When CBS first approached Lucille Ball with an offer to turn her popular radio show, My Favorite Husband, into a television show, she agreed, BUT only on one condition: her real-life husband, Desi Arnaz, had to be cast as her onscreen husband. Lucille was convinced they would make the best comedy team, with their natural chemistry and comedic timing.
Despite Desi and Lucille’s offscreen charisma, producers were hesitant to cast Desi Arnaz as the onscreen husband. The network was concerned that viewers wouldn’t find the ‘mixed’ marriage believable and the actor’s thick, ‘indecipherable’ Cuban accent may have been a problem. The network relented, and the actors became America’s first onscreen interracial couple.
On Set Feud
Vivian Vance and William Frawley played Ethel and Fred Mertz, the best friends and landlords of Lucy and Ricky. Despite their onscreen connection, the two actors actually could not stand each other. Frawley was 22 years older than Vance, the actress despised the age gap saying that no one would believe she was married to such an “old poop.” Frawley responded in kind, often referring to his TV wife as “that old sack of doorknobs.”
A Short Order
In most of his official biographies, Arnaz listed his height as 5’11 but in reality, the actor and musician was 5’9. Desi, with his strong Latin American pride, demanded that he should appear taller than his wife, and so, the actor wore lifts in his shoes. His place on the family love seat was also elevated with a plump cushion so that Desi would even appear taller than Lucy, while seated. Talk about getting too big for your boots.
Each taping of the show was actually performed in front of a live audience of 300 people. Because of the audience, directors were often hesitant to call cut and reshoot scenes, fearing the audience reaction wouldn’t be quite so enthusiastic. The result meant that many of the episodes included bloopers that all added to the hilarity of the iconic show.
Lucille was in fact naturally a brunette! It was the actress’s hairdresser, Irma Kusely, who transformed Ball’s hair to become the characters iconic ‘golden apricot’ color. Kusely reportedly created a special mixture of hair dye and henna in order to achieve the look. The henna was brought to the hairdresser by her friend, a wealthy sheik, and was locked in a safe when it was not being used.
I Love Lucy was groundbreaking, as it was the very first show to use a multi-camera format. The sitcom used three different cameras to capture every comedic moment, allowing the use of three different angles.
Bun In The Oven
During season 2, Ball discovered she was pregnant. While people were happy offscreen, the news inspired panic on set. A visibly pregnant woman had never been showed on television before. Eventually, CBS permitted the pregnancy to be written into the show. Since the subject of pregnancy was considered taboo and ‘vulgar,’ a priest, a rabbi and a minister were brought in to ensure that no one would be offended by the show’s content. The word ‘pregnant’ was never actually said on air, but was instead replaced by the euphemistic phrase, ‘expecting.’
It may have been a concern for the network, but Lucy’s pregnancy was an undeniably relatable and loved plot point for viewers. 44 Million devoted fans tuned in to see the birth of Ricky and Lucy’s child. This accounted for 72% of all U.S. homes with TVs at the time.
There are few people who do not remember the iconic grape-stomping scene. This act was actually quite traumatic for the actress. The woman who appeared in the scene with Lucy did not speak English. She misunderstood the direction for their fight scene and actually held Ball’s head under the grape mush for such a prolonged period of time that the star almost drowned.
Arnaz was an especially gifted actor. The ever-talented comedian actually had a photographic memory. He was able to memorize his lines after just one read-through. The impressive gift meant that the actor never missed a single line.
I Love Lucy first aired in 1951. The talented and beautiful Lucille was 41 years old when the show first came on to the air. After a relatively quiet career on Broadway and a few minor film roles, the actress only landed her big break with the sitcom much later in life – a rarity in the world of Hollywood.
Whenever one of the actors would inspire spontaneous applause by the audience, the actor would be awarded one silver dollar. Each actor kept track of the silver dollars he or she earned on a chart in the studio. What a great tradition. We wonder who got the most laughs? Who do you think it was?
By the show’s third season, the show’s popularity had reached incredible heights. In fact, an airing of the sitcom had a ratings war with a particularly unlikely candidate: the president’s televised inauguration. Following Ike Eisenhower’s 1953 swearing-in ceremony, it was reported that 67.7 percent of American TVs tuned in to watch the historic moment. The previous night’s I Love Lucy episode, was watched by 71 percent of the TV-owning public.
Where There’s Smoke
Back in those days, it was common for big brand tobacco companies to pair up with family-friendly television shows. I Love Lucy‘s largest sponsor was Philip Morris cigarettes, the brand is often mentioned when the characters light up onscreen. That wouldn’t happen now.
In 1953, the national TV Guide’s first issue was released. The magazine, that would go on to become a pop culture staple, featured Lucille and Desi’s baby boy, with a small inset of the actress. Ball would grace the cover more than any other figure to date. She was featured on a total of 39 covers.
In many episodes, a distinct ‘uh-oh’ can be heard from the audience as Lucy’s antics get more ridiculous. Few know that this exclamation was the work of Lucille’s mother. Dede Ball sat in on every taping of the show and always piped up when hilarity followed.
Their relationship may have evolved into a close friendship, but Ball and Vivian Vance didn’t always get on like a house on fire. Lucille reportedly hated the idea of starring alongside someone attractive. She continually demanded that the actress behind Ethel Mertz receive less flattering make-up and costume choices. Vance was also required to gain weight for the role. After three years on air, the pair ended their feud and became very best friends.
Best in Show
In 2012, ABC News and People Magazine conducted a survey of TV viewers to find out the best show of all time. I Love Lucy was crowned the winner. All these years later, the comedy still touches the hearts of so many. During its run, the show won 5 Primetime Emmy Awards and was the country’s most-watched show for four out of its six seasons.
Lucy and Ricky may have been America’s favorite happily married couple but the actors’ real-life marriage was far from perfect. Desi reportedly had a wandering eye. The couple’s daughter, Lucie Arnaz, said “My father was Latin and had a lot of ladies on the side. They can be so charming these Latin men. Dad would come home and say, ‘Lucy, what’s the problem? They mean nothing. You know I love you the best.’”
Desi and Lucille first met on the set of the Broadway hit Too Many Girls. The actors were immediately in love and would go to elope later that year. After 20 years together, Ball would file for divorce in 1960, calling the marriage “a nightmare.” In spite of what seemed to be a dramatic break-up, the couple remained friends.
William Frawley was a devoted baseball fan, so much so, that the actor’s contract included a clause that allowed Frawley to attend any World Series games played by his favorite team, the New York Yankees. The didn’t appear in two episodes because he was rooting for his team at the ballpark.
Following their divorce, Ball made some disturbing claims about her ex-husband’s nasty temper. Ball shared, “It was like living on top of a volcano; you never knew when it would erupt or why. I was able to accept the situation for many years because it was our secret.”
After Lucille gave birth to their first child, Arnaz wanted his wife to have some much-deserved time off. The actor convinced the network to air previous episodes of the show while Lucy was taking maternity leave. CBS relented, and so, the television rerun was born.
Desi and Lucy founded a small production company in 1950. Desilu Productions took on the production of I Love Lucy and steadily grew from there. By the time Arnaz and Ball divorced in 1960, the company was a multi-million dollar media empire. After the split, Ball bought out her ex-husband becoming the sole owner, this made her the very first woman to head a major studio and one of the most powerful women in Hollywood at the time.
Arnaz’s character Ricky Ricardo almost went by a different name. Lucy’s husband was initially supposed to be called ‘Larry Lopez,’ but apparently, the producer’s felt that the alliteration of ‘Larry and Lucy’ wasn’t quite right. We agree.
William Frawley may have been the perfect actor for the role of Fred, but producers were actually originally hesitant to hire the actor. Frawley had a poor reputation for his drinking and history of instability. Arnaz eventually convinced the show’s producers to consider the actor who went on to win the iconic role.
An Iconic Legacy
Due to syndication, I Love Lucy is still a watched and beloved television classic. According to the Los Angeles Times, the show is watched by 40 million Americans each year, and continues to make the CBS network $20 million annually.
According to Ball, there was never any ad-libbing by the ensemble cast. Every word featured in the show was scripted. Especially since the show was shot in front of a live audience, the producers were sure to leave little to chance. They were not even allowed to ad lib just a tiny bit. Producers would get very angry.
In one of the most memorable scenes in the series, Lucy does the tango with Ricky with a dozen eggs down the front of her dress. The audience’s response was so enthusiastic, it had to be edited out of the final cut. The crowd laughed for 65 seconds before quietening down.