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CBS Didn’t Think Americans Would Buy That Lucy Was Married to a “Foreign” Man
When CBS approached Lucille Ball with the offer of turning her popular radio show My Favorite Husband into a television show, she agreed on one condition: that her real-life husband, Desi Arnaz, would be cast in the role of her husband.
The network wasn’t convinced that American viewers would accept an average housewife being married to a “foreign” man with an indecipherable accent. Never mind the fact that Lucy and Desi had been married more than a decade.
William Frawley Was Far From the First Choice to Play Fred Mertz
Lucille Ball was eager to have Gale Gordon, whom she’d worked with on her My Favorite Husband radio show, play crusty neighbor and landlord Fred Mertz. But Gordon asked for more money than Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz's production company Desilu had to offer.
Character actor William Frawley knew Ball in passing and phoned her personally when he found out about her upcoming TV show to inquire if there might be a part for him. CBS were wary of hiring Frawley, who had a reputation for being a heavy drinker. Eventually he was offered the role with the proviso that if he missed work for any reason other than legitimate illness, he’d be written off.
Doris Ziffel Was Almost Ethel Mertz
Lucille had worked with Bea Benaderet in radio and wanted her to play Ethel Mertz. But Benaderet had just signed on to play Blanche Morton on the TV version of The Burns and Allen Show and was unavailable.
I Love Lucy had already gone into early rehearsals by the time director Marc Daniels saw Vivian Vance performing in a play at the La Jolla Playhouse and recommended her to Arnaz.
The “Mertzes” Despised One Another Off-Camera
Vivian Vance was 22 years younger than her TV husband and resented having such an “old poop” play her spouse.
Frawley responded in kind, referring to her variously as “that sack of doorknobs” or just plain “b*tch.” But all that animosity was strictly behind the scenes and known mostly only to the series’ writers and directors.
Arnaz Rejected a Scene That Involved Ricky Cheating on His Taxes
Desi Arnaz was an unabashed believer in the American Dream and was very patriotic when it came to his adopted homeland.
So when a scene in original script in the episode “Lucy Tells the Truth” called for Ricky to fudge some numbers on his income tax return, Arnaz refused to play it and asked the writers to remove it. He didn’t want the audience to think that Ricky would cheat the U.S. government.
Smoking Was Required On-Camera
I Love Lucy almost never made it to the air because CBS had trouble securing a sponsor for the show.
Finally tobacco giant Philip Morris signed on at the 11th hour. As a result, lots of smoking was featured in each episode, and the name “Philip Morris” was worked into the dialogue whenever plausible.
The Show Broke Ground in Several Ways, Simply Because the Stars Wouldn’t Move to New York
Lucille and Desi wanted to work in Los Angeles, near their home and their new baby daughter Lucie. But in 1951 the majority of television shows were broadcast from New York, and that’s where sponsor Philip Morris wanted their show to originate as well.
In those days the U.S. wasn’t wired for television from coast-to-coast; shows broadcast live could only be transmitted so far. As a result, such shows were preserved in low quality and shipped to distant stations. Desi Arnaz suggested that the show be filmed with three cameras, which would provide the same quality picture for every market. Multi-cameras had never been used on a situation comedy before, so a special set was built to accommodate both the cameras and a live audience, a first in the history of television.
Lucy and Desi Had To Take Their Show on the Road to Convince the Network
Arnaz had a successful career touring the country with his rhumba band, which was one of the reasons Lucille wanted him to get cast as her TV husband - to keep him off the road and close to home.
In an effort to show the network that they could work together as a comedy team, they crafted a sort of vaudevillian skit that was incorporated into his performances during a tour in the summer of 1950. The audiences loved Lucille’s antics and her interaction with Desi as she interrupted his band’s concert confusedly, cello in hand, thinking she had an audition scheduled. The skit not only convinced the network powers that be that the couple could, in fact, be convincing as husband and wife, it also was such a hit that it was incorporated into episode six of I Love Lucy’s first season.
Because the Show Was Filmed in Front of an Audience, They Hesitated to Yell “Cut” and Reshoot Scenes
As a result, the occasional blooper was left in and sort of papered-over.
One classic example occurred in “Redecorating the Mertz’s Apartment,” at the breakfast table when Lucy is musing aloud about how to repair both the Mertz’s marriage and their tacky apartment. Lucy mistakenly says “paint the furniture and reupholster the old furniture” as opposed to “paint the apartment and reupholster the old furniture”. Luckily Desi was quick on his feet and he saved the scene.
The “Uh-Oh” Lady Heard in the Studio Audience Was Lucille’s Mom
Quite often when Lucy Ricardo was stepping into a sticky situation, a woman in the audience could be heard uttering “uh-oh.”
That was Dede Ball, Lucy’s mom, who attended every taping and tended to get wrapped up in the proceedings. I Love Lucy sound engineer Glen Glenn went on to co-found Glen Glenn Sound, and in the 1960s and ‘70s his company was one of the leading providers of laugh tracks to TV sitcoms. Many of the laughs used in their recordings were taken from I Love Lucy, which is why Dede’s “uh-oh” could be heard for decades in all of your favorite sitcoms.
Lucille’s Pregnancy Created Panic behind the Scenes
During season two, Ball discovered that she was pregnant, causig her and Arnaz to become concerned about the fate of their hit series. A visibly pregnant female had never starred on a TV series.
Eventually, the network agreed to write Ball’s pregnancy into the show, and Desi hired a local Catholic priest, a minister, and a rabbi to sit in while each episode was filmed to determine whether there was anything objectionable. CBS deemed that the word “pregnant” was vulgar, so it was replaced with “expecting” (or, as Ricky pronounced it, “‘spectin’”).
Desi Arnaz Had Lifts in His Shoes (and His Loveseat)
Arnaz listed his height as 5’11” in most official biographies, but those who worked with him knew that in reality he was 5’9” and wore four-inch lifts in his shoes.
Lucille Ball stood 5’7”, and when she wore heels she seemed to tower over her husband. Desi Arnaz Jr. would later explain that his father “was a Cuban with a Latin male’s pride,” which is why it was important to him to be taller than his wife. A dual-purpose, subtle additional cushion (undetectable by the viewing audience) was added to the Ricardo’s loveseat so that Ricky would be taller than Lucy while seated.
Only Lucy Was Allowed to Make Fun of Ricky’s Fractured English
After a few episodes were filmed, it became an unwritten rule that only Lucy would ever poke fun at her husband’s pronunciation problems.
The writers had allowed other characters to make remarks, but in each case the “joke” was met with an awkward silence from the studio audience. For some reason, it seemed cruel when anyone other than Lucy “mucked” Ricky’s English.
The Longest Laugh on the Show Lasted 65 Seconds
When Lucy hid dozens of eggs and then danced the tango with Ricky (resulting in the inevitable blouse full of scrambled yolks), the audience roared for so long that ultimately some of the laughter had to be edited out in the final film.
Neither Ball nor Vance had used eggs during rehearsals so that their onscreen reactions would be more genuine when the shells cracked and the albumen slimed its way down their flesh.
Lucille Exasperated Guest Star Harpo Marx
Ball was a long-time admirer of Harpo Marx, but when it came to actually working with him, she was unprepared for his “never the same way twice” approach to his comedy routines.
In the Hollywood episode where she was required to mirror his moves, she insisted on incessant rehearsals to get the bit just right. But Harpo’s attitude was “I’ve done this bit for 35 years, why do I need so much rehearsal?”
Number One in the Nielsen Ratings
Many TV shows build up steam over time, eventually reaching a peak in ratings, which then slowly fade season after season until the show is eventually cancelled. I Love Lucy ended its six-year run at number one in the Nielsen ratings, forever cementing itself as a classic. Only two other shows have emulated this success: The Andy Griffith Show and Seinfeld.
Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend
The popular heart on satin image that all I Love Lucy fans know as the logo for the show’s opening credits, was modeled from an actual item. On her 29th birthday, Ball received her first gift from Desi - a diamond-encrusted heart-shaped lapel watch. Fans got to share this special moment each time the show aired, without even knowing it.
Everything was Scripted.
Despite scenes frequently seemed like they were ad-libbed, Ball made sure each moment of the show was rehearsed and perfected. Ball later commented on this: "Because Viv [Vivian Vance] and I believed, and because we knew what we were going to say and because we were thinking, we were listening to each other, and then reacting and then acting, it came out like we'd made it up. We never ad-libbed. We never ad-libbed on the set when we were putting it together. It was there."
Lucille Ball was 41 when the Show Aired.
The actress had struggled for years with small parts and was widely known as the “Queen of the B’s” for her work in B-movies. Her self-titled show was her long-awaited breakthrough, with the actress becoming the first person on the cover of TV Guide. She would grace the magazine 39 times. The trail-blazing actress also became the first woman to run a major television studio with Desilu.
Winning Emmy’s Left and Right
Throughout its six year run, the iconic CBS sitcom went on to win five Emmy awards: Best Comedy in 1953 and 1954, Lucille Ball for Best Comedienne in 1953, Vivian Vance for Best Supporting Actress in 1953 and Best Actress in a Continuing Performance for Lucille Ball in 1956.
Lucy Almost Didn’t Make it Out of the Grape Vat
The famous grape stomping scene in the episode “Lucy’s Italian Movie” got way to real for Lucille. Teresa Tirelli was an extra whose job was to wrestle Ball in the grape vat. Only thing is that Tirelli did not speak English and even though an interpreter explained to her it was just a fake fight to be filmed from the waist up, Tirelli misinterpreted and held Ball’s head under the mushy grapes until she almost choked to death.
Ball Credited the Writers for the Show’s Success
Ball said: "Many times when we would review at the beginning of the season, they would say Viv and I ad-libbed our way through some mediocre writing. They have since found out that that was ridiculous. They know how great our writers are because hundreds of people have copied from them. I have such respect for those kids, my writers I call 'the kids,' Bob and Madelyn."
Realism was Important
Realism was very important to Desi Arnaz, so when the script called for some eccentric scenarios, he was adamant that the props used were 100% authentic. For example, in that episode where an 8 foot long loaf of bread shot out of the oven, they actually got a bakery to make them one! Or in an episode where the girls and guys each bought a giant fish after they made a bet to see who could “catch” the biggest, they had 2 100-plus pound tunas shipped from San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf.
Lucy's Hair was Naturally Brown
Before Lucy become the goofy-redhead we all know and love, she was a brunette! She initially dyed it blonde when she first arrived on the scene in Hollywood, and didn't change it to red until she landed a role in the film “Du Barry Was a Lady.”
I Love Lucy was More Popular Than President Dwight Eisenhower.
Eishenhower's presidential inauguration drew 29 million viewers in January 20, 1953. The next day, 44 million viewers tuned in to watch Lucy give birth to little Ricky, accounting for 72% of all U.S. homes with TVs, according to the Museum of Broadcast Communications.
Desi Arnaz Could Easily Memorize the Script
Desi Arnaz had an extraordinary memory. He often would be able to memorize all of his lines for the show after the first reading, and he usually would learn everybody else's part by the time the cameras were rolling. Because he was so proficient, in the later years, he would take care of the production company during most of the rehearsals while the other actor were practicing their part.
Little Ricky and Desi Arnaz Jr. Share a Birthday
The episode where Lucy gives birth was made even more special by the fact that Lucille Ball and her character gave birth on the same day! Head writer Jess Oppenheimer wrote in the script that Lucy gives birth to a baby boy named Little Ricky, and thus predicted the gender of the couple’s child. After Desi Arnaz Jr. was born, his father called up Oppenheimer and said, “Lucy followed your script! Ain’t she something?!”
The Candy Factory Episode Had a Lot Going on
Also known by fans as the job switching episode was rated one of the funniest scenes in TV history and is still being parodied today! Amanda Milligan, who played a worker at the candy factory, wasn’t an actress, she was an actual candy dipper at See’s Candy Factory who had never seen the show before. In the scene where she hits Lucy in the face, she actually hit her so hard that the actress thought she broke her nose! When Lucille asked her afterward if she liked working in show business, she replied, “I’ve never been so bored in my life.”
Can You Say Vitameatavegamin?
“With Vitameatavegamin, you can spoon your way to health.” You might remember that from the famous episode “Lucy Does a TV Commercial”, was quite a mouthful for star Lucille Ball, who had a hell of a time with her lines. She was so nervous about messing up, particularly with the word Vitameatavegamin, that she just couldn’t appreciate the humor in the episode and was really stressed about it before and during filming.
America was Obsessed with the Show
If you were alive during the 1950’s, chances are, every Monday night at 9:00pm (ET), you sat down to watch a new episode of I Love Lucy. People loved the show so much that the country basically stopped everything for 30 mins each Monday! Phone use and toilet flushes would reduce drastically, and department stores would even close early. Back before there were reruns, if you missed an episode, that was it.
Several Follow Up Series Also Found Some Success
After I Love Lucy, Ball went on to star in two spin-off series also on CBS, The Lucy Show from 1962-1968, and Here’s Lucy from 1968-1974. Ball then went on to try to do a fourth sitcom on CBS’s competitor, ABC, in 1986 called Life with Lucy, but was canceled after eight episodes due to low ratings. Unlike I Love Lucy, her final attempt at a sitcom was both a ratings and critical disaster. TV Guide ranked it 26th in the worst TV series of all time.