Staying in L.A.
Although the dilemmas of casting and plot had been solved, a big hurdle still remained before I Love Lucy made it to air. There were logistical difficulties of television production at the time. For this, CBS and its sponsors demanded that Ball and Arnaz relocate from Los Angeles to New York. Determined to stay on the West Coast, the couple engaged in some shrewd negotiation and financial planning; they took a voluntary salary cut but retained the rights to the actual film on which the show was taped. A decision that would pay off years later.
Only She Can Say That
Desi Arnaz and his family fled Cuba following the country’s revolution in 1933. As a result, they were forced to relinquish their wealth and real estate holdings. Arnaz settled in Miami, where he learned English and pursued a career in music. Although proud of his American citizenship, Desi was also proud of his Latin American roots. As such, whenever someone spoofed the character of Ricky Ricardo’s diction or pronunciation on I Love Lucy, only Ball/Lucy herself was allowed to poke fun at her husband.
A Demanding Sponsor
When it first aired, I Love Lucy‘s chief sponsor at CBS was Phillip Morris. He was the tobacco conglomerate whose brands include Marlboro and Parliament. One of Phillip Morris’ conditions for sponsoring the show was a certain amount of product placement. It led to the creation of an intro sequence. It involved Lucy and Ricky climbing down a giant pack of cigarettes. The couple was also often seen smoking Phillip Morris cigarettes on the show itself. Tragically, Arnaz’s death from lung cancer in 1986 was in part attributed to his cigarette smoking.
Character actor William Frawley, who had starred in Miracle on 34th Street, played Fred Mertz. He was the Ricardo family’s cranky landlord, and neighbor. Although Frawley’s portrayal was a big hit with audiences, studio executives were initially hesitant to hire him,. It was due to the actor’s well-known struggle with alcoholism. It took a lunch meeting between Desi and William. The younger actor warned the older one that his employment would hinge on a “three strikes” rule for CBS bosses to approve the casting.
Fred Mertz’s wife and Lucy’s best friend, Ball had two of her friends in mind for the part of Ethel. However, at the insistence of the show’s director, the role went to Vivian Vance. She was an experienced stage actress just two years older than Lucille Ball herself. Vance was reportedly pressured to wear less stylish clothes and gain weight. This was done so as not to steal the spotlight. Although Ball and Vance eventually became friends, the relationship between Vivian and William Frawley was allegedly somewhat frosty.
Desi, The Shorty
Despite his incredible success in Hollywood, Desi Arnaz remained insecure about his stature. Although the actor and musician were officially billed as 5’11”, he was only about 5’9″. He reportedly wore inserts in his shoes to make himself appear taller on camera. Arnaz also arranged for the addition of a cushion to the couch on Ricardos’ living room set to prop him up a bit. According to Ball and Arnaz’s son Desi Arnaz Jr., the star “was a Cuban with a Latin male’s pride”. He did not want to appear shorter than his wife on camera.
No IRS Audit For The Ricardos
Desi Arnaz’s patriotism for his adopted country led the actor to exert some executive control over I Love Lucy‘s plotlines. A Season 3 episode entitled Lucy Tells the Truth originally involved Ricky Ricardo lying on his income tax return. Resenting any appearance (fictional or otherwise) of dodging his civic duty, Arnaz demanded that the writers change the script. As a result, the episode involved Ricky teaching Lucy a lesson about telling the truth by booking her in an act with a knife-thrower at The Tropicana.
One of I Loves Lucy‘s most memorable episodes saw Lucy and Ethel joining the workforce. In Season 2’s Job Switching, the mischievous girlfriends take a job in a candy factory to prove to their husbands that daily housework is harder than making money in a nine-to-five job. Naturally, their efforts backfire, culminating in a hilarious scene in which Lucy and Ethel stuff their mouths with chocolate. Things weren’t so funny on set, though; in a scripted scene, an actress who played Lucy’s factory co-worker slaps her so hard that Ball feared she’d broken her nose.
The Trouble With Vitameatavegamin
Another episode that has proven to be a time-tested fan favorite was Season 1’s Lucy Does a TV Commercial. In it, Lucy maneuvers her way into a taped advertisement for a health tonic called Vitameatavegamin. Although the medicine contains all the components of a healthy diet, it also contains 23% ABV. This would end leading Lucy to become progressively drunker as she completes each takes. Although the “Vitameatavegamin scene” is now considered a classic; Ball was apparently too nervous about botching her lines to enjoy the experience of filming it.
As Few Takes As Possible
I Love Lucy’s actual production set several standards for network sitcoms, including the now-universal three-camera setup. The show also added a sense of authenticity by taping in front of a live studio audience. They did this rather than adding “canned laughter.” Episode directors rarely called “cut” in the middle of long scenes to not have them become stale for each day’s crowd. As a result, several original Lucy episodes contain bloopers; one of which includes Ball flubs her lines while giving the Mertz’s apartment a makeover.
A Working Mom
I Love Lucy broke new ground in the representation of women and families on television. Aside from depicting a marriage between a white woman and a Latino man, the show also took the bold step of showing a married couple sleeping in the same bed. When Lucille Ball became pregnant in 1952, she faced a new kind of censorship. Network executives insist that a pregnant woman could not appear on air. While Ball ultimately won out, writing her own pregnancy into her character’s storyline, she and her co-stars were banned from using the word “pregnant” while filming.
Art Imitates Life
Lucille Ball went so far as to schedule her Caesarian section around I Love Lucy’s airing schedule. Her son Desi Arnaz Jr. was born on January 19, 1953. The same day, her character gave birth to Ricky Ricardo Jr. in the episode “Lucy Goes to the Hospital.” As it happened, Ricky Jr. became a character on the show from 1953 until it went off the air in 1957. Notably, the episode in which Little Ricky is born aired on the same day as President Eisenhower’s inauguration and drew in 72% of American household viewers, compared to 67%.
Lucy Goes To Italy
Lucille Ball was such a pioneer that she failed at grape-stomping long before reporter Melissa Sander fell off a platform and went viral as the “The Grape Lady” in 2006. In Lucy’s Italian Movie in Season 5, Lucy soaks up some local culture while on vacation in Rome. Although it was a comedic success, the episode was a logistical nightmare. It required finding a vineyard property to donate a large number of grapes. It also involved the creation of a purple-coloured dye; that would recreate the effects of wine stains on Lucy’s clothing without damaging her skin or hair.
Some Impressive Guest Stars
I Love Lucy became so popular by the later seasons that it attracted guest stars as famous as John Wayne and Rock Hudson. In the Season 4 episode, Lucy tries to convince her rival Carolyn Appleby that she can recruit several celebrities to appear at a Hollywood party, ultimately attempting to trick Appleby by stealing her eyeglasses and impersonating the celebrities herself. When the real Harpo Marx shows up, though, Lucy has to mirror his actions. Filming the scene was a challenge, as Lucille Ball required several rehearsals to mimic the older actor’s movements.
A Very Long Laugh From The Audience
I Love Lucy‘s practice of filming in front of a live audience resulted in several quirks. In the show’s final season, Lucy and Ricky buy a house in Connecticut. Surprised by the high cost of living in the country, they pursue a business plan of raising chickens and selling their eggs. When the plan fails, Lucy buys eggs at retail and tries sneaking them into the henhouse. This resulted in a shirt full of broken shells. The audience was so tickled by this pivotal scene that their recorded laugh lasted for a whopping 65 seconds; that had to be edited down.
Sparing No Expense
Desi Arnaz was a big proponent of realism in I Love Lucy‘s production, sometimes to the chagrin of CBS accountants. Lucy and Ethel try to live simply like their grandmothers in Pioneer Women. For this, Arnaz insisted on finding a bakery that would create a real eight-foot-long loaf of bread to pop out of the oven and thwart their efforts. In the episode, Deep Sea Fishing, Arnaz again puts a dent in the show’s production account in Season 6. He had two giant, fresh-caught tunas shipped in ice from San Francisco to Los Angeles
Mrs. Ball Makes An Unseen Appearance
Another unexpected effect of taping before a live studio audience was that Lucille Ball’s mother became a part of I Love Lucy’s legacy. Dede Ball, who had moved to Los Angeles in support of her daughter’s career, attended most tapings of the show and sometimes became too wrapped up in the fictional proceedings. Dede got in the habit of uttering “uh oh” whenever Lucy Ricardo found her way into a compromising situation; several of these participatory groans were included on the soundtrack.
Director William Asher
William Asher was an influential director and producer. He has been credited with standardizing the American sitcom. Asher had met Lucille Ball in the late 1940s when she tried out for the lead on Our Miss Brooks. He later came on board as a director for 110 episodes of “I Love Lucy” during its run. Asher, who also produced and directed Bewitched, referred to Ball as “one of TV’s true pioneers.” William Asher died of Alzheimer’s disease complications at age 90 in 2012.
Writer Bob Weiskopf
Although I Love Lucy took its thematic cues from Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s real lives, they relied on a dedicated team of screenwriters to bring the show to life. One of those writers was Bob Weiskopf, who joined the show’s staff in Season 5. After Lucy wrapped in 1957, Weiskopf and his writing partner Bob Schiller continued making money with Desilu Productions, working for the spin-offs The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour and The Lucy Show. Weiskopf, who was also a producer, died in 2001.
Lucille’s Friend Lillian Briggs
Although Vivian Vance played her partner in crime on I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball’s best friend in real life was singer Lillian Briggs. Briggs was a performer in New York City clubs before recording her first single. It was 1955’s I Want You to Be My Baby.” She was also a skilled trombonist. Briggs was reportedly a source of comfort to Ball during the rocky years of her marriage to Desi Arnaz. Incidentally, Briggs owned the yacht on which former presidential candidate Gary Hart was photographed with his mistress. This resulted in effectively ending his 1988 campaign.
Head Writer Madelyn Pugh
The daughter of an Indianapolis bank treasurer, Madelyn Pugh broke barriers to become one of the most prominent female writers in Hollywood. Pugh started her career writing sports for a local radio station before moving to Los Angeles and landing a job with CBS Radio. It was here that Pugh met and forged a friendship with Lucille Ball while creating scripts for her show, My Favorite Husband. Madelyn became instrumental in writing the touring vaudeville show that would eventually become I Love Lucy; her 2005 memoirs were entitled, Laughing With Lucy.
Singer Phyllis McGuire
Along with her older sisters Christine and Dottie, Phyllis McGuire made a living as a pop singer. The trio, who performed as The McGuire Sisters, was a fixture on variety programs like The Ed Sullivan Show and The Andy Williams Show. Thanks to her pop stardom, Phyllis enjoyed friendships with celebrities like Cary Grant and Lucille Ball; Ball was a frequent guest at the guesthouse property attached to McGuire’s 25,000-square foot mansion in Las Vegas of Desi Arnaz. McGuire later said that she understood what she saw in him, with his charming demeanor and amazing accent.
Featuring Keith Thibodeaux as “Little Ricky”
Instead of drafting their actual son Desi Arnaz Jr. to play Little Ricky on I Love Lucy, Ball and Arnaz cast a series of young actors, including young Keith Thibodeaux. Thibodeaux learned how to play the drums at a young age. It was a skill that he showed off during his audition and in so doing, won over Arnaz, a musician himself. During his time on the show, the actor became a fixture in the Ball-Arnaz family. He even took vacations with them. After a period of substance abuse in the 1960s and the ’70s, Thibodeaux became a born-again Christian in 1974.
Writer Jim Bacon
Writer-actor Jim Bacon, pictured here with Frank Sinatra, was a witness to some of the difficulties in Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s marriage. Bacon told People in 1991 that Arnaz’s alcoholism took a serious toll on the union. He said, “When Desi would get drunk, he was wild. Lucy put up with it quite a bit, but then it just became too embarrassing.” Although Arnaz’s exploits mostly stayed out of the media, the gossip magazine Confidential reported on his affair with a female escort in April 1953. It was during the same month that the family appeared on the front cover of Life.
Lucy’s Biggest Secret
Many fans of I Love Lucy and its follow-ups may be surprised to learn that Lucille Ball was not a natural redhead. A brunette by birth, Ball turned to a Hollywood hairdresser to come out with her eye-catching “golden apricot” hue; it was the product of hair dye mixed with an Egyptian henna rinse. It wasn’t the first drastic hairstyle change for Ball, who had dyed her locks platinum blonde before. She did it while working as a model for designer Hattie Carnegie in New York City back in the 1920s and the ’30s.
Setting Television Standards
Although it’s since become a very sophisticated medium, television was considered far inferior to the film industry in the 1950s. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz sought to elevate the technical quality of I Love Lucy by poaching a movie veteran to work on their show. They hired Karl Freund, a German cinematographer who had worked on such classics as the German expressionist film Metropolis and 1931’s Dracula. Their decision paid dividends, as Freund developed an entirely new shooting technique for the show. His three-camera setup, which has since become ubiquitous, used multiple cameras to show simultaneous angles of the action.
The cast and crew of I Love Lucy fed off of the energy of their live studio audiences. It was done filming scenes as few times as possible so as to keep the scripts fresh for the crowd. Lucy‘s head writers Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll even created an incentivized system for the actors. Here each star collected a silver dollar whenever they triggered a bout of spontaneous audience applause. Besides encouraging the cast to give their all, this system also helped to boost the checking account of young actor Keith Thibodeaux.
An Enduring Legacy
Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball’s success didn’t end with I Love Lucy. The couple’s decision to buy the show’s post-broadcast rights proved very profitable when CBS realized their value and bought those rights back for $1 million. In 1957, that was enough cash for Lucy and Desi to make a mortgage downpayment on an entire studio. The headquarters of this would become Desilu Studios. Desilu produced enduring hits like Star Trek and The Untouchables, cementing Ball and Arnaz’s influence in Hollywood.
Taking Their Show On The Road
It would take more than talking to CBS’ executives for Ball to have her way. In 1950, she and Desi took their proposed idea for I Love Lucy on a kind of vaudeville roadshow. The production involved Arnaz leading his actual orchestra in jazzy numbers while Lucy barged on stage seeking to steal the show. The success of Ball and Arnaz’s impromptu tour not only convinced CBS that Desi should appear on the show, but it also indicated a positive market outlook for a show about an interracial couple, a groundbreaking feat in 1950.
A Controversial Relationship
It’s hard to picture anyone other than Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in the roles of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo. However, I Love Lucy was originally conceived as a television adaptation of Ball’s radio show, My Favorite Husband. On the radio program, Ball played the zany wife of a successful bank executive, portrayed by actor Richard Denning. Despite pressure from CBS, Lucille insisted that Arnaz, her real-life husband, appear on I Love Lucy instead of Denning. She also insisted that the show’s plot closely mirrors her actual marriage to Arnaz.