America’s Favorite Redhead and Role Model
Photo courtesy of CBS
BY LORRAINE DUFFY MERKL
My 18-year-old daughter Meg has had many celebrity role models in her young life—from Dora the Explorer to Michelle Obama; and in between there have been people like Gwyneth Paltrow and Jessica Alba stepping out of their acting careers to become an Internet entrepreneur and head of a Fortune 500 company, respectively; the tennis powerhouse Williams sisters; and It Girls, Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham, who have brought feminism back into the national conversation.
But I would not trade her experience (even if you threw in dewy skin) for my own, which had Lucille Ball at the forefront.
This month, I Love Lucy celebrates its 65th anniversary. Yes, at any given moment, someone somewhere is watching the sitcom that originally aired from 1951—57.
By the time I was introduced to the Queen of Comedy, as she is known, the show had long been syndicated and was in reruns—on every day just as I was walking in the door from school.
“Lucy” was the perfect example of determination, whether she was scaling a wall to get one of Richard Widmark’s grapefruits as a souvenir or learning the sax/ballet/juggling to secure a part in “Ricky’s” nightclub act. With all due respect to her on-screen comic genius, it was the behind-the-scenes Lucille—an innovator, pioneer, and risk taker—who was the real inspiration.
Show ‘em What You’ve Got
In 1950, Lucy, a B-list actress-cum-successful radio star saw television as the next step in her career. She also wanted to co-star with her husband, a less famous Cuban band leader who traveled a lot for work. She pitched a scripted comedy to network executives, who turned her down because they thought audiences would not warm to a story about an all-American wife with a Latin husband, (even though that was their real-life situation.)
To prove them wrong, Lucy and Desi developed a vaudeville act, and took it on the road. It proved to be such a hit that CBS signed them, and convinced Philip Morris to sponsor I Love Lucy.
Know Your Worth
After they inked the deal, Lucy didn’t act as though the network had done her a favor, as in “OK, let’s not make waves.” Lucy knew she had gold on her hands and demanded an 80% share for herself and Desi. She also said they wanted the series to be shot—quite expensively—on film. Because sometimes you have to spend money to make money, the couple offered to take a $1,000 a week pay cut to cover the additional expense. Shooting on 35mm also required them (due to convoluted union regulations) to produce the program themselves. Undaunted, Desilu was created, making Lucille Ball the first woman to own her own film studio.
The Way It’s Done, Isn’t Necessarily How To Do It
As producers, Lucy and Desi abandoned the standard single-camera format and canned laugh track. Lucy performed best before a live audience, people’s reactions getting her creative juices flowing. She and Desi also decided to shoot the scenes in sequence, while using three cameras to capture all angles. This, allowed studio members to enjoy the show all the way through—like a play—rather than view and react to many tedious retakes.
The series also gave birth to the concept of the rerun, and became first to have characters speaking in both English and Spanish.
In 2012, the five-time Emmy-winning I Love Lucy was voted the ‘Best TV Show of All Time.’
Whenever an opportunity comes my way, I credit Lucy/Lucille for the gumption to find a way to get into the show.