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Friday, July 22, 2011

TGIF: I Love Lucy

I'd like everyone to pause for a moment to remember a television institution that seems to be on life-support in the year 2011.

The television sitcom.

Certainly, there are some sitcoms that are doing well on the television landscape currently.  How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory, Modern Family, and Two And A Half Men seem to be trucking along just fine (although that last one will be interesting with Ashton Kutcher replacing Charlie Sheen).

However, for every current sitcom that is on the air, there is about a hundred reality shows being crammed down our throats.  I'm not the type of person to completely dismiss all reality television, as I'm the first one to admit that I watch Big Brother on a regular basis, and I'll readily admit to rolling my eyes in amusement at Rachel hiding in a bush after Jeff and Jordan yelled at her...

...alas, I'm going on one of my world famous tangents that I'm known for.

The point is that I'm not completely against the latest television trend of reality television, as there are some shows that I find interesting, entertaining, and in some rare cases, educational.  (I know, hard to believe, huh?)

I should also note that I do not include shows such as Jersey Shore, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Paris Hilton's My New BFF, and any show that features Flavor Flav, real housewives of wherever, or New York (the person, not the state).

That said, the recent obsession for reality television shouldn't put sitcoms and other scripted shows on the backburner.  The actors on those shows are fantastic to watch, and plus, many writers would be out of work if television became all reality, all the time.  As a self-confessed Big Brother addict, not even I would want to see that happen.

That's why for this blog entry, I would celebrate the life of the traditional sitcom by featuring one that is widely declared as one of the best television sitcoms ever made.  A sitcom that blended warmth with slapstick comedy, and whose star was just as remembered for her comedic timing as she was her red hair. 

A sitcom that celebrates its 60th anniversary this year.

I Love Lucy starred Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, who were husband and wife in the show, as well as off-screen.  The show debuted on CBS on October 15, 1951 and ran until May 6, 1957, followed by several one hour episodes that ran under different titles until 1960.  During its run, it ranked at the top of the Neilsen ratings for four of those six seasons.  In fact, when the show ended in 1957, it was still at the top of the pack.  The only other shows to end their run with the same success were The Andy Griffith Show and Seinfeld.  It won five Emmy awards, and was constantly ranked one of the all-time best television programs by several media and entertainment magazines.

Part of that success lies in the show's namesake.  With her quick wit and her penchant for physical comedy, Lucille Ball really was the belle of the ball in every episode that she appeared in.  Desi Arnaz was equally charming as Ricky Ricardo, who had established himself as a successful entertainer.  To round out the cast, you had William Frawley and Vivian Vance as Fred and Ethel Mertz, who also had a background in show business, and who often jokingly made fun of each other.  Lucy and Ethel would become best friends, and the two of them would often get into a lot of mishaps together.  Lucy always wanted a career in stardom, and wanted desperately to have the same success in entertainment as Ricky, Fred, and Ethel had.  Any attempt she did make turned out to be a complete disaster, which set the tone for quite a few episodes of the serial.

The show was one that I loved as a kid.  Obviously, I was not born when the show originally aired on television.  However, years ago a television network based out of Kingston, Ontario called CKWS used to air the reruns of the show.  If I remember correctly, it always aired when I went home for lunch, and I would usually watch the show then.  Sixty years later, the show is still syndicated in dozens of countries, and is still beloved by fans both new and old.

The show was an entertaining one to watch on television, but there were plenty of other things that happened behind the scenes that were just as amusing, thought-provoking, and even shocking. 

You know where this is going right?  If you guessed that I was going to turn this blog entry into a list of bulleted points that has trivia about the show, you would be right.  I did it on July 2, I did it on July 12, and now I'm doing it for July 22.

Hey, I have to have some pattern here, right?

So, are you ready for some trivia and facts about the show and its stars that you may or may not know?  I bet you are!

1.  We'll start off this list of trivia on a sad note.  None of the four original stars of 'I Love Lucy' are still alive.  Willam Frawley died in 1966.  Vivian Vance passed away in 1979.  Desi Arnaz lost his battle with cancer in 1986, and Lucille Ball, the last of the four died in April 1989.

2.  Originally, Vivian Vance was not the first choice to play the role of Ethel Mertz.  Other actresses considered for the role were Bea Benaderet and Barbara Pepper.

3.  Ironically enough, when Vivian Vance's name came up as a possible Ethel Mertz, Lucille Ball herself was a little wary of Vance in the role.  The initial description of Ethel Mertz was that of an older, homely woman, and Vance had a more glamourous appearance than what the writers planned.  Vance insisted that with make-up and practice, she could achieve the vision that everyone wanted of Ethel Mertz, and after a few rehearsals, Lucille Ball got used to the idea.  The two women would form a strong working relationship, and became very good friends.  It also helped that they had such strong chemistry on screen for moments such as this one.

4.  While Vivian Vance got along well with Lucy and Desi, it wasn't quite the same cordial relationship between her and her on-screen husband, William Frawley.  They worked well enough on camera for viewers to take to the couple, and never showed signs of a fractured relationship on screen.  Off screen though, they greatly disliked each other.  Reportedly, the feud stemmed from Vance being unhappy about having a man who was much older than her as her on-screen husband (at the time the series debuted, Vance was 42 and Frawley was 64).  Frawley overheard Vance complaining about him repeatedly, and was greatly offended.  The relationship was frosty ever since.

5.  The relationship was so strained between Vance and Frawley that it effectively nixed a proposed spin-off to 'I Love Lucy'.  In 1960, Lucille and Desi proposed a 'Fred and Ethel' series to the two actors.  Despite his feelings for Vance, Frawley was more than willing to go ahead with the spinoff idea, but Vance flat out refused for the reason that she never wanted to work with Frawley again.  After that, neither one of them had anything to do with each other.

6.  Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz both were excited at the prospect of William Frawley taking on the role of Fred Mertz, as he had already established himself as a Hollywood actor.  Others weren't quite so enthusiastic.  Executives from CBS had heard of Frawley's notorious instability and his excessive alcohol drinking (one of the main reasons why Barbara Pepper did not get the role as Ethel Mertz).  Desi assured the executives that Frawley would not be a problem, and he informed him that if he ever showed up to work drunk, or missed work because of alcohol, his character would be written out of the show.  To Frawley's credit, he always showed professionalism at work, and his drinking was never a problem on set.  As a result of this, Desi Arnaz became one of Frawley's few close friends.

7.  William Frawley's contract had an unusual clause within it.  Because he was a huge fan of the New York Yankees, he had it stated in his contract that if the Yankees made it to the World Series, he would have the time off from work until the World Series was over.  As it happened, during the run of 'I Love Lucy', the only year that the Yankees didn't make it in was 1954.  As a result of this contract, Frawley missed two episodes.

8.  Everyone knows of the classic 'I Love Lucy' opening, which I posted near the beginning of this blog entry.  But, did you know that it wasn't the original opening?  The opening which most of us are familiar with were created specifically for the syndicated showings and reruns.  The original openings showed an animated Lucy and Ricky Ricardo advertising the sponsors who helped fund the program.  The original sponsor was Philip Morris, which was a company that made cigarettes (could you imagine a cigarette company sponsoring a television program these days?)

Just to show you how different (and disturbing) these openings were, I happened to find one from 1953.'d never see openings like this on current television shows.  Well, unless the ads encouraged one to QUIT smoking, at least.

9.  The Ricardos lived in New York City, and their address was 623 East 68th Street.

10.  Desilu Productions was founded by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball in 1950.  The initial reason behind the creation of the company was to produce a vaudeville act starring the couple.  There was however another motive behind the creation of Desilu.  Upon hearing that CBS executives wanted to create a television version of the popular radio show 'My Favorite Husband', Desi wanted to show them through their act that the public could accept a marriage between a Cuban and a Scotch-Irish American.  That television project evolved into 'I Love Lucy', and following a cut in salary, Desi and Lucy retained full ownership and creative control.

11.  When the original pilot for 'I Love Lucy' was filmed, Lucille Ball was already pregnant with hers and Desi's first child, Lucie.  Although she was showing, the show never made any references to her pregnancy at the time.  CBS felt that talking about pregnancy on the show was in bad taste, and ad agencies even told Desi that showing a pregnant woman on screen was not a good idea.  Ah, the fifties.  Lucie Arnaz was born on July 17, 1951.

12.  During the filming of season two, Lucille Ball became pregnant again, and the decision was made to write the pregnancy into the show.  CBS did not want any of the actors saying the word 'pregnant' on the show, so instead, Lucy was 'expecting'.  Even the episode title was written in such a way that the word pregnant wasn't technically used.  The episode title was 'Lucy Is Enceinte', which is the French word for pregnant.  The moment where Lucy tells Desi the exciting news can be found below.

13.  The birth of Little Ricky was featured in the episode 'Lucy Goes To The Hospital'.  It was the very first instance of a birth being broadcast on television.

14.  The episode in which Lucy gives birth first aired on January 19, 1953, which happened to be the exact date that Lucille Ball gave birth to Desi Arnaz, Jr.  Which coincidentally makes Lucy's pregnancy either one of the shortest ever, or Lucy never showed signs of being pregnant until very late into the pregnancy, as she told Ricky she was pregnant on December 8, 1952!

15.  A reported 44 million people watched the episode where Lucy gave birth to Little Ricky...more than the inauguration of President Eisenhower, and more than the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

16.  Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz Jr. appeared on the very first issue of TV Guide magazine in 1953.

17.  During the 1950's, several Hollywood stars found themselves blacklisted for having affiliations with the Communist party, and Lucille Ball was one of the actresses that was accused of having ties to communism.  During a warm-up of an episode of 'I Love Lucy', Desi Arnaz filled the audience of the show in about tales regarding Lucy and her grandfather (who some would say inspired Lucille Ball to go into acting), and defended his wife against the rumours surrounding her communist ties.  He told the audience at the time that "the only thing red about Lucy is her hair, and even that's not legitimate."  When Lucy came out to join Desi on stage, she was given a standing ovation.

18.  Although the show 'I Love Lucy' ended in 1957, the show was re-tooled slightly and shown as thirteen one-hour episodes for the next three years under the titles of The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show and The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour.  The series officially ended in 1960, which was the same year that Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz divorced.

19.  There were 194 episodes produced in the whole run.  This one just happens to be my favourite one.

20.  Did you know that the iconic theme song for 'I Love Lucy' had lyrics to it?  You never did hear them until the episode entitled 'Lucy's Last Birthday'.

So there you have it.  Twenty facts about 'I Love Lucy' ranging from light fluff to absolute shock and awe.  I hope it was an interesting read for all of you out there.

You know, it's been well over two decades since we lost Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, but I'd like to think that they live on in some form.  The show is well-loved by many, and more often than not, you can see lots of other shows and movies spoofing moments from the series. 

'I Love Lucy' is widely considered to be one of the best television sitcoms ever made.  Because it WAS.  Can a sitcom attract the same love and warmth and charisma 'I Love Lucy' achieved?  Some have.  Some haven't.  Whatever the case, 'I Love Lucy' should serve as a template for how successful sitcom writing and producing should be.  It shouldn't be about how much a person makes per episode, or how much to spend on production costs, or throwing gasoline on the flames of celebrity feuds.  If anything, the reason why 'I Love Lucy' worked so well is because the actors never had any egos (or if they did, they kept them in check while performing), and because Lucy and Desi cared so much about every detail of the show, and guided it through many years of stories and laughs.

If more people cared about their own shows the same way the 'I Love Lucy' cast and crew cared about theirs, maybe shows like Jersey Shore wouldn't be on the air right now.

Of course, that's only the opinion of this blogger.  What do you think?  I'm interested in your thoughts.

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