Saturday, August 6, 2011

Everybody Loves Lucy: Lucille Ball's 100th Birthday

Many, many years ago my brother traced the genealogy of my mother's family, the Towles. Among the discoveries he made was that the Towles were descended from English royalty. Our line could be traced back through the Plantagenets, through William the Bastard, all the way back to King Penda of Mercia. King Edward I was one of our direct ancestors. He also discovered that some of the Founding Fathers of the United States were related to us, including George Washington and James Madison. While my brother did most of the work, it was I who discovered we were related to yet another famous person. Lucille Ball was our 10th cousin one time removed.

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).

Lucy would become well known as a motion picture star. In fact, in the Forties she was famous enough to be featured in adverts for Royal Crown Cola, Max Factor, Hoover Vacuum Cleaners, and Chesterfield cigarettes (which she continued to smoke even after the début of I Love Lucy, on which rival Philip Morris was a sponsor). That having been said, while she was a household name in the Forties, she would never become one of the major movie stars of the decade. The major motion pictures in which she was the lead were few and far between.  The Big Street (1942) and Du Barry Was a Lady (1943) were two of the very few major feature films in which she appeared prior to her success in I Love Lucy. For the most part Lucy's career in movies prior to her television career was spent in B-movies, so much so that she was sometimes called "Queen of the B movies."

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.

Indeed, it would be My Favourite Husband which would lead directly to I Love Lucy and Lucy's subsequent success in television. My Favourite Husband proved to be a huge hit for CBS, not to mention the most successful project in which Lucy had performed up to that time.  Quite naturally, the network wanted to bring the hit show to television. As to Lucy, she had one demand with regards to bringing the show to television: she wanted her husband Desi Arnaz as her co-star. CBS rejected this idea on the basis that they did not think the average person would believe an American redhead would be married to a Cuban, even though it was well known that Lucy and Desi were married in real life. Undeterred, Lucy set out to prove CBS wrong. In the spring of 1950 she and Desi formed Desilu Produtions. They then went on the vaudeville circuit in which Lucy played a madcap wife always trying to get into Desi's act. Lucy and Desi's vaudeville tour proved so successful that NBC expressed interest in the two starring in a show on that network. Fearful of losing Lucy to another network, CBS finally gave the go ahead for what would become I Love Lucy.

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.

Here it must be pointed out that I Love Lucy was not merely one of the biggest hits in television of all time, but it was also positively revolutionary. I Love Lucy was the first American television show (and for a long time the only American television show) to feature a multi-ethnic marriage. After all, Ricky (played by Desi Arnaz) was Cuban in descent while Lucy (played by Lucille Ball) was Scottish in descent. It was also one of the first shows to ever portray a pregnancy, this at a time when the word pregnant could not even be said on the air. Contrary to popular belief, I Love Lucy was not the first sitcom to utilise a multi-camera set up. Other shows (including another CBS sitcom, Amos 'n' Andy) had already used a multi-camera set up. That having been said, I Love Lucy was the first to use 35 mm film--previous shows with multi-camera set ups having only used 16 mm film.

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.

When considering Lucy's career in both television and film, one cannot overlook her role as one of the founders and owners of Desliu Productions. In fact, Lucy was the first woman to ever own a studio in the history of both film and television. The company was originally founded to produce Lucy and Desi's vaudeville act and I Love Lucy, but it soon went beyond that. By 1952 it also produced the classic sitcom Our Miss Brooks and in 1954 the classic sitcom December Bride. Desilu would go onto produce the hit series The Untouchables. Desilu also rented space to other production companies, so that classic shows ranging from The Andy Griffith Show to Batman were at least partially shot there. In 1962 Lucille Ball bought out Desi Arnaz's shares in the company and became full owner. Both with and without Desi, Lucy proved to be a shrewd studio owner with an eye for what could be successful. In addition to the above cited shows, it must be pointed out that such classic series as Star Trek Mission: Impossible, and Mannix were all produced by Desilu. Desilu also produced motion pictures, including Forever Darling (1956) and Yours, Mine, and Ours (1968). In February 1967 Lucy made a deal with Gulf+Western to buy Desilu. Around December of the year Gulf+Western merged Desilu with Paramount Pictures (which they had also bought), and Desilu was renamed Paramount Television.

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.

Although Lucy had spent her early career in film primarily as a star of B-movies, she became one of the most important entertainers of the 20th Century. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find a woman who played a greater role in the history of television than Lucille Ball. She not only starred in the first sitcom to become a major hit, but also the first sitcom to feature a multi-ethnic household. She was the first woman to own and run a television and film studio. Her studio, Desilu, not only produced I Love Lucy and The Lucy Show, but other classic shows such as Our Miss Brooks, The Untouchables, Star Trek, and Mission: Impossible. The last two shows would become major franchises for Paramount Pictures. As an actress, comedienne, producer, and studio owner, Lucy had an impact that very few people have had in the history of American entertainment. She may never have become a major movie star along the lines of Rita Hayworth or Marilyn Monroe, but in many respects her impact may have been much more far reaching.

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. Jack Warner 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


Seleus said...

Such an excellent tribute and post!!!

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

I'm going to turn you loose with some candy on a conveyor belt and see how you fare...

Terence Towles Canote said...

Thanks, Lotus Flower. And, Ivan, I imagine I'd fare about as well as Lucy and Ethel, only it wouldn't be nearly as funny!

Brandie said...

I still think it's awesomely amazing that you're related to Lucy (and yes, I'm still jealous of that fact!). This was a fantastic biography and tribute to her. I particularly love all of the pioneering "firsts" that you pointed out about I Love Lucy--it's easy for folks to forget just how groundbreaking that show really was, and how its influence resonates in television even today.

Thank you so much for participating in the blogathon! I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post.

Terence Towles Canote said...

Thanks for the kind comments, Brandie! I think today we do tend to take Lucy for granted. We realise how great she was as a performer, but we don't often stop to consider how she revolutionised television...and on more than one occasion!