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Remembering "I Love Lucy"

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I Love Lucy Special

Vivian Vance, left, is Ethel Mertz, and Lucille Ball is the irrepressible Lucy Ricardo in the "I Love Lucy Christmas Special," November, 1956. 

In 1948, the red-headed movie comedienne Lucille Ball was heard by radio listeners over the CBS airwaves in the comedy program, “My Favorite Husband.”She played scatter-brained housewife Liz Cooper, who was married to a banker named George (Richard Denning). They lived at 321 Bundy Drive in the fictitious town of Sheridan Falls. At the beginning of each program, the radio announcer said, “Two people who live together and like it.”

By 1950, Lucille Ball was approached by the CBS Network executives and the Jell-O sponsor to do a television version of the radio series. Lucy refused to do the project without real-life bandleader husband Desi Arnaz.

The network executives were reluctant to put the Cuban in the television role as Lucy’s husband. They felt American TV audiences wouldn’t accept a mixed racial marriage, and wanted Richard Denning to continue playing the role of Lucy’s husband from the radio series.

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Lucille Ball

This undated image shows comedian-actress Lucille Ball and her husband, musician-actor Desi Arnaz from the comedy series, "I Love Lucy." Ball, who died on April 26, 1989, would have celebrated her 100th birthday on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2011. 

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz took their husband-and-wife act to a Vaudeville theater in Chicago to convince the CBS network that people would accept them as a typical American married couple. They did a rumba number called “Cuban Pete,” where Lucy came out singing, “They call me Sally Sweet. I’m the Queen of Delancey Street. When I start to dance, everything goes. Chick, chicky boom.”

Audiences loved them. However, the Jell-O sponsor backed out from the TV project.

From “My Favorite Husband,” Madelyn Pugh, Bob Carroll, Jr., and Jess Oppenheimer joined the writing staff for the television project. They went to work on writing the pilot episode for “I Love Lucy.”

The roles of Fred and Ethel Mertz weren’t cast yet for the TV pilot. Lucy wanted Gale Gordon and Bea Benaderet, who played the Atterburys in “My Favorite Husband’ for the television roles. However, Bea Benaderet was already a regular on the George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, while Gale Gordon was busy with his radio role on “Our Miss Brooks.”

The pilot episode was filmed at Sunset and Gower headquarter at Studio A in Hollywood. Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball put up $5,000 of their own money for the pilot.

Then, it was sent back to the CBS in New York. The show was picked up quickly by the CBS network and sponsored by Philip Morris for the 1951-1952 season for 39 episodes. Its TV spot would be on Monday at 9 p.m.

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Primetime Emmy Awards - Historic Archive

(Left to right) Television host Ed Sullivan, and actors Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball accept the award for Best Comedy Show, “I Love Lucy,” during the 1953 Emmy Awards at the Hollywood Palladium on Feb. 11, 1954 in Hollywood.

One month later, Desi Arnaz received a telephone call from The Biow Company, the ad agency that represented the Philip Morris cigarettes. Milton Biow wanted to know when the Arnazes were coming out to New York to film the TV show. Desi wasn’t planning to move to the East Coast and Lucy was also pregnant with their first child, Lucie. He informed Mr. Biow of that they weren’t moving.

Then, the caller also informed Desi that the company wanted the TV series performed before a live New York City audience. He didn’t want it filmed on a Kinescope recording and sent back to the East Coast. (Kinescope was the process of recording a television broadcast onto a film reel by pointing a camera at a video monitor as it played the footage. The result was a poor-quality, grainy recording of film footage. Videotape wasn’t invented yet.)

After the telephone call, Desi worried about the losing the sponsor. Then, he came up with the idea of using three or four 35mm motion picture cameras to film “I Love Lucy” episodes. CBS agreed with the new filming format.

Together, the rumba band leader and red-hair movie comedienne formed Desilu Productions and changed the way TV was made – literally. Using three motion picture cameras technique to film a television sitcom is still being done in Hollywood today.

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Lucille Ball, Vivian Vance, Desi Arnaz, William Frawley

The Ricardos and the Mertzes (from left: Vivian Vance, Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz and William Frawley) gather for the holidays for some happy memories in the "I Love Lucy Christmas Special," in November, 1956.  

Desilu Productions bought the abandoned General Service Studio and made all the necessary preparations to begin filming on the “I Love Lucy” set in front of a live audience on Stage 2. Incidentally, four-year-old Shirley Temple made her first 10-minute 1932 short film on the same set.

Most TV story line plots for the Ricardos came from the radio program’s scripts. For example, “Time Schedule” first aired on April 22, 1949 from “My Favorite Husband” then rewritten for May 26, 1952 episode of “I Love Lucy” entitled, “Lucy’s Schedule.” Gale Gordon appeared in the radio and television version, playing the banker boss to George Cooper’s character than returning as Ricky Ricardo’s nightclub owner boss.

Carl G. White lives in Napa.

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