On the Ball

Views and Reviews

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THE 'I LOVE LUCY'
50th ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL

A Review by Stuart Shostak

During the years I worked for Lucy's second husband, Gary Morton, he often quoted something that Desi Arnaz Sr. once told him to do when producing TV shows: "Stay where the money is - keep the show on Lucy."  For the most part, with just a few slight exceptions, CBS' 50th Anniversary of 'I Love Lucy' Special did just that, and it made for an evening of great entertainment.  The clips presented were terrific and the editing, pacing and presentation were fantastic.  It was a very fast two hours.  The show was well organized with several different "themed" segments such as friendship, family, and guest stars, and also included a not-overly-long history of the series by Whoopi Goldberg, along with footage from the long-lost Lucy feature (disguised as "rare lost footage of Desi doing the audience warm-up") that Dann Cahn recently discovered. (See separate story.)  Goldberg and Dick Van Dyke were more or less the hosts of the program, along with Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz, Jr.

Desi at given moments throughout the broadcast seemed to look uncomfortable. This was especially true during a segment of the special that featured the siblings touring their mother's old home in Jamestown, NY.  Although he clearly seemed touched by what he saw, one got the feeling that he was not sure -- at least going in -- that he really wanted to be there. It was apparent that Lucie had either visited there before or had studied her mother's notes/memoirs. She showed Desi, his wife and stepdaughter around (a superimposed title never did display that the other women in the piece were Desi's family).  It was also a little "weird" to see Lucie and Desi Jr. holding hands while they were walking through the house and around the neighborhood.  Despite this, it was a nice tribute to their mother's roots, and later in the program, a similar tribute to their father was shown, along with two musical numbers.  One was a beautiful piece written by Desi Jr.'s musical partner Billy Hensche that featured the Arnaz siblings in top form singing with a wonderful accompaniment by Latino trumpeter Arturo Sandaval.  The other number was not so wonderful - an attempted recreation of Desi Sr.'s trademark "Babalu", which was recently recorded by Cuban American singer Jorge Moreno.  Moreno appeared to be singing it live here, although the number had a Here's Lucy style "lip-sync" feel to it, and  unfortunately Moreno is no Desi Sr.  It also included a terribly embarrassing background bongo performance by both Desi Jr. and Lucie.  Mercifully, what saved this segment were the frequent cutaways to clips of Desi Sr.'s various performances of the number during the course of the series.

As for the choices for the Top Ten Lucy shows, they were pretty much as expected and should have been, although I wonder which "historians" were polled in the first place to determine which ten episodes the public would choose. "The Great Train Robbery" is a funny episode, but who considers that one of the Top Ten?  There are at least a dozen other shows I would have selected over that one ("Lucy Does the Tango" being one).  "Bon Voyage" would have been in my Top Twenty, but probably not in the Top Ten.  However, the producers did a terrific job in showing clips from virtually every other notable episode (including the Tango show) that didn't make the list in some way, shape, or form.  It was also fun seeing a bit of "The Diet" in a couple of different languages. But once again there were no titles superimposed at the bottom of the screen stating which languages they were.  They sounded to me like Spanish and Japanese.

It seems every TV special saluting legends such as Lucy and Desi, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, etc. has to have certain cliche criteria:

1. Lots of celebrities who MUST give their opinions on why the legends are legends.

2. The money-making licensing aspect of the legend and how it generates millions for the heirs of the legends. (Producers always disguise it as a public memorabilia phenomenon to cover up the money angle.)

3. Fans quoting lines or imitating the legend and mugging for the camera.

4. The standard cliche interview question.

Yes, this special unfortunately fell right into place with all of the above, but THANKFULLY it was all done at a minimum.

First, there were lots of celebrities in this special, and all of them said virtually the same thing, just worded differently, and it's all stuff we've heard before.  Of course, because this was a network television special, CBS publicity must have insisted that some of their own series actors be "put" in this special to help remind the public that the network airs their shows, a la Dick Clark's NBC Blooper specials that consistently show goofs only from NBC series.  Thus, we got Leah Remini ("King of Queens") and Bruce Vilanch ("Hollywood Squares", syndicated by CBS).  Neither would have even been considered had they not been associated with CBS in some way.  But we also got Larry King, Barbara Walters, Paul Rodriguez, Henry Winkler, Rosanne, Arnold Schwartzenegger, Richard Crenna and Lily Tomlin.  Not that any of their opinions really mattered, with the exception of Crenna, who did appear on I Love Lucy. But star power is a necessity for promoting a network TV special in advance, even when it contains superstars like Lucy and Desi, who always achieve ratings gold no matter what time they are on.  Luckily we did get some terrific behind-the-scenes interviews with Bob Carroll and Madelyn Davis, Bob Schiller, Dann Cahn, and Bill Asher.  Now tell me where were the folks who make our conventions a success every year - where were Shirley Mitchell, Janet Waldo, Doris Singleton, and especially Keith Thibodeaux?  If you're going to throw an anniversary, invite the people who were there in the first place and who the fans recognize.

Licensed merchandise is a big, big business, and we were treated to a (luckily) brief look at just a few of the dolls, plates and other "collectibles" released the past few years.  Some of this footage was shot at our last Loving Lucy Convention, with dealers getting more air time displaying their wares than Club President and Lucy expert Tom Watson got in his all-too-brief appearance singing the praises of Lucy's talents earlier in the program.  Even the man in charge of the licensing for the Arnazes got his 15 seconds.  I can't blame the producers for this segment, though, because it does make a statement about the show and the effect it has had on our culture.

What I can blame the producers for, though, is the other trap they fell into with the special: showing the public, the fans, imitating their favorite star. This was the part of the special I was dreading from the moment I heard about it.  Thankfully, it was also very, very brief... But why must we always see -- and do we really care about? -- the public stuffing chocolates in their faces, trying to act drunk while reciting the dialogue from "Lucy Does a TV Commercial," or stomping grapes with their bare feet?  If professionals have trouble recreating a classic like "Babalu," why must the public be shown making fools of themselves trying to do similar things? 

The worst part of this segment (and a major gaffe on the part of the producers) was that the extremely talented Suzanne La Rusch (actress and dead-on Lucy impersonator for more than 10 years) was lumped within this parade of Gong Show rejects.  There was no mention of who she was by way of a superimposed credit (their title machine must have been on the fritz), so it came across like she was just one of those people who dress up like Lucy for hero worship purposes.


Toward the end, I was waiting for the classic cliche question to come, the one that's asked in every one of these shows...know which one I mean?  They had just revealed the number one Lucy episode (like everyone didn't know which one it would be), "Lucy Does a TV Commercial."  Ah, I thought, we're home free... but then it came:  "If Lucy and Desi were alive today, what would you say to them?"  Agggghhh!!!  But it wasn't asked of the public, it was asked of the celebrities!  Thankfully, that too came and went quickly, and we were done, but not before one last bit of absolutely horrible, really embarrassing business occurred just before the end credits:  Did we really need to hear and see the celebrities in tight close up sing the "I Love Lucy" theme (badly) along with the clip from "Lucy's Last Birthday," especially Rosanne?  Didn't we learn enough when she sang "The Star Spangled Banner" at a ball game a few years ago? Even a quick shot of Lucy giving her "spider" as a reaction to it didn't cover up the fact that this whole idea was just plain "dumb." Couldn't we just go out with that classic scene the way it was meant to be seen and heard?  It would have been such a nice touch, especially after the program opened so wonderfully with a beautiful scene from "Sentimental Anniversary." Unfortunately, what the producers did was leave a very bad taste in my mouth after watching an overall well-produced and very entertaining special.


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Stuart Shostak is a life-long Lucy fan. He has been a member of We Love Lucy since 1977, when he was introduced to the organization by his friend, I Love Lucy-writer, Bob Schiller. Stuart subsequently became Lucille Ball and Gary Morton's film archivist, and is now president/owner of Shokus Video. For the past six years he has been co-producer and video editor for our Loving Lucy Conventions. For many years he authored a regular column, "Viewer's Viewpoint," in our club publications.




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