I 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.
04.01.08 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)?”
Well, 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.
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.
11.04.08 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.]
12.29.08 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!