No one could have predicted that when I Love Lucy first premiered on October 15, 1951, it would turn into one of television’s most beloved programs of all time. Thanks to the show’s brilliant writing, innovative filming methods, Lucille Ball’s impeccable humor, and Desi Arnaz’s business genius, I Love Lucy topped the ratings and even picked up a handful of awards along the way. For these reasons alone, we compiled 20 facts you probably didn’t know about the show, the cast, and the crew.
When CBS first approached Lucille Ball with the proposal to transform her popular radio show My Favorite Husband into a TV show, she agreed. But with one mere condition: her real-life husband, Desi Arnaz, would star as her spouse. However CBS were hesitant to accept her proposal as they believed American viewers wouldn’t “buy that Lucy (an average housewife) was married to a ‘foreign’ man”. Of course CBS disregarded that Lucy and Desi had already been married for over a decade at this time.
On The Road
Going off the last fact, in order to convince CBS, the duo created a vaudeville act which was added to the performance of Arnaz’s orchestra. Audiences absolutely loved every minute of it which convinced the CBS executive Harry Ackerman to believe that Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were the perfect on-screen duo.
Lucy, You Got Some Smokin’ to Do
Get this, I Love Lucy almost didn’t air because CBS weren’t able to secure a sponsor for the show. Eventually Philip Morris, a tobacco giant, signed on. Which of course meant that tons of smoking was featured in the episodes – like every single one – and his name “Philip Morris” was written into the dialogue whenever possible.
Lucille and Desi didn’t agree with sponsor Philip Morris on where filming should take place. Morris wanted to shoot in New York as many TV shows were broadcast from the Big Apple; however Lucille and Desi wanted to remain in LA as it’s near their family. Back then television wasn’t able to transmit far so shows were safeguarded on kinescopes – a camera aimed at a monitor which records the show in negligible quality – and then it’s shipped to distant stations everywhere. Morris did not agree to the show being performed in LA then its kinescopes being sent to New York. Therefore Arnaz made a deal: he and Lucille would take a pay cut and their company, Desilu Productions, would maintain ownership of the films. **Fun fact: this caused the show to become so popular in re-runs and it was Desilu’s 100 percent ownership of the show that turned Lucille and Desi into the first millionaire TV stars.**
The Only One
Once a few episodes of I Love Lucy had been filmed, it became an unwritten rule that Lucy was the only one allowed to poke fun at Desi’s pronunciation problems. While the writers had allowed for other characters to make comments, each time the “joke” was met with absolute silence from the studio audience. Apparently it was just cruel whenever anyone but Lucy jested at her husband’s English.
Not The First
Turns out that William Frawley was NOT the first choice to play the part of Fred Mertz, the bad-tempered landlord. Lucille Ball wanted Gale Gordon, as they’d already worked together on her My Favorite Husband radio show. However Gordon asked for a high salary, one that the execs weren’t willing to pay. William Frawley only knew Ball in passing and he phoned her personally about starring I Love Lucy. Philip Morris and CBS were not keen on hiring Frawley as he was known to be a heavy drinker. However Arnaz, who was also quite the drinker himself, believed that Frawley was perfect for the role. So he met up with Frawley over lunch and offered him the role; with the rule that if he ever missed work for any reason, other than a legitimate illness, he would get written out of the series.
Barbara Pepper, the star of Green Acres almost played the part of Ethel Mertz, the sidekick to Lucille Ball. Ball and Pepper were close friends and had also worked together on previous projects. Furthermore, Pepper was the right age and body type to play the part of Ethel, but seeing as she was also an alcoholic, the network wasn’t willing to have the main cast consist of two heavy drinkers. Pepper did play some background characters on the show though.
Yikes, here’s a tough one to digest, the “Mertzes” absolutely hated each other off-camera. Maybe hate is putting it lightly, more like despised beyond comprehension. Well here’s why, folks. Vivian Vance didn’t like that her TV husband was 22 years older than her; she seriously resented having an “old poop” play her TV spouse. William Frawley often referred to Vance as “that sack of doorknobs” or even just “b*tch.” WOW. Despite their intense hatred for one another, that was all kept behind the scenes and only the show’s directors and writers knew the truth. Even Keith Thibodeaux (Little Ricky) and Roy Rowan (the show’s announcer), didn’t have an inkling that Vance and Frawley hated one another and they were on set daily! It wasn’t until years after I Love Lucy went off air that everyone learned the truth.
A Tall Facade
Desi Arnaz wasn’t as tall as he said! Which is why he had lifts in his shoes and on his love-seat on the show! In most of his biographies, Arnaz wrote that he was 5’11”, however those who worked with him knew that he was really 5’9” and wore four-inch lifts. On the other hand, Lucille Ball was 5’7”, so when she wore heels, she would stand taller than her husband. Later on, Desi Arnaz Jr. explained that his father “was a Cuban with a Latin male’s pride,” which is why it was so important to him to be taller than his spouse.
Desi Arnaz was a brazen supported of the American Dream – furthermore, as a 17 year old refugee from Cuba, he was fiercely patriotic when it come to America. Arnaz and his family worked incredibly tough jobs when they first moved to the States, as Arnaz pointed out in 1954, “From cleaning canary cages to this night in New York [Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town] is a long ways. And I don’t think there’s any other country in the world that could give you that opportunity.” It’s because of his love for America that Arnaz flat out rejected a scene that showed Ricky cheating on his taxes.
Even if you’ve never watched an episode of I Love Lucy a day in your life, you’re probably familiar with the scene showing Lucy and Ethel stuffing their faces and clothes with chocolate as they attempt to keep up with a quick conveyor belt. Well the Candy Lady in the scene was a real life dipper! The stage manager, Herb Browar, saw her working at See’s Candies on Santa Monica Boulevard and believed she’d be perfect for the show. Why? Well, Amanda Milligan’s deadpan expression was the perfect platform for Lucille to react to! In fact, when a break during filming came about, Lucille asked Milligan “So, how do you like working in show business?” To which an unsmiling Milligan, who’d spent some eight hours per day for 30 years putting swirls on chocolates, replied, “I’ve never been so bored in my life.”
A Fan Favorite
From one fan favorite to another, although in this case, Lucille Ball was way too stressed to even appreciate the humor in what came to be one her most popular episodes. During filming of the episode “Lucy Does a TV Commercial”, she was incredibly worried she would mess her lines up! Come on, imagine saying “Vitameatavegamin” over and over. While Ball is a talented comedian, she is not an improviser, which is exactly why she had the script supervisor Maury Thompson create and place cue cards on set. Only when “Lucy Does a TV Commercial” was voted the best in viewer polls did Ball even acknowledged that it actually was a funny episode.
Just Keep Rolling
Undoubtedly you know that I Love Lucy was filmed in front of an audience. Which is precisely why they hesitated to yell “cut” and re-shoot scenes when a mistake happened. As a result, you’ll see a blooper left in and an attempt to “paper-over” the flub.
Lucille Ball discovered she was pregnant during season two, which cause mayhem behind the scenes! While Lucille and Desi were overjoyed, they were also worried how viewers would react – at that time, a visibly pregnant female had never ever appeared, let alone starred, on a television show. Eventually, the network agreed and wrote in Ball’s pregnancy although they believed that the word “pregnant” was indecent, therefore they replaced it with “expecting” (or, as Ricky would say, “‘spectin’”).
Happy Birthday To You!
Did you know that Desi Arnaz Jr. and Little Ricky were actually born on the same day? Lucille and Desi knew that Lucille deliver via a Caesarian, and Ball’s obstetrician routinely scheduled all of his C-sections on Mondays – I Love Lucy aired on Monday nights as well. Therefore the pregnancy episodes correlated with Ball’s real life pregnancy, down to the day that Ball went into labor! However what Lucille and Desi didn’t know was the gender of their baby, and for the show, the head writer decided that they would have a baby boy. When Desi Arnaz Jr. was born, good ol’ Desi Sr. called the writer up and proudly said, “Lucy followed your script! Ain’t she something?!”
For The Craft
We’ve mentioned a few fan favorite episodes and now we arrive to the iconic grape-stomping episode! Although “Lucy’s Italian Movie” was littered with obstacles. Firstly, they struggled to secure a vineyard would who donate the required grapes for stomping. When they finally found one, it was required of the show to mention that foot-pressing was actually an old-fashioned method of making wine in beautiful Italy. Next, the extra hired who wrestled Lucille in the grape barrel was Teresa Tirelli, and she didn’t speak English whatsoever. We guess the translator didn’t do such a great job as Tirelli didn’t understand that the scene was filmed-from-the-waist-up fake fight – so she actually held Lucille’s head under the grape mush until Ball almost drowned!
Lucille Ball was a massive admired of Harpo Marx so when she eventually got to work with him on I Love Lucy, she actually infuriated him. How? Welp, Ball was not prepared for Marx’s “never the same way twice” method to his comedy procedures. When the episode required Ball to mirror his moves, she insisted on round-the-clock rehearsals to get the scene as perfect as possible. However Harpo’s reacted and said, “I’ve done this bit for 35 years, why do I need so much rehearsal?” Eventually, the scene was re-shot numerous times, well after the studio audience left, and was then pieced together by the editor Dann Cahn.
Believe it or not but the longest audience laugh on I Love Lucy was 65 seconds long! It was during the scene where Lucy hides dozens of eggs and then dances the tango with Ricky. Which of course leads to her blouse getting filled with runny yolks. And this lead to the audience roaring with laughter for so long that it had to be edited! Additionally, neither Ball nor Vance used eggs during rehearsals so their onscreen reactions were as genuine as it gets.
Desi Arnaz was a stickler for realism, despite what it cost or how difficult it was to create. Meaning that he worked incredibly hard to maintain accuracy in his scenes so that the audience would believe it and also find it funny. Like when the scene titled “Pioneer Women” required an eight-foot-long loaf of bread, the producers located a bakery in New York to bake it!
In The Family
There is a lady in the studio audience who can be heard saying “uh-oh” – that lady is actually Lucille’s mom! Dede Ball came to every taping and would often get caught up in the proceedings of the show. Moreover, Glen Glenn, the sound engineer for I Love Lucy, later created his own company which provided laugh tracks, or canned laughter, to television shows. Why is this important? Because he uses Dede’s “uh-oh” in shows later on even though she’s not in the audience nor is she in the show!