Saturday, 6 August 2011
Everybody Loves Lucy: Lucille Ball's 100th Birthday
My brother was a bit amused, but hardly surprised, that I was as delighted at being a distant cousin to Lucille Ball as I was to be descended from King Edward I of England and related to George Washington. As I explained it to him then, being descended from royalty is hardly rare (in fact, if you are English, it is downright common), but being related to a legend in television and comedy is most unusual. Quite simply, everybody loves Lucy and we were actually her cousins!
It was 100 years ago today that my cousin, Lucille Desiree Ball, was born in Jamestown, New York. Her career in show business began when her stepfather encouraged then twelve year old Lucy to audition for a show the Shriners were holding. Lucy enjoyed the attention she got on stage and so she decided to go into show business. Little did anyone know at the time that Lucy would become one of the most legendary and celebrated entertainers of all time.
Indeed, Lucille Ball would be a legend if the only thing she had ever done was I Love Lucy. As it is she had an extraordinarily long career and did many other things. Although it is rarely acknowledged by anyone but film buffs today, Lucy was a movie star before she appeared on her legendary TV show. In fact, she made her movie début all the way back in 1933 in an uncredited role in the Wallace Beery movie The Bowery. It was in 1933 that she was selected as one of the earliest Goldwyn Girls, the company of female dancers used by Samuel Goldwyn in his films. Lucy first appeared as a Goldwyn Girl in 1933's Roman Scandals. By 1937 Lucy's movie career was on the upswing. She played a major role in the 1937 film Stage Door. She would go onto a major role in The Marx Brothers' film Room Service (1938).
Like many stars of B-movies in the Forties, Lucille Ball would also work in radio. In 1938 she became a regular on The Wonder Show, a weekly show sponsored by Wonder Bread and starring Jack Haley (who would appear as the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz the following year). The show's announcer was Gale Gordon, with whom Lucy would become friends and with whom she would work from time to time for the next fifty years. Over the years Lucy would guest star on several radio shows, including Screen Guild Theatre, Bachelor Mother, The Bing Crosby Show, and several others. It was in 1948 that CBS approached Lucy about starring in a radio series based on the novel Mr. and Mrs. Cugat. Lucy accepted and was cast opposite Richard Denning in the new radio show, My Favourite Husband. Lucy played Liz Cugat, an oddball housewife who was always getting into trouble with her wild schemes. Richard Denning played George Cugat, her husband who worked at a bank where Gale Gordon played the president (he would play a bank president again on The Lucy Show). The show was written by Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll Jr. It was produced and directed by Jess Oppenheimer. Miss Pugh and Messrs. Carroll and Oppenheimer would all work on I Love Lucy. In fact, My Favourite Husband can be considered a forerunner of what may be the most famous television sitcom of all time.
Of course, it is well known today that I Love Lucy became an enormous success, the most successful sitcom of the Fifties and one of the biggest hits in television history. In fact, the episode on which Lucy and Ricky Ricardo's son Little Ricky was born (it aired on 19 January 1953) drew more viewers than did Dwight D. Eisenhower's presidential inauguration the next day. The success of I Love Lucy would not end with its initial run. Except perhaps for Gilligan's Island, I Love Lucy has been repeated more than any other sitcom in the history of television. It is still one of the few older television programmes that airs on multiple cable channels.
Of course, I Love Lucy would not be the last success Lucy would have on television. Following the end of the show Lucy and Desi would film thirteen 60 minute specials (now known as The Lucy-Desi Hour) featuring the characters from I Love Lucy. Lucy would go onto further success with The Lucy Show (which first went on the air in 1962) and Here's Lucy (which went on the air in 1968). Both shows featured Lucy's close friend, Gale Gordon, as her long suffering boss. Following the end of Here's Lucy, Lucy would produce and star in specials for a CBS. In 1980 Lucy severed her relationship with CBS after nearly thirty years with them and went to rival NBC. Unfortunately her stint with NBC would only produce one special and guest appearances on Bob Hope specials. In 1985 she appeared in the television movie Stone Pillow, playing a dramatic role for a change. In 1986 Lucille Ball returned to series television with a new sitcom, Life with Lucy, airing on ABC. Like The Lucy Show and Here's Lucy, this series also co-starred Gale Gordon. Unfortunately Life with Lucy would prove to be Lucy's first and only failure on television. Although thirteen episodes had been filmed, only eight aired before ABC cancelled the series. It would be her last work.
Lucy's success on television would have the affect of revitalising her film career. In 1953 Lucy and Desi starred in The Long, Long Trailer. This would be followed by the film Forever Darling in 1956, in which the two of them also starred. Over the years Lucy would appear in such films as The Facts of Life (1960), The Good Years (1962), Critics Choice (1963), the highly successful Yours, Mine, and Ours, and Mame (1974).
It was on 26 April 1989 that Lucille Bal died at the age of 77. The cause was a dissecting aortic aneurysm. She had made her last public appearance only around a month before her death at the 61st Academy Awards ceremony as a presenter alongside her former co-star and friend Bob Hope.
Lucy was known for being dictatorial on the sets on which she worked. She could be very harsh with her co-stars. Quite simply, she expected everyone to do their best. That having been said, she was more often kind and thoughtful of others. Director Herb Kenwith once had to return home from Hollywood to New York due to an emergency. Lucy asked him if he had the money do so. When he said that he did not, the actress and producer wrote him a cheque for $10,000. Naturally Mr. Chenwith gave the cheque back to Lucy, feeling he could not possibly accept so generous an amount. In Inside Star Trek Herb Solow and Robert Justman told how debris on a set was holding up the shooting of an episode. Lucille Ball herself, the head of Desilu, went to the set, picked up a broom, and began sweeping so that the crew could shoot scenes on schedule. Louis B. Mayer probably never did that!
For myself, like many others, I have always loved Lucy. Even if I did not know of her achievements as a producer and studio owner, I would still admire her as one of the greatest comedic actresses of all time. There has never been a time in my life when I did not know who Lucille Ball was. Indeed, like most Americans I have always treated her as if I knew her, simply calling her by the diminutive of her first name, "Lucy." Many women have been called "America's Sweetheart" over the years, but for Lucy I think it holds true. It is for that reason that I am still so happy to be related to her, no matter how distant. After all, many people are related to kings and queens and American founding fathers. Not near as many are related to the one, the only, Lucille Ball.
-Terence Towles Canote