“God wanted the world to laugh and He invented you.” — Sammy Davis Jr., speaking to Lucille Ball at a 1984 tribute in her honor
Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel.
Perhaps the most iconic foursome in pop culture history this side of John, Paul, George and Ringo. But unlike the very real Beatles, the aforementioned foursome was quite fictional — characters from a long-ago television show that would enchant generations of viewers.
The world fell in love with Lucy and Ricky Ricardo and Fred and Ethel Mertz beginning in 1951 with the premiere of “I Love Lucy,” a half-hour sitcom that starred Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance, William Frawley and Lucille Ball, who would parlay her TV alter ego into one of the greatest comedic characters of all time.
Fred, Ethel, Lucy and Ricky
Filmed in Hollywood before a studio audience (a first for networks that relied on canned laughter), “I Love Lucy” set new standards in sitcom television production including the use of 35mm film (which ensured high-quality rebroadcasts for decades to come) instead of then-popular 16mm kinescope (whose poor quality sealed the fate of many a classic TV program) and the now-standard, simultaneous three-camera setup and uniform overhead lighting.
Moreover, the real-life husband-and-wife team of Ball and Arnaz would form Desilu Studios to produce the series after CBS granted them all rights and ownership of the show (which the couple were in part personally financing). That deal (along with all the tech innovations) launched the concept of syndicated reruns, which changed the business of television forever. Revenue from the series’ syndication in more than 100 countries made Desilu a Hollywood powerhouse in the ’50s and ’60s, chalking up hits such as “Star Trek,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “The Untouchables” and “Mission Impossible.”
Ultimately, “I Love Lucy” became one of the best-written, best-acted and most beloved sitcoms in history. For four of its six seasons, through 179 episodes, the Emmy-winning show topped the ratings, averaging a 67 share of the prime-time viewing audience.
But that was only half the story.
Lucille Ball poses in Hollywood in 1949, right around the time she was lobbying CBS for a comedy series starring herself and her bandleader husband. | AFP/Getty Images
The inextricably linked personal side of “I Love Lucy” was the Ball-Arnaz marriage, which self-destructed behind the scenes just as the love story between Lucy and Ricky soared to impossibly humorous heights week after week. A lesser force than Ball would have crumbled under the pressure; it only made the actress more determined to succeed.
“[Lucy] was very bright and ambitious and she knew what she wanted,” said Coyne Steven Sanders, co-author with Tom Gilbert of Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, a 1994 book just re-released in paperback by It Books. “She had to constantly fight to save her marriage and sustain it [while sustaining] the pressure of a hit show as well.”
Ball had languished in Hollywood B-movies for nearly 20 years by the time she married Arnaz in 1940 (they had met on the set of the film “Too Many Girls” (also in The Lucy & Desi Collection) one year earlier, though it wasn’t love at first sight). The couple eloped in a civil ceremony in Connecticut and spent most of their early married years apart — she was contracted to Columbia Pictures in California, he was touring the country with his orchestra.
A television series, Ball surmised, would bring her husband — with his proclivity for the ladies — home. But convincing CBS to green-light what ultimately became “I Love Lucy” was almost insurmountable. The network vehemently objected to casting the heavily Cuban-accented Arnaz as Ricky. To prove they had the chemistry to play a believable American couple on TV, Ball and Arnaz took their comedy/music act to the vaudeville circuit for a summer-long tour in 1950 (some of their bits were later incorporated into the TV series), debuting in June of that year at the Chicago Theatre.
The strategy worked. The first episode of “I Love Lucy” (titled “Lucy Thinks Ricky is Trying to Kill Her”) premiered on CBS on Oct. 15, 1951.
“The comedy that Lucy and Desi and Vivian and William created was just timeless,” said Susan Ewing, spokeswoman for the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center and Museum in Jamestown, N.Y. “You can watch a ‘Lucy’ episode today and laugh out loud. There are sitcoms that are five years old and the comedy is already dated and not so funny anymore. There was no swearing, no sex involved in ‘I Love Lucy. It just showed us these two great couples, this classic battle of the sexes in such an innocent, loving and very funny way.”
Sixty years later, somewhere in the world, dubbed in dozens of languages, “I Love Lucy” is on the air for one simple reason: It’s still funny.
The world laughs with you
Thanks to Lucille Ball’s determination and physical comedy prowess (she honed her skills by studying the work of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, among others), Lucy Ricardo was forever ready to take a pie in the face or stomp on pile of grapes or stuff chocolates into her mouth until her face resembled a puffer fish. Ball made it real, which took comedy to new heights.
And while Lucy Ricardo may have been the Great American Housewife, she also wanted something few of her 1950s counterparts longed for: a job outside the home — as long as it involved show business, of course. Ball had lived that storyline.
“Mom always said you gotta believe what you do,” said singer-actress Lucie Arnaz during a recent phone conversation. (Ball and Arnaz also had one son, Desi Jr., whose birth coincided with the birth of Lucy and Ricky’s “son” in one of television’s most groundbreaking story arcs).
Ricky, Lucy, Ethel, Fred and Little Ricky (Lucy and Desi’s real-life son
“She would always say ‘It has to be plausible.’ Which is why she was adamant with her writers about making it believable. Bob [Carroll Jr.] and Madelyn [Pugh] and Jess [Oppenheimer] were so brilliant about putting her in these outrageous situations. Mom made you believe that the outcome was totally plausible because of how she got there [by the end of the half hour]. You might think that stealing John Wayne’s footprints in cement is totally implausible, but not if you followed the series of events that led Lucy to that end. That was my mom’s genius as an actress and comedian.”
Cry and you cry alone
There was little, however, that was funny in the real world for Ball and Arnaz, who spent much of their married life fighting — loudly — Lucie Arnaz recalled, much of it due to Desi’s drinking and womanizing and Ball’s inability to make him give up both. That lack of control at home made Ball all the more hard-edged at work, often manifesting in less-than-tactful outbursts, Arnaz said. Lucille Ball was not Lucy Ricardo.
“People for the longest time back then really didn’t realize that Lucille Ball and Lucy Ricardo were two totally different women,” said Sanders. “Since she couldn’t control her life or her marriage, she was became very controlling on the set.
“And she was also fighting age. She would be on set with all these other very young, beautiful actresses and it made her [even more] insecure.”
In an interview with the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1950, while the couple was appearing in town, Arnaz shed light on their off-screen struggles: “With two distinct careers in the family, differences of opinion arise from time to time. We’ve learned to compromise. But this is the real secret: We never go to bed angry. We stay up and fight it out, even if it takes until 5 a.m.”
A star is born
Born Lucille Desiree Ball on Aug. 6, 1911, in Jamestown, Ball — much like the future Lucy Ricardo — longed for a show business career.
She ultimately would star in 79 films between 1933 and 1974, as well as three stage play tours and a Broadway run in “Wildcat” in 1961. Her earliest show business forays were as a chorus girl on Broadway, as the official “Chesterfield cigarette girl” in a series of ads, as one of the “Goldwyn Girls” (a bevy of beauties who toiled in bit parts in classic movies of the ’30s and ’40s) and even as a Stooge’s tease (look closely at a 1934 “Three Stooges” short called “Three Little Pigskins” for an almost unrecognizable platinum-blonde Ball).
Though film work popped up on Ball’s radar throughout her career, the Jean Harlowe-type success she envisioned for herself never materialized. As she moved into her 30s, Ball saw prime movie roles going to much younger actresses.
“Success came to her late in life,” said Sanders. “She was 40 when ‘I Love Lucy’ hit the air. She had been in Hollywood since the mid-’30s, struggling in various short features over at Columbia and then moving to RKO, where again she was just passed over time and again. MGM gave her the big glamour-girl treatment in the 1940s and that never really amount to anything either. She really was much better than the pictures she was in, but the studios didn’t see it.”
Ultimately the small screen would fulfill Ball’s dreams of stardom in a big, big way.
For 25 years after “I Love Lucy” left the airwaves, Ball continued her reign as TV’s official “first lady.” She starred in series that included “The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour” (1957-60), “The Lucy Show” (1962-68), “Here’s Lucy” (1968-74) and the short-lived “Life With Lucy” (1986).
But it was “I Love Lucy” that resonated most with television audiences.
“I think the show endures to this day because they had wonderful writers and [this incredible] supporting cast,” said Sanders. “And there was that love between Desi and Lucy that came through on the screen. You could feel it. It infused the show with honesty.”
As honest as their on-screen romance was, in the end, it was the lack of truth in their real life that made divorce the only — and long-overdue — recourse.
“They were the loves of each other’s lives,” said Sanders of Ball and Arnaz, “but that love couldn’t solve Desi’s problems with alcohol and other women. The public humiliation she faced as a result, especially his arrest one time at a bordello, just crushed her. She really didn’t trust anyone in Hollywood because of how her career didn’t come to pass. Then she can’t trust Desi.”
After 20 years of marriage, the couple divorced amicably in 1960.
Two years later, Ball bought Arnaz’s holdings in Desilu, leaving the actress as the first female head of a major studio. In 1967 Ball ultimately sold Desilu Productions along with its 36 soundstages to Paramount for $17 million.
On the personal side of things, Ball met and married comedian Gary Morton in 1961. He became her manager and executive producer of “Here’s Lucy.”
“It was a different marriage than [the one with] Desi,” said Sanders, but it was good and solid. She was coming off Desi’s bad years, wanting someone home, someone she could count on. [Gary] wasn’t the passionate love of her life — that was Desi. But Gary made her laugh, made her smile. He was a calming influence.”
Arnaz, too, remarried, to showgirl Edith Mack Hirsch in 1963. They remained a couple until her death in 1985. Arnaz died at age 69 one year later.
Ball died from complications following surgery for an aortic aneurysm on April 26, 1989. She was 77.
“This show was about unconditional love,” Lucie Arnaz said about the “I Love Lucy” legacy. “It was about this childlike grownup who constantly gets into trouble, but at the end of the day, at the end of the episode, she’d come home and there was someone there waiting for her, who unconditionally loved her. In my heart, the title of the show really was ‘I Love Lucy … anyway.’ ”
So do we.
Before Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Melissa McCarthy and Chelsea Handler, there was one comedian who helped paved the way for women: Lucille Ball. Considering tomorrow would have been her 100th birthday, one network is gearing up for an I Love Lucy marathon while her hometown is ready to break records with a look-alike extravaganza and comedic line-up! Although she died in 1989, from the looks of it, everybody still loves Lucy.
At 6 a.m. tomorrow through 6 a.m. Monday morning, the Hallmark channel will air back-to-back episodes of her legendary sitcom. Even her hometown in upstate New York is getting into the act, according to MSNBC. The Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Center for Comedy yearns to set a new world record for men, women and children to have the “most people dressed as Lucy Ricardo in one place, at one time.” The whole weekend will pay homage to the late star with performances by Joan Rivers, Paula Poundstone and even Lucy, Ricky, Ethel and Fred impersonators.
Although her classic show was adored by fans, surprisingly, it took almost two decades for her to make her mark in Hollywood. According to The Los Angeles Times, she began her career in the early 1930′s in musical comedies and then snagged small parts in Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies. Though at the studios she was labeled the B-list.
Kathleen Brady, author of Lucille: The Life of Lucille Ball told the Times: “She was probably one of the hardest-working actresses in Hollywood. At one point, she was making 10 films at once. But somehow she never crossed over” to become a star.
Thanks to determination, Lucille pursued her dream. Kathleen mentioned she had “extraordinary perseverance, whether it was about getting pregnant or becoming a major star. Somehow it took a long time to come together for her.”
When it did finally come together, she made quite a splash! I Love Lucy became a smash CBS hit 60 years ago (count ‘em, 60!) when her character, Lucy Ricardo, got into one zany antic after another and has been in re-runs all over the world ever since! The entire I Love Lucy: The Complete Series has now been put on DVD.
Whether you loved her comedy or not, everyone has seen the show and knows who Lucille Ball and the cast of I Love Lucy is! She is part of our history.~