You don’t have to love Lucy to love the “I Love Lucy: An American Legend” free exhibit, which the Library of Congress opened August 4 for the beloved TV show’s 60th anniversary.
It also celebrates what would have been Lucille Ball’s 100th birthday August 6.
Exhibit visitors laughed, even guffawed, at famed excerpts from its 180 half-hour segments. “These episodes never grow old,” one visitor commented. The exhibit’s snippets include:
- Lucy and Ethel stuffing chocolates into their mouths, bodices, and bonnets as their bon bon assembly line speeds up;
- Lucy stomping grapes, then getting into a grape-throwing, -smashing, -wrestling match with her fellow stomper;
- Going to the hospital to deliver “Little Ricky” Ricardo – an episode watched by 44 million people, a huge percentage of TV set owners in 1953.
When Lucille Ball and husband Desi Arnaz, a.k.a. Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, found out she was pregnant, they assumed their show “would be suspended for a time, or perhaps cancelled entirely,” according to one of the exhibit’s many fascinating insights. But the show’s producer, Jess Oppenheirmer, suggested writing it into the series.
“Only with an agreement that a priest, a minister, and a rabbi would approve each of the baby show scripts did the (CBS and show’s advertising) executives concede,” the exhibit text reveals. “Still, the word ‘pregnant’ was never used in any of the scripts. This new twist only increased the show’s popularity…”
The pregnancy angle became a sure way to further increase popularity of sitcoms ever-after, like “Murphy Brown”, “Friends”, and many others.
That’s just one of many examples of the pioneering show’s industry-wide impact. And the main impact of this exhibit comes from its stars in rarely-seen photographs and clippings from family scrapbooks and other items from the Library’s Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz Collection, and the Jess Oppenheimer Collection.
Photos of Lucy and Cuban-born Desi from the 1940s show just how gorgeous each was, and what a sizzling-hot couple they made. Each is a star named desire – Desiderio Arnaz and Lucille Desirée Ball.
Two of the 1940s photos show them in the pool of their California ranch, called Desilu, the same name they’d later give their spectacularly successful production company. Lucy sits on a diving board and shows her long, tapered legs that helped her early career as a fashion model and chorus girl on Broadway and then Hollywood.
She switched from blonde to redhead, and developed her mugging style of playing to the audience from watching Jack Benny.
Ball became known as “Queen of the B’s”, B-movies or low-budget movies. Her first was “Roman Scandals” in 1933, and in 1940, she co-starred with Desi Arnaz in “Too Many Girls”. They married later that year, and their turbulent marriage was plagued with scandals over his too many girls.
Ball, “believing that working together would provide some stability for their famously tempestuous marriage,” wanted her husband to be her costar in her 1948 radio show, “My Favorite Husband”, according to the exhibit.
That was not to be for the Hispanic-accented Arnaz, but Ball insisted during negotiations for “I Love Lucy”.
Exhibit curator Ray White told me, “CBS executives felt that Arnaz wouldn’t be believable as a WASP woman’s husband…But they created a profession perfectly plausible (leader of a latin band, which Arnaz was). Also, the couple had developed a vaudeville show they toured with in 1951, and it was very successful. That led CBS executives to say okay.”
She won the negotiation, but not the marital stability and fidelity, she’d hoped it would bring.
Ironically, Arnaz sings “There’s nothing like marriage” as he warbles “We’re having a baby, my baby and me” in their then- controversial episode spreading the news. (Yes, it’s in this exhibit, along with a conga drum part for Arnaz’s signature song/bellow “Babalu”.)
Arnaz is an “unsung hero in this operation,” exhibit Curator Ray White told me. “His comic timing, skill as an actor, executive producer, certainly the organizing force behind figuring out how to make all this happen, are often overlooked because Lucille Ball was so obviously the star.”
Among Arnaz’ developments: deciding to film the live show, developing a three-camera technique, and making other key advancements in the nascent TV industry. This enabled the show to become the first series broadcast in reruns, in 1955.
“I Love Lucy” was an immediate success, and ranked number one in four of its six years. It’s been dubbed into 22 languages and seen in 80 countries.
Desilu produced other landmark TV shows including “Star Trek”, “The Andy Griffith Show”, “Mission Impossible”, and “The Dick Van Dyke Show”. But back to Desi and Lucy.
“The ‘I’ in ‘I Love Lucy’ was initially Ricky Ricardo, but somewhere along the line, ‘I’ became the audience; the relationship between America and their Monday night neighbors, the Ricardos and the Mertz’s,” (Ethel, played by Vivian Vance, and Fred, played by William Frawley), curator White added.
Him too? “I’ve always loved Lucy – my mother didn’t; still doesn’t,” White commented.
This exhibition illuminates why love for “Lucy” is so enduring.
In a related tribute, their children Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz, Jr. will appear at the Library’s “BABALU! Celebrating the Library’s Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz Collection” concert October 15, which opens the Library’s 2011-2012 season of 30 free concerts.
“BABALU!” will spotlight orchestrations of the Desi Arnaz Orchestra. So let’s hear it for the unsung hero.
For more info: “I Love Lucy: An American Legend”, Library of Congress, www.loc.gov, Music Division, Performing Arts Reading Room, first floor, James Madison Building, 101 Independence Avenue, SE, Washington, DC. Open now through January 28. 202-707-8000 or [email protected]