Picture it: Salem, Oregon, 1995. A beautiful peasant girl turns on her parents’ 15″ black and white tube TV. She comes across a show on something called Nick at Nite. She is instantly transfixed by the action on the screen. A redhead (we’ll have to take the characters’ word for it, it’s black and white after all), her Cuban bandleader husband, and their two friends were involved in some wacky scheme. The next day, the girl tuned into Nick-at-Nite again and watched another episode of this hilarious show about a woman whose only dream in life, it seems, is to be in show business, much to her husband’s chagrin. The show was I Love Lucy, and the beautiful peasant girl, was me, minus the peasant part–just tapping into my inner Sophia Petrillo.
I Love Lucy is rightfully considered one of the best, if not the best (which “best” is obviously subjective) television show in history. The show was groundbreaking, almost literally, and created the blueprint for all situational comedies to come. Every show, from The Dick Van Dyke Show, to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, to Cheers to Friends are indebted to I Love Lucy for inventing the situation comedy and engineering the way in which to perform in front of a live audience.
In 1950, CBS approached Lucille Ball with an offer to move her popular radio show, My Favorite Husband, to the new burgeoning medium of television. CBS wanted Ball, her co-star Richard Denning and the other cast members to make the move with her. However, Ball had other ideas. At this time, Ball had been married to her husband, bandleader Desi Arnaz for ten years. The couple’s marriage was faltering. Much of the strain on their marriage was caused by their differing schedules. Ball was in Hollywood filming her radio show and Arnaz was on the road, touring with his band. Ball, seeing an opportunity to work with her husband and keep him home, told CBS that she was interested in the offer, but only if Arnaz could star as her husband. CBS balked, thinking that the American public would not accept that their star, Lucille Ball, was married to a Cuban. Of course, CBS was completely wrong, but to prove it, Ball and Arnaz concocted a vaudeville routine and took their act on the road. People across the country loved them and soon CBS had to relent and give Ball and Arnaz the go-ahead.
In March of 1951, Ball and Arnaz filmed their pilot. It was filmed in kineoscope. Kineoscope was a method of filming a live performance. A camera lens would be focused on a video screen, which would record the performance as it was being recorded. This footage would later be re-broadcast to other markets. Typically shows were filmed in New York, as this is where a majority of the population lived in the late 1940s-early 1950s. If you have ever seen a YouTube video where someone has made a video of a movie, show, concert, etc. playing on their TV, you know that the sound is muffled and tinny and the picture is blurry. This is exactly what it was like to watch a kineoscope show if you didn’t live near New York.
To see a couple examples of Kineoscope, go to You Tube and search for: “I Love Lucy Pilot,” and “Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz on The Ed Wynn Show.”
Above is a screenshot from the I Love Lucy pilot episode. Ball wears a housecoat and big baggy pants for much of the episode because she was pregnant with Lucie Arnaz. The Ricardos live in a completely different apartment and the Mertzes haven’t been created yet. I Love Lucy episode #6, “The Audition” is essentially a re-do of the pilot. In the pilot episode, Ricky schemes with his agent, Jerry. In the I Love Lucy episode, Jerry’s lines are given to Fred Mertz. The pilot episode was a success and Ball and Arnaz were given the green light to start their series.
To produce their series, Ball and Arnaz formed Desilu Productions. Arnaz was president and Ball was vice-president. They hired the writers from Ball’s radio show, My Favorite Husband. Many of the crew members they hired were acquaintances from Ball’s radio program and from Ball and Arnaz’ movie and music careers, respectively. For the Mertzes, they originally wanted Bea Benederet (Betty Rubble in The Flintstones and Kate Bradley in Petticoat Junction) and Gale Gordon (Mr. Mooney in The Lucy Show and Harry Carter in Here’s Lucy). However, Benederet was under contract to The Burns and Allen Show and Gordon was on Our Miss Brooks.
One day, William Frawley, an old acquaintance of Ball’s from her movie days, called Ball and asked if there was room for him on her show. Leery of his reputation as a hard-drinker, Arnaz and Ball met with him and decided he was perfect. Ball later said: “William Frawley was ‘Fred Mertz,’ period.” Frawley was cast on the condition that he always show up to work sober. He would be fired on the spot if he ever showed up to work intoxicated. During all six seasons of I Love Lucy and the three seasons of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, Frawley kept his promise.
Casting Ethel Mertz turned out to be more of a chore. Ball originally wanted to throw the job to her old friend, Barbara Pepper (Mrs. Ziffel on Green Acres), but CBS said no. Much like Frawley, Pepper had a drinking problem too, but hers was much more severe. Then I Love Lucy director Marc Daniels (who directed the first season) suggested an actress he worked with in New York, Vivian Vance. Vance had a successful Broadway career and had spent twenty years on stage acting in various plays until re-locating to Hollywood in the late-1940s. She appeared in a couple films, but by 1951, she was still relatively unknown outside of the Broadway circle. She just happened to be appearing in a revival of Voice of a Turtle in La Jolla, California. Arnaz and head writer, Jess Oppenheimer, drove down to see Vance and hired her on the spot. Vance was reluctant to give up her stage career for the unknown medium of television, but friend Daniels convinced her it’d be her big break–and it was.
With all the pieces put in place, it was time to start producing I Love Lucy. Desilu purchased two soundstages and tore down the dividing wall to create one large room that could hold four separate stages. The Ricardos’ living room was the larger, permanent stage. The Ricardos’ bedroom was typically in the smaller stage to the left and the kitchen was the small stage to the right. The other stage would often be the Tropicana. The walls of the small stages had wheels that allowed them to move around. Oftentimes, when a scene with a large amount of action was filmed, the walls of the set would be rolled in front of the Ricardos’ living room set. Case in point, there is a blooper in the famous Vitameatavegamin episode (#30 “Lucy Does a TV Commercial”). When Lucy comes staggering out of her dressing room (plastered on Vitameatavegamin, alcohol 23%) and the stage hands are searching for Ricky, you can see the Ricardos’ living room between the Vitameatavegamin set and Ricky’s set where he performs.
CBS wanted Arnaz and Ball to use the cheaper kineoscope and to film their show in New York. Arnaz and Ball informed CBS that not only did they plan on remaining in Los Angeles, but they also wanted to film their program on 35mm film, the same film used by the motion picture studios. They wanted the whole country to see their program clearly, not just the East Coast and they wanted to have copies of their program–figuring that if it bombed, at least they’d come away with some “home movies” for their children. CBS complained initially about the increased cost of the film, but Arnaz, the shrewd negotiator he was, offered to deduct $1000/week from his and Lucy’s salaries in exchange for the right to use film and the rights to their show. CBS, figuring that this whole thing will never work, agreed.
Arnaz knew that Ball performed best in front of a live audience. To accommodate a live audience, Arnaz had to equip his soundstage with bleachers. He was also required by the fire marshall to bring the building up to code by adding bathrooms and other modifications required of a facility that is going to hold large groups of people. In order to ensure that the cameras didn’t block the audience’s view of the action, Arnaz, along with Academy Award winning cinematographer, Karl Freund, devised the three camera technique. This camera, nicknamed “the three-headed monster,” would film the action from three angles. Then after production, the editors would splice together the footage to create the final show. This technique is still in use today.
The very first episode of I Love Lucy, that aired, was actually the second episode filmed. Episode #2, “The Girls Want to Go to a Nightclub” is the first of many “versus” episodes. In this case, it’s the men versus the women. Lucy and Ethel want to go to a nightclub for the Mertzes’ anniversary and Fred and Ricky want to go to the fights. Lucy and Ethel declare that they will find their own dates who will take them to the club. Ricky informs Lucy that he and Fred will do the same. Enlisting the help of an old friend, Lucy gets herself and Ethel set up as Ricky and Fred’s blind dates. Except, the girls aren’t just coming as themselves, they show up dressed as hillbillies. This is the first of many episodes where Lucy tries to pull a fast one on Ricky. Arnaz made it clear to the writers from day one that while Lucy can play tricks on Ricky, he didn’t want Ricky to look like an idiot. Ricky either needed to be in on the joke from the beginning or figure it out before Lucy succeeded. In the case of this episode, Lucy blows her cover by offering to go grab cigarettes for everyone, stating that she knew where they were. Ricky tells Lucy he knows it’s her and Ethel, they make up and all is well–except that the men end up at the fights with the ladies dressed to the nines. Let’s just hope that a compromise was reached and maybe they went to the fights and the nightclub that evening.
I Love Lucy was a success and was at the top of the ratings 4/6 years it was on television. In 1953, Ball found out she was pregnant (with Desi Arnaz Jr.) and she, along with Arnaz, thought it was the end of the program. However, it was decided that Lucy Ricardo would be pregnant too. Desilu hired a priest, rabbi and minister to read the scripts and highlight any objectionable content. All three religious leaders could not find any issues. CBS allowed Ball and Arnaz to go ahead with their plan and Lucy Ricardo was set to have a baby. The only stipulation being that the word “pregnant” could not be used on the show. They had to opt for the funnier ‘spectin coming from Ricky. Words and phrases like “infanticipating” and “having a baby” were used instead. The episode where Lucy gives birth to Little Ricky was the highest rated episode of any television show (at that point) and even got a higher rating than Dwight Eisenhower’s inauguration that took place the following day after Little Ricky was born. During this time, Arnaz invented the re-run by re-airing old episodes of I Love Lucy. He wanted to give Lucy time to recover. To make the episodes “fresh,” he and Frawley and Vance filmed new flashback scenes to introduce the episodes. When these repeats garnered the same or higher ratings than the original airing, it was decided to forgo the new flashback footage and just re-air the episodes as-is.
I Love Lucy enjoyed huge success during its original six year run, winning multiple Emmy Awards and achieving high ratings. It ended its run #1 in the ratings. However, I Love Lucy has achieved even greater success in the decades since. It is estimated that I Love Lucy has never been off the air since its debut in 1951. Ball’s face is one of the most widely recognized faces in the world. There are new generations of fans discovering I Love Lucy each and every day. It is truly an indelible part of pop culture and television history.
My Top 5 Favorite Episodes of I Love Lucy:
1) Episode #114, “L.A. at Last!”
The Ricardos and Mertzes finally make it to Hollywood. After checking into their hotel at the Beverly Palms Hotel, Lucy and the Mertzes are on the prowl for movie stars. They decide to go to “the watering hole,” aka The Brown Derby for lunch and celebrity spotting. Ethel manages to embarrass herself in front of Eve Arden and Lucy ends up embarrassing herself in front of William Holden. The true gem of this episode is later, when Ricky, newly employed at MGM, meets Holden. Holden offers to give him a ride to his hotel. Ricky, unknowing about what transpired at the Brown Derby earlier that day, asks Holden if he’d mind coming in to meet Lucy. Lucy, understandably freaked out, but forced into meeting Holden, tries to disguise herself with a scarf, glasses and fake putty nose. The funniest part of the entire episode is the look on William Holden and Desi Arnaz’ faces when Lucy turns around after having re-shaped her nose.
2) Episode #147, “Lucy Gets a Paris Gown”
In Paris, Lucy makes it known to Ricky that she wants a Jacques Marcell dress. Ricky, not wanting to pay the huge price tag, says no. Lucy, not willing to give up, stages a convincing hunger strike in protest of Ricky’s decision. Ricky, feeling bad for Lucy, buys her the dress, but then discovers that Ethel has been sneaking food to her. The dress is returned and Lucy is fuming. To appease Lucy and “cure” her of her desire for high-end French fashion (which Ricky and Fred think is ridiculous), they find some potato sacks, a horse’s feedbag and a champagne bucket and have two Parisian original gowns designed and created: one for Lucy and one for Ethel. The funniest part of this episode is when Lucy and Ethel realize that they’ve been duped and attempt to hide under a tablecloth, that they apparently steal from the restaurant as they run away.
3) Episode #81, “The Charm School”
After an upsetting party where Lucy and Ethel feel ignored by their husbands, especially when the date of another guest attracts all their attention, Lucy and Ethel decide that their husbands are bored with them. Lucy finds out that the woman who came to her party the night prior had just finished a course at “Phoebe Emerson’s Charm School.” Lucy and Ethel sign up and are put through a charm regiment that involves learning to walk, speak and dress like a charming lady. The time comes for the big reveal and Ricky and Fred are speechless. The funniest part of this episode is when Lucy opens the door to let glammed-up Ethel in. As she opens the door, there’s Ethel leaning against the door frame, dressed in a one-strapped, skintight, leopard print dress with a cool snake-like thing around her arm.
4) Episode #23, “Fred and Ethel Fight”
The Mertzes are fighting (because Ethel said that Fred’s mother “looked like a weasel,” to which I say: “Fred’s mother is still alive?”) and Lucy decides to invite each one over for dinner without the other one knowing. She lets Ricky in on the plan. Ricky works with Lucy trying to get Fred and Ethel back together, but during course of conversation, he and Lucy end up getting in a fight. Now it’s Ethel and Fred’s turn to try and get Ricky and Lucy back together! The climax of the episode is when Ricky stages a fake fire in the apartment, so that he can “save” Lucy and be a hero. The funniest part of this episode is when Lucy wants to pretend like she was hit by a bus and has Ethel help her put on casts and a metal arm brace thing and then Ricky stages the fake fire which Lucy doesn’t know is fake. Lucy freaks out trying to grab things, casually tossing them out her 4th story window. She grabs some dresses and her huge jug of henna rinse. Then she makes a rope with a bedsheet and ties it around herself, but neglects to tie the other end to anything.
5) Episode #122 “The Star Upstairs”
Lucy discovers that she has met 99 movie stars and wants to meet one more so she can have an even hundred. She reads a blind item in the paper that a big star is staying in the penthouse of a local hotel for some rest and relaxation. Lucy instantly jumps to the conclusion that the star is in her hotel, and after pressing the bellboy for details, her assumption is confirmed–Cornel Wilde is staying in the penthouse right above the Ricardos’ hotel room! Lucy blackmails the bellboy into letting her borrow his outfit so she can deliver the paper. That scheme fails wholeheartedly. In the next attempt, Lucy hides under the bellboy’s cart. Through the course of events, Wilde ends up thinking that Bobby is a really talented ventriloquist who can throw his voice across the room. The scheme comes off well, but Lucy ends up being left behind in Wilde’s room. Desperate to get out, she attempts to climb down the balcony using a makeshift rope that she crafts out of a beach towel. The funniest part of the entire episode is Ethel trying to distract Ricky from seeing Lucy’s legs dangling from the balcony.