Lucy in the Media
The November issue of Hispanic magazine, celebrated I Love Lucy's 50th Anniversary with an article that focused on Desi and well as Lucy, and on some of his contributions to the series and to Hispanic/American culture.
Fifty years later, America still loves Lucy and Ricky.
By GIGI ANDERS
“Lucy, you cannot be in the show.”
Ésta pelirroja está loca.”
“And don’t jabber at me in a foreign tongue!”
Instantly recognizable, eternally hilarious, always our fave TV couple—America loves Lucy and Ricky Ricardo. And the Mertzes. And Little Ricky. And the rest of the legendary gang that made I Love Lucy the most endurable, re-watchable situation comedy of all time. It’s easy to slide into superlatives about Lucy; in terms of American pop culture, it’s pretty tough to beat.
After 50 years (Can it really be?), America still gets hysterical over “Vitameatavegamin,” or Lucy’s “Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah,” or Ricky’s “Luuu-cy, you got some ‘splainin’ to do.” The confluence of exceptional talent in acting, comedic timing, writing, directing, cinematography, editing, and even costume sewing created a show that will, thanks to reruns, live on forever.
If that’s not enough Lucy for you, “The I Love Lucy 50th Anniversary Experience,” (photo, right) a traveling interactive museum, is touring the country for the next four years (go to www.sfx.com for cities and dates.) And this month, CBS will celebrate that half-century mark with a two-hour special (check www.cbs.com for air times.)
In the anniversary show, Desi Arnaz will get his share of the spotlight away from wife Lucille Ball’s shadow. Arnaz was a TV first in many ways, chief among them he was likely the first Hispanic welcomed into the living rooms of millions of Americans on a weekly basis. It was the first time many heard the Latino accent. Those who didn’t know any Hispanics—save for packaged Hollywood stereotypes such as maids, hussies or playboys—were introduced to a handsome, smart, funny, dignified, stylish, warm, responsible, creative, employed, loyal, married grown-up. Perhaps Arnaz has been underestimated because he left the business in his prime and stayed away from the spotlight.Or perhaps it was his well-publicized battles with alcoholism and with Lucy over his extramarital relationships. Or maybe it was simply the fact that Lucy was larger than life and Arnaz made it all look so easy.
“There’s a tendency always to talk about Lucy, Lucy, Lucy,” says the show’s executive producer, Gary Smith. (Lucie and Desi Arnaz, Jr. are co-producers.) “And we want to show what a catalyst Desi was, too. Desi was brilliant. First of all, he was a better comedian than anyone gave him credit for. It was also his idea to film the show with the three-camera technique before a live audience, so it was like a play. They didn’t do re-takes. If they got in a bind, they had to get out of it live, on camera. That was groundbreaking. And, of course, Desi started what is one of today’s hottest trends: Hispanic music.”
Yes, but when Ball insisted on doing the show with her real-life bandleader husband, the network suits balked. “CBS wanted no part of this,” says Geoffrey Mark Fidelman, a Lucy historian and author of The Lucy Book: A Complete Guide to Her Five Decades on Television (Renaissance Books, 1999, $19.95.) “In the eyes of many, Lucille and Ricky were an interracial couple. That had never been shown. In the movies, César Romero flirted with Betty Grable, but they never got married or had sex or children. So this was a very big deal. CBS said, ‘Who would ever believe that an all-American girl like you would be married to a Cuban bongo beater?’ ”
By the time I Love Lucy aired—at 9 p.m. Monday, Oct. 15, 1951—the couple had already been married for over a decade. The two had met in Hollywood on the set of RKO’s Too Many Girls. They eloped five months later, on Nov. 30, 1940, and were a couple whose respective roots—no pun intended for the redheaded Ball—could not have been more different.
Born on Aug. 6, 1911, Lucille Desiree Ball was the daughter of a solidly lower-middle class Jamestown, N.Y., pianist and telephone lineman. The family was Protestant and spiritual, hardworking and no-nonsense. Just the opposite of the Lucy Ricardo persona. “The two were nothing alike,” notes Fidelman. “If Lucille had been like Lucy there wouldn’t have been any Lucy. That New England Puritan work ethic was instilled in Ball, who was a down-to-earth achiever, a perfectionist who demanded perfection from everyone around her. She took her work and the image very seriously.”
By age 22, she was in movies. Her first role, as a slave girl in 1933’s Roman Scandals, went uncredited. But soon she was, in Hollywood parlance, the queen of the Bs, acting in some 80 pictures before going immortal as a chic-yet-wacky New York City housewife and mother with perpetual show biz envy. “She was a regular girl whom everybody liked and respected,” notes Fidelman. “And she was never out of work. The thing was, she knew she was beautiful—and in the ‘40s she was hauntingly beautiful—but she wasn’t afraid to go against her beauty and do funny, crazy things that would draw attention.”
She certainly drew the attention of Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III, who grew up privileged in Cuba. Arnaz was born on March 2, 1917, in Santiago de Cuba, the only son of the town’s mayor. The family’s riches were abruptly lost in 1933 when Fulgencio Batista overthrew Gerardo Machado in a military coup, and the Arnazes fled to Miami. Although he was just a teenager, Arnaz was tenacious, smart, confident, musically talented—and a hunk, to boot. He formed his own small Latin group of musicians, was discovered and hired by Xavier Cugat, broke away to tour nationally with his own band and introduced the conga and the song “Babalú” to white-bread America. Which he then proceeded to toast and slather with guava. As it were.
“Desi’s sexual vibe was huge,” Fidelman says. “He had this conga strapped around his neck, beating it so hard and so fast you couldn’t see his hands moving. His hair was flying, his hips were swiveling … Women just went insane.”
Especially Ball, whom Fidelman says was “almost obsessively in love” with him. But the marriage was shaky. Arnaz was always touring with his band, while Ball was doing movies and radio. She was playing a zany wife on the wildly popular CBS radio program, My Favorite Husband, and CBS approached her about taking the radio show to the new medium called television. She agreed, on the condition that Arnaz would play her TV husband. It was a way to save her faltering marriage. CBS relented, of course, and I Love Lucy was an instant Emmy-garnering triumph—in large part due to Arnaz’s business savvy and risk-taking innovations. He may have beenknown best as Mr. Lucy Ricardo, but, as Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales wrote in his 1986 appreciation, Arnaz was “a television pioneer in his own right ... whose influence on the medium extends beyond the fabulous success and longevity [of I Love Lucy].”
By inventing that three-camera technique (along with cinematographer Karl Freund), which is still used in TV today, and making sure the show was filmed, Arnaz ensured its endurance and prosperity, Shales explains. “Three cameras made it possible to film the show before a studio audience and record the sounds of real laughter .... There were 11 million TV households in the United States when Lucy premiered in 1951, and 45 million when it signed off a decade later. Everything had changed, and yet I Love Lucy would never be off the air.”
The show ran weekly in its 30-minute format for six years until 1957, when it became The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, proving to the suits that America and the rest of the world could handle an intercultural, if not interracial, couple.
Cuban-born Alex Abella, a CBS creative consultant on the I Love Lucy 50th Anniversary Special, says, “If Desi were black or had black blood, he wouldn’t have had any success or been allowed on the air. Americans could accept him because—like it or not—he was white.”
Nevertheless, Abella believes Arnaz still doesn’t get his deserved recognition because he was Cuban—and sounded it. Although you have to admit, that accent was extremely cute. “His fracturing of the English language proved one of the show’s most endurable sources of humor,” Shales observes. “But he also developed real skills as a comic actor, and even played the rare serious scene.”
An example is the 1954 episode called “Ricky Minds the Baby,” in which Arnaz recites “Little Red Riding Hood” in Spanish to his tiny son.
Yet “On the show, they never let anyone but Lucy make fun of his English,” says daughter Lucie Arnaz, who was born to the couple on July 17, 1951, just three months before the first show aired. (Her brother, Desi Jr., was born Jan. 19, 1953, when 44 million viewers tuned in to watch Lucy Ricardo give birth to Little Ricky. Incidentally, her on-air pregnancy was another TV first, although you weren’t allowed to say “pregnant.”) Daughter Lucie, an actress, singer and dancer who calls her own Spanish “terrible and horrible,” never spoke it at home, and sees her Latin side emerge only when she’s performing.
“It’s hard to remember that I am a Latina, but it’s in my bones and blood and music. When I dance, I can feel that rhythm. It’s like a whole other me,” she says.
“Mom and dad transcended ethnic labels,” says Arnaz Jr., who played Arnaz Sr. in 1992’s The Mambo Kings, and says he’s their hybrid child. “And I think the show lives on because people can feel my parents’ love. Remember that the show starts with that big heart with ‘I Love Lucy’ in it. It was never ever a mean or disrespectful show. It was always about family and laughter.”
And male-female relationships, where Ricky was unstereotypically the responsible one and Lucy was the ditz. Perhaps Arnaz Jr. describes that special dynamic best: “Mom was the quintessential clown that we all are, our ego wanting to be in the show. Dad was the conscience, like, ‘Honey, come on now. It’s not all sunglasses and autographs.’ And mom would say, ‘Oh Ricky, pleeeeeeease!’ ”
Which is why we all love Lucy.
"50 Years Later, America Still Loves Ricky & Lucy," by Gigi Anders
© 2001 Hispanic Publishing Corp., All Rights Reserved
Visit them online at www.hispaniconline.com
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