I Love Lucy, Ep. 79 “The Million Dollar Idea” January 11, 1954
This weekend, “A Shroud of Thoughts” is hosting a blogathon. The theme is “Favorite TV Show Episode.” I knew that I would have to write about an episode from my favorite television show of all time–“I Love Lucy.” But which episode?! They’re all so great. It was difficult to narrow it down. I didn’t want to write about “Lucy Does a TV Commercial” (aka “The Vitameatavegamin Episode”) or “Job Switching” (Lucy & Ethel work in the chocolate factory) or “Lucy’s Italian Movie” (Lucy stomps grapes) because I feel like those are the episodes that are always trotted out when someone discusses the best “I Love Lucy” episodes. While I adore these episodes, there are many other great episodes that deserve recognition. I settled on “The Million Dollar Idea.” A hilarious episode that features one of my favorite quotes. On paper, it’s not really that funny, but Lucy’s delivery of the line makes it.
“The Million Dollar Idea” opens with the Ricardos and Mertzes having dinner in the living room.
Ethel (Vivian Vance) and Fred (William Frawley) rave about Lucy’s (Lucille Ball) homemade salad dressing. Lucy admits that it is her Aunt Martha’s recipe. Fred tells Lucy that she should consider bottling and selling it. Ricky (Desi Arnaz) on the other hand, takes this opportunity to remind Lucy that her bank account is overdrawn…again. They have an off-screen battle over the household accounts.
The next morning, Lucy decides that she’s going to take Fred’s idea and bottle and sell her Aunt Martha’s Salad Dressing. She enlists Ethel’s help and the ladies are in business. They come up with a product name: Aunt Martha’s Old Fashioned Salad Dressing. To market their product, Lucy decides to take advantage of her friendship with “frenemy” Carolyn Appleby (not seen in the episode) since she remembered that Carolyn’s husband Charlie works at a television station. “[We’ll] cut her in, to the tune of, say, three cents a bottle,” Lucy tells Ethel. “Yeah. She likes that kind of music,” Ethel agrees. They decide to go on The Dickie Davis Show.
On the show, Ethel appears as “Mary Margaret McMertz,” a parody of popular radio show host Mary Margaret McBride who dispensed household advice to women for over 40 years. Ethel touts the salad dressing and asks an “average housewife, picked at random, from [the] audience” to come up on stage. Of course, this wasn’t a random selection at all. It is Lucy, disguised as average housewife Isabella Klump. Ms. Klump raves about the salad dressing, to the point where she’s literally drinking it from the jar! Ethel asks her viewers to write (623 E. 68th Street) or call (CIrcle 7-2099) to place their orders. Of course, Ethel holds the cards backwards and then upside down, but that doesn’t hurt orders. By the end of the show, Lucy and Ethel have 23 orders–at the bargain price of 40 cents a quart!
Back at home, Lucy and Ethel get to salad dressing production. As far as I can tell, the ingredients in the salad dressing are: oil, salt and onions. One has to assume there must be some vinegar in there? But the dressing isn’t a vinaigrette–it looks more like mayonnaise. Perhaps the dressing has eggs in it and when emulsified, it becomes more of mayonnaise type dressing? Then there are the onions. Big pieces of onion only cut into quarters. Maybe it goes into the blender next? Not sure. Regardless, Lucy and Ethel have horribly under-priced their product. Ricky, who obviously has more business acumen than Lucy (he does manage the Tropicana Club, after all), decides to calculate Lucy and Ethel’s profit. After calculating the cost of the ingredients, the cost of the jars and the cost of the labels and dividing it by their 23 orders, Ricky determines that they’ll churn out a 3 cent per jar profit–the same profit that was promised to Carolyn Appleby. He tells Lucy that that figure doesn’t even include shipping, mailing, insurance, taxes or overhead. “Oh. Well. If you’re going to figure all that stuff,” Lucy tells him. Ricky urges Lucy and Ethel to get out of the salad dressing business. Fred then enters the kitchen carrying an enormous bag of mail, one of three bags that were delivered. “We must be terrific television salesmen!” Ethel declares.
Dismayed at the thought of having to produce so many jars of non-profit salad dressing, Lucy and Ethel decide to return to The Dickie Davis Show. They figure if they’re so good at selling the dressing, that they’ll be good at “un-selling it.” The next day, Mary Margaret McMertz is back. She once again advertises Aunt Martha’s Old Fashioned Salad Dressing and invites “an average housewife, picked at random, from [the] audience.” Of course, Lucy comes up on stage, this time as country bumpkin, “Lucille McGillicuddy.” Mrs. McGillicuddy smells the dressing and is immediately disgusted. “Smell it” she tells McMertz. McMertz smells it and is taken with the same bad smell. “How about that? Looks like Aunt Martha had too many old-fashioneds” Mrs. McGillicuddy says. McMertz asks Mrs. McGillicuddy to taste the dressing. After getting over her initial repulsion and the promise of a new jar, Mrs. McGillicuddy takes a swig. She’s overcome with disgust and looks for a place to spit it out. “What’s Aunt Martha trying to do? Poison me?” she asks.
Under great duress, Mary Margaret McMertz says, “Friends, I can no longer endorse this product. If you have ordered it, send in your cancellations.”
Which brings me to my favorite part of the episode. Falling to the floor after drinking the vile salad dressing, Mrs. McGillicuddy pops up and says:
McMertz once again shares the cancellation phone number and address.
Mrs. McGillicuddy reappears. “AND DO IT NOW!” she pleads.
After the show, the girls are sure that they’ve succeeded in getting out of making all the salad dressing. Fred brings in more sacks of mail. Lucy and Ethel excitedly start reading the postcards. “Cancellations!” they think. Except they’re not. They’re more orders! 1133 more orders to be exact. Lucy and Ethel decide to purchase salad dressing from the store, remove the labels and attach their own labels. It’s not entirely honest and costs 50 cents a quart (10 cents more than their product), but they can get their scheme over and done with in the shortest amount of time. Lucy and Ethel, decked out in matching outfits, some sort of apron vest like thing (looks like something that a newspaper delivery boy would wear), roller skates and shopping carts (that they got from somewhere. I doubt that people with minimal storage, like in an apartment, would have shopping carts lying around) get ready to deliver their wares. “You take the east side, I’ll take the west side and I’ll be in Jersey a-fore ya!” Lucy tells Ethel.