Welcome Back, Milton Fleck!

Milton Fleck was a top Hollywood agent of the 1960s who left town in disgrace following a 1973 scandal involving a chi hua hua, a male prostitute, and Lemon Pledge. He has since resurfaced as the very opinionated cul-chah commentator for the Sitcomboy group of web sites. To his credit, Milton was one of the first openly gay Hollywood commentators. To his detriment, it kind of … um … colored all of his writing. 

Some background: Circa 2003, I decided to add TV critic Milton Fleck—and his outrageous, but honest, and definitely one-sided opinions—to the Sitcomboy site. He had just been let go from every reputable entertainment news outlet (TV, newspapers, magazines) for reporting that was deemed too potentially libelous. Milton spoke his truth … and he could definitely get away with writing stuff in reviews of pop culture that I couldn’t. Milton may or may not be your cup o’tea (especially in these OMG-how-much-more-PC-can-we-get times), but I thought I’d share some of his better-received columns, starting with his review of the 2003-2004 TV season. Remember, and I can’t stress this enough, as I noted at the end of every Fleck column: All opinions expressed here are Milton Fleck’s. Don’t bother complaining. He just doesn’t care.

This Was a Season?

Once upon a time, really talented people lived and worked in Hollywood. Don’t ask me who lives and works there now, but if their television output is any indication, they need help. Some people who call themselves my friends tell me I must stop living in the past. But how can I when the present entertainment horizon offers so little? To wit: Here’s a list of the Top 20 shows as Nielsen ranked them, in 1966:
(1) Bonanza — NBC
(2) Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. — CBS
(3) The Lucy Show — CBS
(4) The Red Skelton Hour — CBS
(5) Batman (II) — ABC
(6) The Andy Griffith Show — CBS
(7) Bewitched — ABC
(8) The Beverly Hillbillies — CBS
(9) Hogan’s Heroes — CBS
(10) Batman (I) — ABC
(11) Green Acres — CBS
(12) Get Smart — NBC
(13) The Man from U.N.C.L.E. — NBC
(14) Daktari — CBS
(15) My Three Sons — CBS
(16) The Dick Van Dyke Show — CBS
(17) Walt Disney’s Wonderful World — NBC
(18) The Ed Sullivan Show — CBS
(19) The Lawrence Welk Show — ABC
(20) I’ve Got a Secret — CBS

We had it all. Look at that list: classic comedy (Lucy, Dick Van Dyke, Red Skelton, “Bewitched” —the first five seasons, anyway—and Andy Griffith); wholesome but actually entertaining family shows (Disney, Ed Sullivan); satire (“Get Smart,” “Batman”); and adventure (“Man from UNCLE,” “Daktari”). What do we have now? I’m glad you asked. What follows is my patented one-sentence fall season show preview. Do I have to add that if you disagree, please don’t tell me about it?
Queer Eye for the Straight Guy Precious, invigorating, and it’s about time!
Coupling Awful, derivative, grating, and just plain stupid; please watch the British original instead — and who told any of these actors they were funny?
The O.C. The title must stand for “Outstanding Cast”, because they’re all fine and there’s eye candy for every sexual persuasion. Yummy.
The Brotherhood of Poland, N.H. Okay, first of all, whoever said we wanted to see a show about New Hampshire, for God’s sake (isn’t it enough that election primaries take place there?), and then, to top it off, it stars Randy Quaid — looking like he swallowed brother Dennis.
Joan of Arcadia This is too good to last (though I must say if God really looked like that cute boy in the first show, I’d be high-tailing it to Heaven!) … not to mention doing anything he asked of me…
The Handler That Joey Try-on-your-Pants (or whatever his last name is) is really good as an FBI … um … handler … (whatever that is; I have my opinion).
Cold Case Finally, a show that might last all season; I, personally, would watch Danny Pino reading the Yellow Pages.
Boy Meets Boy A gay dating reality show; if they’d had one of these way back when, maybe I wouldn’t have *sob* had to leave town *sigh* every few years.
Jake 2.0 They took the cute boy from Showtime’s Odyssey 5 (and God — or Peter Weller, I’d watch out for him — will get you, Showtime, for abruptly cancelling that promising show) and put him in another with a vaguely sci-fi premise; nanobots, shmanobots, as long as he takes his shirt off once in a while…
Still Life So… a dead cop is narrating this new drama about a family and how they cope with, ummm, I’m not really sure, it seems to be about how they’re coping with his death, which happened either a year ago or two years ago, but then they introduce his brother as though … oh well, I stopped watching this derivative dreck after 10 minutes, and you shouldn’t waste your time, either.
The Lyon’s Den I remember when Rob Lowe was noticed more for his pretty looks than his acting talent; well, he’s more mature looking but still hot; I’d watch him search for clues to his mentor’s murder any night of the week.
Wonderfalls And now, get thee to a Fox PR person and get a copy of Wonderfalls, the best new series in this or any season of the past few years, because it’s bound to be cancelled after half a season; it’s humorous, it’s mystifying and the cast is superb (especially newcomer Caroline Dhavernas and the always watchable Diana Scarwid as her souped-up mom). Watch for it in January as a midseason replacement for Joe Millionaire. (Really? Joe Millionaire?! Insert screaming fit here.)
Arrested Development Who knew little Opie could be so devastatingly ironic and hip? Ronnie Howard, all grown up, produces and is the narrator of this comic dysfunctional family comedy, the second show (and that’s it, I promise you) that deserves to be a hit this year. Jessica Walter: Where have you been all these years? If she doesn’t win an Emmy, back goes my ATAS Television Academy membership card.

That’s it — I can’t go on, and believe me, you don’t want to know.

The Sitcomboy.com Lucy Archives, Part II: January-June 2009

01.16.09 Review: Behind the Laughter
What makes us laugh, and why is it so good for us? Lucille Ball, of course, was one of the main sources of laughter during the last century. If timing is everything, Ball had it in spa
I Love Lucy CBS ad 1953des. That said, Lucy had lots of help along the way to becoming our greatest comedian. She had 20 years to perfect her timing in the movies, some it spent learning from legends Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton; she had fabulous writers and behind-the-scenes experts who knew what she could and couldn’t do best, and could direct, film, light, costume and edit her to a fault; and she had actors and fellow laugh-makers like her husband, Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance, William Frawley, Gale Gordon, Bea Benaderet, Mary Jane Croft, Mary Wickes, Doris Singleton, and so many more whom she kept at her side, performing with her. PBS is making a grand stab at explaining why the top comedians were and are so funny in its six-part hour-long series Make ’Em Laugh, airing January 14, 21, and 28; Lucy & Co. are represented in at least two episodes: episode two, which aired January 14 at 9 p.m.: “Honey, I’m Home! — Breadwinners and Homemakers,” about the genesis and growth of the sitcom; and episode three, airing January 21 at 8 p.m.: “Slip on a Banana Peel: The Knockabouts,” about slapstick comedy, of course. 
“Honey, I’m Home!” was an okay hour focusing really on just five or six sitcoms. It started with a neat digital tribute to I Love Lucy: host Billy Crystal “walked into” the Ricardo’s living room, “standing” between the Mertzes and the Ricardos, noting the popularity of I Love Lucy and how Desi Arnaz created the modern sitcom we know today. It was followed 
by 52 minutes of so-called “experts” expounding on the best of the bunch, including six-minute segments on The Goldbergs; I Love Lucy; The Simpsons (did you know cartoonist Matt Groening created Bart as a “What if Leave It To Beaver‘s snarky Eddie Haskell had a son”?), Norman Lear’s groundbreaking All in the Family, and Seinfeld. Though the show was good as far as it went, there were two glaring errors:
— An unforgiveable factual error had narrator Amy Sedaris stating that I Love Lucy ran for five years, when, in fact, it ran for six. For four of those six years it was the No. 1 show, a feat surpassed only by All in the Family; and
— Many of the most popular sitcoms of the 1950s and 1960s were dismissed with a mere mention or photos during the intro. Which is the problem with these types of retrospectives: there’s never enough time to include everyone that needs to be included. That makes us Lucy lovers lucky she’s so important to TV history — there’s never a doubt Ball and her classic co-stars will be included in such roundups.

01.26.09 File in the “You Never Know Where Lucy Will Pop Up” category…. The other night, across the street from my apt., was a group of trailers from a movie being shot in the citluci-and-desi-trailers.pngy (we see them all the time in New York). As I walked past the first one, there were two doors on it facing the sidewalk. On one was a sign that read “LUCY,” and on the other door a sign that read “DESI.” I smiled, thinking, “What’s up with this? Is there actually a movie being shot about them that I hadn’t heard of?” (Didn’t think so.) “Perhaps that’s a film set tradition, or a recent one, so that people won’t know who the real stars are?” (A bit more plausible.) Or maybe just this particular filmmaker’s idea of something cute. Or perhaps a classy way to disguise where the crew bathrooms are kept during the shoot. (Bingo! Do I have to tell you which is for men and which for women?!) Of course, Lucy and Desi did make the film The Long, Long Trailer, so in that sense it’s ironic/cute/funny that someone put their names on…a trailer.The real point is, as I passed it, it made me smile — and that’s what Lucy and Desi have been doing for more than 67 years.

02.18.09 One of my other fchiselers-flyer.jpgavorite redheads — actress, photographer and all-around great dame Marie Wallace (Dark Shadows, Somerset, Gypsy and Nobody Loves an Albatross—which featured a character based on Lucille Ball, and which you can only read about in my book, Lucy A to Z— are just few of her showbiz credits), [was] starring in an off-Broadway play called The Chiselers (that’s Marie second from far left in pic, next to hunky Nick Matthews). The (then-)new comedy/mystery ran Feb. 26-March 7, 2009, on Thurs., Fri., and Sat. at 9:30 p.m., at the TADA! Theatre, 15 West 28th St, 2nd Floor, between Broadway and Fifth Avenue. Tickets were $18 (seniors, $10) and reservations were recommended. Break a leg, sweetie! [For the record, she was a total riot, as was the entire cast.]

03.04.09 Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett (below) had one of show-biz’s most enduring mutual admiration societies. Lucy caught Burnett in her star-making performance in the musical Once Upon a Mattress, and went backstage to let Burnett know how much Ball loved her. Lucy called Carol “kid,” and told Burnett “Call on me if you ever need me.” Which Burnett proceeded to do for her first CBS special, Carol + 2 (also with Zero Mostel) and many times more through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Likewise, Ball had Burnett guest-star on The Lucy Show four times and twice on Here’s Lucy. Burnett was there to induct Lucy into the TV Hall of Fame, and Lucy sent flowers to Burnett every year on her birthday. In the 2008 PBS seriesLucyCarol, Pioneers of Television: Variety, Jim Nabors, a friend of both women, told this anecdote: “I was sitting with Lucy one night, and we were watching Carol do a sketch…. Lucy was very much an analyst, and she said, ‘The kid’s the best there is.’ [laughs] And I said, ‘Well, you did pretty good yourself!’ And Lucy says, ‘No, I’m different, I’m different.’ And she was talking about her comedy. But she did say she thought Carol was the best sketch artist that had ever come down the pike — or ever would.”

04.25.09 Television and the theater world lost one of its greats today; Bea Arthur passed away at the age of 86. Arthur began her more than 50-year career on stage, found fame there (and a Tony award as Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Mame in 1966; she was also the original Yente the Matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof), but grew larger-than-life Bea-Arthur-Lucille-Ball-1974on the small screen. First Arthur was the indomitable, wisecracking Maude (1972-’78, 1977 Emmy Award as Best Actress in a Comedy), then she portrayed indomitable, wisecracking Dorothy on The Golden Girls (1985-1992, winning another Emmy as Best Actress in a Comedy in 1988). Though some might argue she played a variation of her Tony-winning role, Vera Charles, forever after — and she repeated the role in Lucille Ball’s film of Mame in 1974, above — it was simpler than that: she was a smart, intelligent comic and dramatic actress, who had her audience in the palm of her hand, and also possessed razor-sharp timing that rivaled Jack Benny’s. Arthur last appeared on Broadway in 2002, when she took her popular one-woman show to the Great White Way for several months. She was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame late last year, and in 1986 was one of those who saluted Lucy on stage when Ball received the Kennedy Center Honor in Washington, D.C. Of Lucy and the much-maligned Mame, Arthur noted in 2002 that, “Lucy was a brilliant, brilliant clown, but she was … miscast. But we would never have gotten the money for the production if she hadn’t wanted to do it. Lucy was lovely [to work with]. She was really the reason I did it; she insisted I do it.” Her fellow Golden Girl Betty White was quoted, after Arthur’s death, as saying, “Bea was such an important part of a very happy time in my life and I have dearly loved her for a very long time. How lucky I was to know her.” How lucky we all were to have been blessed with the much-needed laughter Arthur gave us.

Desi Jr05.07.09 A Sitcomboy Website Exclusive! In honor of the upcoming Jamestown Lucy-Desi Days Festival, held over Memorial Day Weekend, I thought I’d post an exclusive photo that hasn’t been seen in over 20 years. In 1988, my friend Craig Hamrick was attending college in Kansas, and Desi Arnaz Jr. was a spokesperson for a group called Success Without Stress. He visited Craig’s college, and Craig, a reporter for the campus paper, did an interview with him, and took this shot. The most memorable thing about the interview, Craig later told me, was how upset Arnaz got when a young female reporter asked him how it felt “to be Little Ricky” on I Love Lucy. Of course, Arnaz was not Little Ricky (that part was played by Keith Thibodeaux, who is a guest at this year’s Lucy-Desi Days) and was a bit, shall we say, angered at constantly being asked that question. The full story is in my book, Lucy A to Z: The Lucille Ball Encyclopedia. Craig, who was my best friend, died of cancer in 2006, but in addition being a great writer and author, he was a fab photographer, as you can see. So enjoy this rare picture of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s real son, not Little Ricky. Nor did he ever play Little Ricky. I hope we’re clear on that. 😉

Lucy Wildcat Hirschfeld06.08.09 Almost 50 [now 60!] years ago (1960), Lucille Ball divorced Desi Arnaz, packed up her kids and belongings, and moved to New York to appear on Broadway in Wildcat. Although critics were harsh to the show itself, they liked the music (by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh), and, as usual, loved Lucy in the role of tomboy-ish Wildcat “Wildy” Jackson (drawn by Al Hirschfeld at left). She played a wildcatter (what else with that name?) out to strike it rich. The play was an immediate hit thanks to Lucy’s presence in it, and featured a chorus girl named Valerie Harper in an early role, plus Paula Stewart as Wildy’s sister. Unfortunately, Ball hadn’t reckoned on the strength it took to power a Broadway hit eight times a week, and she fell ill, physically and emotionally exhausted from the demands of the show and her divorce. On May 24, 1961, following a two-week Florida vacation that didn’t take, Ball gave her final performance and the show closed soon after. Fortunately, there’s the original cast recording to enjoy, and Web surfers can find Ball and Stewart performing the show’s hit song, “Hey, Look me Over” in a fabulous clip from The Ed Sullivan Show on Google video. Ball and Stewart became friends; she introduced Lucy to her second husband, Gary Morton, and, after leaving show-biz and becoming an interior designer, created Lucy’s New York apartment in the 1980s (Lucy wanted to have a place to stay when she visited her grandchildren on the East Coast).

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.

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!






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, #1: I Love Lucy

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

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.

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.