Flashback: ‘I Love Lucy’

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By RANDAL C. HILL

In four of its six seasons (1951 to 1957), I Love Lucy was the most watched television show in America. The Emmy Award-winning show was a fantastic success, especially when one considers the major obstacle standing in the way.

CBS was cool to the idea of a TV series in which former B-movie actress Lucille Ball was married to a “foreign man.” She and real-life husband Desi Arnaz argued to the contrary, claiming that mainstream audiences wouldn’t care.

In 1950, to prove their point, the two crafted a sort of vaudeville-type skit when Arnaz’s
popular rhumba band, the Desi Arnaz Orchestra, hit the tour road. Audiences roared with laughter as Ball interrupted Arnaz’s performance by lugging a cello onstage and insisting
on an audition.

Finally, CBS approved and moved ahead with developing television’s first sitcom featuring a married Caucasian/Latino couple.

Luci and Desi

When Arnaz suggested filming the show using three cameras in front of the live audience, CBS balked again, this time over the expense.

Arnaz and Ball then offered CBS a deal: The couple would take massive salary
cuts if their budding company, Desilu
Productions, could own the rights later. CBS eagerly swallowed the bait.

Years later, the agreement paid off nicely with the immensely popular syndicated reruns.

I Love Lucy was also the first TV show to feature a pregnant woman (Ball was carrying Desi, Jr. at the time), but since CBS didn’t allow the word “pregnant” to be spoken on air, “expecting” was utilized instead.

The show was also the first scripted television show shot on 35 mm film and the first TV series with an ensemble cast.

On the show, the couple’s best friends and landlords were Fred and Ethel Mertz.

William Frawley, a hard-drinking ex-vaudevillian, was hired as Fred Mertz with the proviso that he would forfeit his job if he was absent due to his drinking. (He never disappointed, though his hands shook in some episodes.)

In her contract, Vivian Vance agreed to wear frumpy clothes and stay 20 pounds heavier than Ball to appear older. The role rankled Vance, a former model who was only five years
older than Ball and 22 years younger than Frawley, whom she despised.

Polls by both ABC News and People magazine in 2012 named I Love Lucy the Best TV Show of All Time. Innovative filming techniques, Ball’s flair for physical comedy, Arnaz’s business acumen, and topnotch writing were factors.

The couple divorced in 1960— allegedly due to Arnaz’s temper, drinking and womanizing—but they remained close friends.

In fact, until the end of his life, Arnaz often maintained, “I Love Lucy was never just a title.”

Randal C. Hill, a former disc jockey, English teacher, record collector and author,
confesses to being hopelessly stuck in the past. He lives on the Oregon coast
and can be reached at wryterhill@msn.com.

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