The 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).


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.