and Angela Cartwright), but end up staying in the cramped Mertz guest cottage when their trip is cancelled. Naturally, Lucy can’t help but interfere in the Williams household, and tries to get them to leave so she can have her house back. The result is a snowball fight/free-for-all which ends in a hilarious courtroom sequence, featuring Gale Gordon as the judge. The writing, performances (watch for the Mertzes in court), and plot all come together for a true hour of classic comedy.

“Lucy Wants a Career,” the ninth episode of the series, aired on February 9, 1959, and was the episode most like the original half-hour sitcom, I Love Lucy. Lucy, desperate to be in showbiz as always, finagles her way to becoming guest-star Paul Douglas’ assistant on his new morning show, and becomes a big success, but the extra hours and the long commute make Lucy realize she’d be happier at home. Well-acted and truly poignant at times, this was the series’ peak. The final four episodes, with the exception of “Lucy Goes to Japan” (thanks to guest-star Bob Cummings), run steadily downhill in quality.

The last episode of the series, “Lucy Meets the Moustache,” guest-starred Ernie Kovacs and his wife Edie Adams. By all reports, the Arnazes had already decided to divorce and were both emotional wrecks during the filming. Not one of the couple’s finer hours, there were still bits and pieces of the old Lucy and Desi magic, but by then the marriage could not be saved. Lucy filed for divorce the day after it aired (April 1, 1960), ending television’s Golden Age.

The Television Series of Lucille Ball, #1: I Love Lucy

I Love Lucy
Aired: 1951-1957
Stars:
Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo
Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo
Vivian Vance as Ethel Mertz
William Frawley as Fred Mertz

Premise:
Housewife Lucy Ricardo wants more from her life than housework. Specifically, she wants to get into showbiz à la her husband, Ricky, who’s a semi-famous bandleader. She is aided in her schemes by neighbors/landlords Fred and Ethel Mertz.

I Love Lucy took off right from the start and was the Number 3 prime-time TV show in its first season. After that it held on to the Number 1 spot every year it was on except for the 1955-56 season, when The $64,000 Question pushed it to Number 2.

The familiar animated heart that opens the show was actually created for the syndicated reruns of the series. The original openings featured animated stick figures of Lucy and Desi, playing hide-and-seek around a cigarette pack that was one of their sponsor’s (Phillip Morris) products.

Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball invented the concept of syndicating TV shows as reruns when they insisted the series be filmed in L.A. and distributed across the country. Formerly, stations outside the area where a show was produced got a visually inferior kinescoped copy, one that was taped from a TV monitor during broadcast. Film lasted (relatively) forever, and because CBS wouldn’t pay for filming the episodes, Lucy and Desi shouldered the cost. Thus, the Arnazes brokered a deal whereby they owned the filmed episodes of I Love Lucy. When Desi and Lucy sold the 180 episodes of I Love Lucy to CBS in the late 1950s, it was a landmark $5 million deal that marked the beginning of syndication profits for off-network reruns of hit TV shows.

The Fab Four, as I like to call them: Lucille Ball, William Frawley, Vivian Vance and Desi Arnaz

The Fab Four, as I like to call them: Vivian Vance, William Frawley, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz

Vivian Vance was hired on the recommendation of first-year I Love Lucy director Marc Daniels; he took Desi to San Diego, where Vance was appearing in The Voice of the Turtle. Desi was hooked, and hired his Ethel without Lucy having met her. The first rehearsals were a bit tense, but once Lucy realized what a fine actress Vance was (she’d honed her talents on Broadway during the 1930s and 1940s), Lucy warmed up to her co-star. Vance won the first-ever Emmy for Best Series Supporting actress, in 1953, and was nominated for playing Ethel Mertz three more times in the 1950s.

William Frawley, one of Hollywood’s best-known character actors, lobbied for the part of Fred Mertz. His cantankerous personality, plus his penchant for heavy drinking, made Desi think twice, but not for long. He met with Frawley, told him he had the part, but that if alcohol ever interfered with his performance, he was out. Frawley agreed, and there was never a problem during I Love Lucy‘s long, successful run. Frawley was nominated for an Emmy five times in the 1950s for playing Fred Mertz.

Vance and Frawley were inducted into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ (ATAS) Hall of Fame together in 2012, making I Love Lucy the only television series that is itself in the Hall of Fame, and has had every one of its major cast members inducted individually.

The rumors that Vance was required by contract to be heavier than Lucy, so as to appear frumpier, were fueled by a fake “gag” contract given to Vance as a birthday gift by Lucy in the 1950s, which Vance jokingly read on air (to Lucille Ball) in the 1970s on the Dinah talk show. In it, Vance was admonished to gain weight every year, and keep her hair color five shades lighter or darker than Lucy’s, among other things.

Frawley and Vance were not fond of each other in real life; the feud began when he overheard Vance moan about playing a woman that was married to someone “old enough to be her father.” From then on, it was war. It didn’t help when Vance refused to do a spin-off featuring the Mertzes after I Love Lucy ended its run, dreading the prospect of being stuck acting opposite Frawley for years to come. To both their credit, however, this hostility did not interfere with filming I Love Lucy; it might have even helped the way they portrayed the fractious Mertzes. They created real, believable characters for the small screen.

TV Guide's special issue celebrating I Love Lucy's 50th anniversary in 2001 was the only time all four of its stars appeared on the same cover

TV Guide’s special issue celebrating I Love Lucy’s 50th anniversary in 2001 was the only time all four of its stars appeared on the same cover

Desi matured into a true business genius, building Desilu Studios into the premier producing facility of its day; its filmed output at one point rivaled many of the major Hollywood (movie) studios. Desilu eventually bought and absorbed RKO Studios, where both Lucy and Desi had worked in films in the 1930s and 1940s.

Arnaz also perfected the three-camera shooting technique that is used to this day, with I Love Lucy’s Oscar-winning cinematographer, Karl Freund; three cameras cobbled together (film editor Dann Cahn referred to it as the “three-headed monster’) captured close-ups, medium shots, and long shots, which were then edited, using the best shots of each angle to create the show.

I Love Lucy was the first major TV series to incorporate the pregnancy of its star into the plot of the show. When Lucy gave birth to Little Ricky on the air, and Desi Jr. in real life on the same day, the event overshadowed President Eisenhower’s inauguration in the newspapers the next day, and got one of TV’s biggest viewing audiences and a record 71.7 rating (meaning more than two-thirds of the total viewing audience was tuned in). That record was finally broken several years later when Elvis Presley appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. Still, due to the fact that I Love Lucy has never been off television, in dozens of countries, it has been estimated the “Birth of Little Ricky” episode is the most-watched single television episode in broadcast history.

Much was made about Lucy’s red hair, which, of course, couldn’t be seen in black-and-white. The color was given to her when she worked at MGM studios in the 1940s, by famed movie hairstylist Sydney Guilaroff. Lucy photographed so beautifully in the Technicolor process that Hollywood crews nicknamed her Technicolor Tessie. She wore the trademark red-orange hue ever after (though longtime hairstylist Irma Kusely preferred to call the color apricot).

On the show, Lucy was the only character allowed to make fun of Desi’s fractured English, because the love between them was obvious. When any other person did it, it just seemed mean.

I Love Lucy was more than loosely based on Lucy’s radio hit, My Favorite Husband, which had run on CBS for three years (1948-’51). Head writer and producer Jess Oppenheimer, and writers Bob Carroll and Madelyn Pugh, wrote the radio program as a series of interactions between two couples, one younger and less established, the other older and more conservative, and adapted many of the same scripts for the TV show that followed.

In My Favorite Husband, the older couple was voiced by Gale Gordon and Bea Benaderet, both of whom Lucy wanted for the TV series. But Gordon was already committed to Our Miss Brooks, and Benaderet was playing neighbor Blanche Morton on The Burns & Allen Show.

I Love Lucy was still Number One in the Nielsen ratings when Lucy and Desi decided to call it quits. They wanted to go out on top, as opposed to running the concept into the ground. It remains one of the few shows to exit network TV at No. 1 (the others are All in the Family and Seinfeld).

Lucy and Desi were not done with the characters of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, however. They resurrected them (and the Mertzes) for 13 hour-long episodes of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour (which will be covered in my next post), broadcast as part of the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse from 1957-1960.

In 2015, The Hollywood Reporter published its list “Hollywood’s 100 Favorite TV Shows,” based on repsonses from “thousands of industry insiders”…and I Love Lucy came in at No. 8, an unbelievable achievement, and the only show of its era to make the Top Ten. THR wrote, “Its influence continues to be felt today (without Lucille Ball, there would be no Amy Poehler, Tina Fey or Amy Schumer), with Lucy popping up where least expected. ‘I have it on in the background [of my trailer] constantly,’ says Guillermo Diaz, who plays the former Black Ops assassin on ABC’s current hit, Scandal. ‘It keeps me from going to the dark side.'”

Lucille Ball noted, before her death in 1989, that she was happy knowing that she had made so many people laugh. She’d be ecstatic to know that Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel continue to do so, 65 years on.

Why Lucille Ball Remains Relevant

ilovelucybirthOn one of my favorite topics, the Huffington Post’s Lily Karlin blogged last year about “Why Lucille Ball Was More Revolutionary Than You Think.” She noted,While most know Ball paved the way for future women in comedy, they may not understand the exact magnitude of her influence on Hollywood. More than 60 years after I Love Lucy began, the ramifications of Ball’s groundbreaking strides are still hugely present in the television industry.” Specifically, Karlin made five excellent points (I combined two of them into the second one, below):

1. I Love Lucy broke barriers with its depiction of pregnancy. Though the show was beaten by a 15-minute kinescoped sitcom, Johnnie and Mary, which was almost too discreet in alluding to the star couple’s new infant, I Love Lucy, Karlin wrote, broke barriers simply because the show was such a huge hit and its cast and production company were the best on TV. The episode “Lucy Goes to the Hospital” had more of a legacy influence, on the public, on culture and on TV. That episode, in fact, drew more than 70 percent of the audience at the time, and thanks to countless reruns and it’s appearance on DVD, it is speculated that the episode might be the most-watched TV episode of all time. (Pic at top left shows the main cast in that classic episode — Vivian Vance, Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz and William Frawley — doing what they did best: making us laugh.)

2. Lucille Ball was not only a TV star: She had major power behind the scenes. She was vice president of powerhouse studio Desilu, and after she and Desi Arnaz divorced, she bought his shares, and took the title of president, becoming the first female studio head in Hollywood.

3. Ethel and Lucy’s female friendship was way ahead of its time. On I Love Lucy, Karlin wrote, “Ethel and Lucy were constantly getting up to their own adventures, without falling into Hollywood’s ugliest tropes about women friend pairs.” And Rookie magazine noted: “Even though it was sometimes Lucy and Ethel versus the world (or just Ricky and Fred), they always cooperated with each other. They were around the same age, from similar economic backgrounds, and were both happily married.” Their relationship existed on an essentially even playing field, so stereotypical female competitiveness plots — over men or status — never entered the picture. Their relationship was a source of constant mutual support.

4. Lucille Ball had to fight the network to portray Lucy and Ricky’s “multiethnic”* marriage. The show’s sponsor (Philip Morris cigarettes) and network (CBS, duh!) were against Arnaz playing the role on TV that he played in real life. Ball refused to do the show without him. Ball won. Actually, everybody won. Especially us.

Finally, if I might point this out, as unnecessary as it seems,  I Love Lucy is, at its core, just plain laugh-out-loud funny. It remains so after 65 years and countless reruns. It is the seminal sitcom, the progenitor of all that followed. The show continues to be a perennial ratings favorite wherever it’s run (in countless countries and languages) because it speaks the universal truth of laughter. Laughter is the best medicine. We need it more than ever to cope with our ever-stressful lives. Lucy and company keep delivering. That’s why we still watch.

*Note: The following clarification ran with Karlin’s blog: “A previous version of this article referred to Ball and Arnaz’s relationship as interracial. More accurately their relationship is multiethnic, inasmuch as Hispanic is not a racial category, according to the U.S. Census.

My Place in the “Lucyverse”

MakCementLargerI have always loved Lucy. I watched I Love Lucy reruns as a young child in New Jersey with a trusted babysitter, where the show was run in the morning. I laughed out loud and became entranced by the antics of Lucy and Ethel. I had kindergarten in the afternoon back then. I also watched The Edge of Night because my sitter loved it, and became hooked myself.

Decades later I became the editor of Soap Opera Weekly, and an editor, writer, and author of books about Lucille Ball and classic TV…who says life isn’t predestined?!

When I discovered Lucy and her Ethel (Vivian Vance) were doing a new TV show (The Lucy Show, 1962-1968), I routinely begged my family to watch it—on our only TV—on Monday nights. To their credit, I got to watch it nine times out of 10. My mother may have held a residual grudge, though—years later, walking into my New York apartment, she noted dryly, “You have more pictures of Lucy here than you do of me!”

So how did I morph from obsessed fan into a highly regarded, um, well-respected, er, okay, slightly known award-winning author of celebrity bios and TV trivia books, whose footprints and signature are in cement in Jamestown, N.Y., Lucy’s hometown and site of The Lucy-Desi Museum (see pic)? If you’re still with me, read on.

As I got older, the special fondness I held for Lucy and Viv (and various other Sitcom Queens, truth be told) only grew. When I graduated from BU with an MS in communications, I felt it was only prudent to communicate, and began a career in publishing as a journalist and editor. I have written about everything from area rugs to pop music, from counterfeiting to colorization, but my favorite subjects are show business-related, especially classic TV and golden age movies. In 2003, I finally landed my dream job: as copy chief, then editor, at Soap Opera Weekly, where I was mandated to watch TV during work hours…every day. How horrible!

While languishing at a dot-com startup circa 1999, I began writing a biography of Lucille Ball, based on everything I’d read and known, at the urging of my best friend, and fellow languisher, Craig Hamrick. Once it got to be more than 10,000 words, we realized it might make a good book. Craig suggested an A to Z encyclopedic format because it denoted research and depth (and would be easy to organize!).

For years, I pored over the endless files on Lucy, Viv, Desi Arnaz, William Frawley, I Love Lucy, et al, at the New York Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, and watched rare videos at the Museum of Television and Radio. I even, during this period, got over my fear of the vastness of the New York Public Library at 42nd Street, and found it was quite user-friendly. Waiting for me there was a Dewey Decimal card for the long-forgotten I Love Lucy play, an interesting artifact from the days when almost any successful property was tried out in other media.

Back at the Lincoln Center library, paging through Lucy’s past brought me to a Broadway play, also long forgotten—Nobody Loves an Albatross—in which one of the lead characters was based on Lucille Ball; it was written by a former (and somewhat disgruntled) Desilu employee. I was able to interview one of the show’s co-stars, Marie Wallace (again, through Craig; Marie had starred in the original Dark Shadows, among many other TV and stage productions, and Craig was a DS fan and author). This led to a script in the rare manuscript section by humorist Max Shulman (Dobie Gillis): a never-produced movie script of Nobody Loves an Albatross, for MGM.

As I made these discoveries—which were pure gold to a Lucy fan like myself—I wondered…how many people (other than Marie, of course) remembered the Broadway production of Albatross, not a huge success? Of that handful of people, even less knew that a movie script based on it had been written…and discarded.

The Lucy character in the film version of Albatross—a slick, seasoned star and con artist, much less likable than the character had been in the Broadway show—runs a studio and has her own sitcom. Shulman’s script shows one scene being shot of the Lucy character and her sitcom friend, described as a “Vivian Vance” type, baking cream puffs and ruining the kitchen when everything explodes. Sound familiar? It was unearthing these kinds of priceless, hidden or forgotten Lucy facts that struck me as being most valuable and interesting to other fans.

LucyListFinalCovLucy A to Z: the Lucille Ball Encyclopedia was published in the fall of 2001, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of I Love Lucy. The book proved so successful (Lucie Arnaz wrote me that it was a “godsend” in helping her and her brother, Desi Arnaz Jr., prepare for the I Love Lucy 50th Anniversary Special that year) that I produced three further editions. The Fourth Edition (published in 2008) is more than three times the size of the first one, and includes 50 exclusive pictures, some from my personal collection.

Those books were followed by Lucy in Print (a look at how the press dealt with Lucy and her TV co-stars); The Lucille Ball Quiz Book; Sitcom Queens: Divas of the Small Screen; The TV Tidbits Classic Television Book of Lists; and The Comic DNA of Lucille Ball: Interpreting the Icon. Even I was ready to call it quits…but when I realized that 2011 would have been Lucille Ball’s 100th birthday, and was also the 60th anniversary of I Love Lucy, I couldn’t resist. And so The Lucy Book of Lists was published in 2011.

I do occasionally tackle subjects other than the Lucyverse, as I call it, such as my best-selling book The ABC Movie of the Week Companion, published in 2008, and the novel KISS KILL: A Vampire’s Tale, published in 2009. Warning: Life Ahead! is a chronicle of my struggles in adulthood to deal with change, death, unemployment; I’m hoping to publish it this year.

Over 30 years, I have interviewed a long and eclectic list of performers, producers, writers and “experts,” everyone from soap diva Susan Lucci to blues legend Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson, from songbird Phyllis Hyman to Dr. Jordan Grafman, chief of the Cognitive Neuroscience Section at the NIH; and most especially actors and entertainers of all stripes, including Eva La Rue, Kaye Ballard, Cameron Mathison, Debbi Morgan, Denise Nickerson, John Noble, Jane Connell, Gale Storm, Doris Singleton, Kathryn Joosten, Lindsay Hartley, and David Hedison; and behind-the-scenes showbiz movers and shakers like Wonderfalls creator Bryan Fuller and House, M.D.‘s creator and executive producer, David Shore; I Love Lucy‘s film editor, Dann Cahn; and director William Asher, who helmed I Love Lucy and Bewitched, among other classics.

I’ve been an invited guest at various nostalgia conventions—including many Lucy Fests held in Jamestown and sponsored by The Lucy-Desi Museum, and the Big Apple Comic Con—where I’ve served on author panels, led trivia contests, and mostly enjoyed meeting fellow fans. I’ve been interviewed on many radio shows, including WCBS-FM New York, the biggest “oldies”/nostalgia station in the country. In April 2008 I was featured on Internet radio station KSAV’s popular show, Talking Television. I’ve been quoted and reviewed in various national magazines, from niche market publications like Rue Morgue and Classic Images to mass-market magazines like The Star.

I’ve also been quoted and referenced in other books about Lucy (Stefan Kanfer’s 2003 Ball of Fire), comedy (Lawrence Epstein’s 2004 Mixed Nuts: America’s Love Affair with Comedy Teams), and powerful women (2008’s How to Be Like Women of Power: Wisdom and Advice to Create Your Own Destiny). I have written for and been interviewed on the Internet by sites like Theofantastique.com and The Terror Trap. My own website thrived from 1996-2014, when I converted it to a Facebook page. I manage four FB pages and two blogs, one of which…well, you’re already here, aren’t you? And, dear reader, please know that I very much appreciate it!

Stay tuned for updates. And thanks for visiting.

 

Welcome Back to Sitcomboy.com!

Okay, well, it’s technically not sitcomboy.com (though I still own the domain; I couldn’t give it up). My WordPress username is Sitcomboydotcom. But this blog’s purpose is the same: to celebrate the Lucyverse, as I call it, the career and life of legendary comedian and American icon, Lucille Ball.

MAKsLucyBooks

She has a face that’s been seen by more people, more times, than any other human face in history. I’ve loved Lucy since I started watching reruns of I Love Lucy in the early 1960s, and was captivated by the raucous, hilarious slapstick, and even more so by the heartwarming friendship between neighbors Lucy Ricardo (Ball) and Ethel Mertz (Vivian Vance).

My love of all things Lucy continued into adulthood, and peaked in 2001, when, at the urging of my best friend, Craig, I wrote and self-published a book called Lucy A to Z: The Lucille Ball Encyclopedia. Craig and I were working at a dot-com startup that hadn’t started up for six months. After complaining about being bored one too many times, he snatched a book from his cubicle and handed it to me. It was an encyclopedia about Marilyn Monroe.

“What do I want with this?” I asked.

“If  you’re so bored,” he said crisply,  “then why don’t you write a Lucille Ball encyclopedia? I know you can do it. God knows you talk about her all the time. Turn the obsession into something profitable!”

Fortunately for me, I took his words to heart. Craig was also a TV/movie fanatic, and his own obsession was the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows. He’d been visiting the New York Library for the Performing Arts (at the edges of the theater district, before it moved to its current home in Lincoln Center) doing research for several books about Dark Shadows and the actors who starred in it. Many of them were his friends.

“Come along with me next time. You’ll see what they have about Lucy and company.” I did, and when I viewed the dozen or so files on Lucy, all spotlighting different decades of her career, I was hooked. Many of the newspaper clips contained information that was new to me. If, as a huge fan, I wasn’t aware of all this, it was likely a lot of other Lucy fans were unaware, too.

LAZ1coverThe result was a  book, under 160 pages and with no pictures, but for which I created a cover, a portrait of Lucy (left), using Photoshop. I had done some research and chosen iUniverse to publish it. The cost was (then) around $300. Like many writers, I had hundreds of polite (and many Xeroxed) rejection slips for book proposals. This time, I was doing it by myself.

I sent a copy to Lucie Arnaz, Lucy’s daughter. She responded with a lovely letter saying it had been a “godsend,” as she and her brother, Desi Arnaz Jr., were preparing for the “I Love Lucy 50th Anniversary Special,” which would air in October 2001, and they had used the alphabetical entries to help organize the contents of the show. Needless to say I was thrilled. I was even more thrilled when my book cover showed up on the special itself, in a segment about the continuing popularity of Lucy literature and I Love Lucy collectibles.

And what thrilled me further was seeing the book rise on the Amazon sales charts to 1,000 (of all books on the site!) after the special aired. A month or so later, I was contacted by the executive director of The Lucy-Desi Museum in Ball’s hometown, Jamestown, NY. Would I like to appear at the upcoming Lucy Fest in May, and take part in an author’s panel? Would I??!!

LAZ4thEdCoverThe book was a great success, especially in the world of on-demand publishing. And because it was on-demand, I returned to the Performing Arts Library for more research, and republished the book in two more editions, each longer than the previous one. Finally, iUniverse designated it a STAR book (one of the company’s best sellers) and, as a result, in 2008, the company underwrote a fourth edition (left), with a gorgeous, rare cover photo by Harry Warnecke circa 1945, and including 50 little-seen photographs, many from my own collection. The fourth edition filled an exhaustive 450-plus pages, including a 12-page index.

Lucy A to Z returns to the top of several Amazon best-seller lists — Pop Culture Reference books, for example — for a month or two every holiday season. I published four more books about my favorite redhead (well, I am obsessed!); they’re pictured at the top, and you can find all of them on Amazon. I converted sitcomboy.com to a Facebook page, but found I missed my old website (though not the HTML coding!). I thought this blog would be a good way to share many of my website posts. Look for them here in the near future.

In the meantime, have a wonderful, happy and joyous New Year, and don’t forget to laugh; laughter is, after all, the best medicine for our ills. I can’t think of a better way to laugh than by watching Lucy, Ricky (Desi Arnaz), Ethel and Fred (William Frawley) do their thing. After all, we’ve been watching them without interruption for more than 64 years. Why stop now?