Fifty years ago the redhead changed the TV biz forever
“In the beginning, God created ‘Lucy.’ Everything else came from that.”
This bit of hyperbole from author and TV historian Bart Andrews is not far from the truth. Certainly “I Love Lucy,” the 1951-57 situation comedy starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, set the standard — comedically, stylistically and business-wise — by which every subsequent sitcom has been measured.
Chief among the show’s assets, of course, were the stars themselves. Ball, a rubber-faced showbiz queen, would do anything for a laugh. Desi Arnaz, a one-time bandleader, proved to be a mogul in hiding. The Arnazes initially accepted lower weekly salaries in exchange for ownership of the show — and turned a one-show production company into television’s first studio powerhouse.
“Desi was the business man in the family,” Ball later explained. “All I wanted to do was perform.”
And perform she did. While other actresses were conscious of looking good on camera — Ball would do almost anything for a laugh: dress as a witch, stuff eggs down her blouse, mash grapes in a wine vat, etc.
Such a philosophy totally liberated the show’s writers (originally, Jess Oppenheimer, Bob Carroll Jr. and Madelyn Pugh), allowing them to dream up the most outlandish situations.
“There wasn’t anything Lucy wouldn’t try,” Pugh recalls.
Moreover, Ball brought a sense of physicality to her TV character that completely captivated TV audiences everywhere. No movement was ill-timed or superfluous.
When, for example, the redhead tastes Vitameataveg-amin for the first time, Ball’s panicked eyes, suppressed grimace and tiny shuddering all let viewers know — virtually experiencing it for themselves — just how awful the taste really was.
Ball’s talents combined with the writers’ proclivities for doing everyday stories about everyday people — exaggerated a little out of proportion — created an instantaneous hit, one that continues to entertain audiences today.
“I Love Lucy,” like Milton Berle’s “Texaco Star Theater,” has been credited with driving the sales of television sets during the early 1950s, when the American TV audience consisted of only a few million homes.
It also contributed to the development of TV globally, having been translated into French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic and Japanese for international markets. Now 50 years old, “Lucy” has never been off the air in many countries around the world.
“Lucy” affected the television industry in other ways, too.
Filming with multiple cameras in front of a live studio audience is a “Lucy” innovation. Previously, the only primetime program that used more than one camera was “Truth or Consequences” — because one camera couldn’t capture all the gameshow’s action. “Lucy” used multiple cameras to record simultaneously different aspects of the same scene.
“CBS and our sponsor, Philip Morris cigarettes, expected Lucy and Desi to do the show live out of New York,” recalls the show’s film editor, Dann Cahn, “but the Arnazes wanted to stay in California. Lucy seemed to work best in front of an audience, but the technical facilities were not yet in place for them to do a live show out of Los Angeles. They knew they had to use film.
“Both the network people and the motion-picture people shook their heads and said it couldn’t be done, but Desi wanted to try. … It took a lot of collaboration — particularly with famed cinematographer Karl Freund, who developed our lighting and entire physical look — but somehow it came together beautifully.”
Cahn himself brought to the show many motion-picture conventions, eventually incorporating the use of rear-screen projections, exterior cut-in shots and location shooting. Prior to “Lucy,” no show shot in front of a live audience had dared to incorporate such ideas.
Then there’s that little thing called the rerun. Today, most series do not even show a profit until they go into syndication. In 1951, reruns were verboten on major network programs, especially during the then-hallowed 39-week winter season. (Many series then “went off” for the summer, replaced by other lower-priced “summer replacement shows.”)
“Lucy’s first season’s programs were all originals,” recalls Gregg Oppenheimer, son of “Lucy” producer/head-writer Jess Oppenheimer. “The plan for season two was the same — until Lucy found herself pregnant and doctors ordered her to take three months off. CBS and sponsor Philip Morris agreed to allow the show to air ‘selected’ reruns from the previous season, but even those shows would open with a minute or so of new material added at the top (essentially creating a flashback.)
“When the repeats drew bigger audiences than the original airings, the taboo against reruns evaporated.”
Series that once produced 39 originals cut back to 35, 32 and, ultimately to 26 — filling the 39-week season with reruns. (Currently, most primetime series that begin in the fall air 22 original episodes.)
In 1955, “Lucy” became the first series to have two weekly network airings — originals being broadcast every Monday night, and reruns from earlier seasons every Sunday night.
Even though the last original aired in May 1957, reruns continued on CBS another 10 years — often in both primetime and daytime — after which the shows found new life in syndication. They joined the cable generation in 1994 and will be moving to TV Land on Oct. 15, 50 years to the day that “I Love Lucy” first launched.
“We were lucky,” Ball has said on many occasions. “We started early, before a lot of rules and traditions had been established. Many times when Desi and Jess would come up with a new or different way of doing things, people would say no, only because they had not been done before. … We tried them, they worked and some of them are still working.”
None of that comes as a surprise to people like Michael Rosen, executive producer of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’ Archive of American Television.
” ‘I Love Lucy’ contributed a lot more to television than a weekly half-hour of wonderful entertainment,” Rosen explains. “It helped define the industry, proved that new ideas would work and created a whole new art form that was part theater, part radio, part film, but uniquely television.”
Thomas J. Watson is co-author of “Loving Lucy” and served as Ball’s publicist from 1986-1989.