Re-runs of “I Love Lucy,” even in black-and-white, were always charming and amusing. I looked forward to Lucy’s harebrained schemes and hijinks. In later years when I watched Ball open MGM’s 1945 colorized version of “Ziegfeld Follies,” I did a double-take. Clearly a beautiful woman, I was unfamiliar with seeing her as the glamorous temptress. In fact, I immediately researched her character to ensure my eyes had not deceived me. The next film I saw her in was in MGM’s “Easy To Wed,” a remake of 1936 “Libeled Lady,” and this is where, for me, the “I Love Lucy” character to come was blatantly evident on screen.
The four-time Emmy winning television Hall of Fame, “I Love Lucy” sitcom had a 9-year total run beginning at the top of the Nielsen ratings and remaining there until its final episode. In the end, Ball along with her husband Desi Arnaz revolutionized the television landscape forever.
At the age of 16, Jamestown, NY, born Lucille Desiree Ball quit school to pursue acting. She became a model and soon relocated to Hollywood as an MGM Goldwyn Girl. Her first starring role was the RKO film “Too Many Girls,” where she encountered Desi Arnaz. Ball spent years making her way through the movie mill, as executives were unsure of what to do with her. Although she was cast in various roles, her comedic genius was apparent. Unfortunately, according to MGM mogul L. B. Mayer, “Funny women don’t sell movie tickets,” and Ball was sifted through the star system working her way through a career in “B” movies as well as co-starring with A-listers, like Esther Williams in “Easy to Wed,” and Gene Kelley in “Du Barry was a Lady,” which is nothing less than an explosion of lavish.
When Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz first met while filming RKO’s “Too Many Girls,” it is said their magnetic attraction was instantaneous. A five-month courtship led to marriage. Originally known throughout Hollywood as “The Bongo Player” the Cuban born Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha II, along with his family, was forced to flee his homeland to Miami as a teenager due to the 1933 Cuban revolution. He performed as a musician with Xavier Cugat, and introduced the conga to America, eventually starting his own band.
Ball eventually transitioned to radio where her hit show, “My Favorite Husband,” was targeted by CBS to become a sitcom appearing on the new medium of television. Aiming to entice Arnaz off the road due to his philandering ways – a point of contention that would eventually dissolve the marriage – Ball agreed under the stipulation that her real-life husband was cast in the show. Given the racial unacceptable climate of the 1950s CBS declined claiming that the American public would not accept the Cuban-born Arnaz as Ball’s husband. In response, Ball and Arnaz created an extremely successful roadshow playing major cities showcasing routines that would later appear on their weekly sitcom. In 1950, Ball and Arnaz formed Desilu productions and in 1951, the first episode of “I Love Lucy” aired on CBS.
The chemistry between Lucille Ball (Lucy Ricardo) Desi Arnaz (Ricky Ricardo), Vivian Vance (Ethel Mertz), and William Frawley (Fred Mertz) was unmistakable. The plot for each show was simple yet effective due to the inventive incarnations of Ball’s character. Arnaz essentially played himself as the straight man and Cuban bandleader. Lucy spent each episode plotting to be in showbiz, with Vance as her sometimes unwilling sidekick, often using her husband’s nightclub as a vehicle, ultimately creating a combination that indelibly worked like magic.
And magic it undeniably was. “I Love Lucy” crossed class, demographic and racial lines as the masses were universally entertained by the television show. How much did we love Lucy? During its half-hour program, department stores closed, water use declined, which in turn caused the water pressure to drop during the commercials, while the American audience took its bathroom breaks, even crime decreased during the half-hour show. CBS offered Arnaz and Ball an unprecedented $8 million to renew. To give you a proper perspective, consider the fact that the average American household made approx $3,300 per year. This was not simply a television show; it was a nationwide event.
Television was in its infancy and laugh tracks had yet to be created. Listen to the audience – they literally howl with authentic unadulterated hilarity. After its first episode, it was clear that “I Love Lucy” would decimate the competition of its time slot.
NBC executive Mike Dann after watching the first episode stated, “We had all the top shows on the air. Desi and Lucy were the competition. I watched the show that night to ensure that we would retain our position. By 9:30 I knew my job was in jeopardy.”
America and the Ricardos became interwoven, and this may be most evident in an unlikely decision on the part of Ball. The word “pregnancy” was not allowed to be said on television. Bedroom sets, including “I Love Lucy,” were shown with two twin beds, alluding to the concept that no acts of intimacy were performed, essentially, immaculate conception. Producers either found a way to hide a growing belly or altogether canceled a show when its female lead became pregnant. Ball insisted on not only keeping the show going, but also creating stories around her real-life pregnancy. Arnaz and Ball announced her expectancy to the nation on air, not only a bold risk for the show but also personally for Ball, as she had suffered previous miscarriages. As Arnaz sang, “We’re Having a Baby” to Ball, director Williiam Asher recalls the audience as being “in tears”
They looked into each other’s eyes and the emotional exchange of love between them was clear. Arnaz held her. Ball unsuccessfully fought back tears, as they affectionately nuzzled, and when Arnaz kissed her cheek she quickly turned her face, most likely, in fear of becoming additionally overwhelmed with emotion.
Serendipitously, Ball gave birth to her son Desi Jr., the same day the birthing episode played. The entire country was vested in Ball’s pending bundle of joy, so much so, that the news eclipsed that of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s inauguration.
Perhaps Lucy should’ve run for president.
Of the famous grape-pressing episode, Lucy later recalled on the Dick Cavet show the make-believe fight actually turned real, as the opposing character refused to remain on script.
Arnaz did not downplay his accent nor his ethnicity. Instead of filming the sitcom on the usual kinescope, which produced a blurry effect, Arnaz chose to utilize a more expensive 35mm film, which would better protect the quality. Arnaz made a shrewdly-calculated decision. Both he and Ball absorbed the cost of the film in exchange for all rights and distribution to the show, allowing them to profit from syndication, thus creating the re-run. In the mid-1950s Desilu sold the first 180 episodes to CBS for a hefty sum of $5 million, which was used to purchase RKO Studios, the same studio where they both had their first starring roles, home of classic films such as the Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire series, (learn more about Fred and Ginger here) expanding their growing production company. Instead of filming a live show, it was taped allowing for editing, and Arnaz along with Karl Freund, also created the three-camera technique still in use today. Ball’s crazed interpretation of characterizations kept audiences returning. Together they formed the undisputed power couple of their day. Ball, wise enough to be acutely aware of Arnaz’s business acumen despite Hollywood’s initial dismissal of her immigrant husband, trusted Arnaz’s production decisions. Even the day before they filed for divorce, Ball shot back at the press for undermining Arnaz’s contributions to the success of the company. She also consulted with him on decisions of the studio for the length of time she was its head.
During Ed Sullivan’s “Toast Of The Town,” a misty-eyed Arnaz made a short but poignantly perspective speech. “We came to this country and we didn’t have a cent in our pockets, from cleaning canary cages to this night here in New York, it’s a long way, and I don’t think there’s any other country in the world that can give you that opportunity. I want to say thank you, America.”
Desilu studios were said to have a family-like atmosphere. If Arnaz did not personally like an individual, he would not employ them. Employees enjoyed company parties where their entire families were welcome, a practice that Ball and Arnaz carried over from their backyard parties in their early years of marriage, now extending it to a staff of approximately 800 persons.
Ball’s reputation as a tough yet sweet personality preceded her. Constantly open to new talent, Ball encouraged a younger generation, including Arnold Schwarzenegger. After seeing him on the Merv Griffin show she offered him a walk-on role on the revival of her television show during the 1970s. Schwarzenegger recalled receiving notes of encouragement from Ball after each of his accomplishments. However, probably the most telling story was from Carol Burnett. Over 20 years Ball’s junior, Burnett received flowers each year from Ball on her birthday. According to Burnett she awoke the day of her birthday in 1989 to find that Ball passed away. Later that afternoon, Burnett’s yearly bouquet arrived.
Unfortunately, after almost 20 years Ball and Arnaz’s real-life marriage was not as ideal as their on-screen relationship, mostly due to Arnaz’s drinking and continued womanizing. The couple divorced. At a time where female executives were almost non-existent, Ball would go on against the odds to successfully take control of the company becoming the first woman to run a major studio. In 1962 she would successfully resurrect her show, “The Lucy Show,” without Arnaz, who encouraged her to do so.
Are you a Trekkie? You can thank Lucille Ball for that. Did you enjoy the Mission Impossible series? You can thank Lucille Ball for that as well. Desilu productions also championed diversity within their shows as well as behind the camera with actors such as the beautiful Nichelle Nichols of Star Trek, Gail Fisher of Mannix, Greg Morris of Mission Impossible, and Charles C. Washburn, assistant director on Star Trek as well as other films.
Arnaz passed away Dec. 2, 1986, two days after what would have been his and Ball’s 46th wedding anniversary, although their marriage dissolved and both moved on to new partners, they remained close throughout the years with love between them, still remaining. In a documentary about Desilu productions, Ball’s daughter recalled one of the last conversations between the two of them as Desi lay dying of lung cancer. Ball’s daughter Lucie, put the phone to his ear. Arnaz wished Ball good luck on a television show of which she was to appear on that evening, to which Ball responded, “I love you. I love you, I love you, I love you … I love you.”
During her 1986 Kennedy Center Honors ceremony, a letter written by Desi Arnaz was read aloud to a visibly-moved Lucille Ball.
“’I love Lucy’ had just one mission, to make people laugh, Lucy gave it a rare quality, she could perform the wildest even the messiest physical comedy without losing her feminine appeal. The New York Times asked me to divide the success between the writers, directors and the cast, I told them, give Lucy 90 percent of the credit, divide the other 10 percent among the rest of us.
“Lucy was the show. Viv, Fred and I were just props, damn good props, but props nevertheless. P.S. I Love Lucy was never just a title. ‘I Love Lucy’ accomplished something much needed today, it made us … all of us … laugh in unison.
Join fathom events on Aug. 6, Lucille Ball’s 108th birthday, and laugh, once again, in unison. Click here for tickets, local theatres and showtimes.
Constance Cherise is a classic film columnist, disco-era junkie, nostalgia aficionado, travel-ready foodie, free-spirited freelancer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org