Still in Love with Lucy

by Thomas Watson

Friday, October 5, 2012

Dear Fellow Lucyfans,

This Les Is Certainly More!

One of the many “unsung heroes” of the Lucy legend is studio craftsman Les Warburton, the man responsible for most of the “special effects” used in The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy. When Lucille Ball crashed through a window or found her TV set exploding, it was usually due to the efforts – and talents – of Mr. Warburton!

Perhaps Les’ most famous creation made possible the entire closing scene in the 1967-68 episode, “Lucy Gets Jack Benny’s Account.” The program is included in THE LUCY SHOW: OFFICIAL SIXTH & FINAL SEASON being issued on DVD next week (Tuesday, October 9) by CBS Home Entertainment.

(SPOILER ALERT: If by any chance you are NOT familiar with “Lucy Gets Jack Benny’s Account,” and want to be surprised, STOP READING NOW…)

“Lucy Gets Jack Benny’s Account” has long been considered one of the strangest – certainly the most surreal – Lucy episode of all time: it ends with Lucy Carmichael and Jack Benny joyously sinking – up to their necks! – in quicksand!

Many Lucy fans dismiss the episode as evidence of how far the series had strayed from the carefully-crafted comedy of I Love Lucy, in which even the most outlandish situations were grounded in reality. Nevertheless, the script, written by Milt Josefsberg and Ray Singer, won an Emmy nomination in 1968, and the episode was so popular with viewers that it was included in The Lucy Show rerun series presented on CBS in primetime every summer through 1971.

So… how did Les Warburton make it possible for Lucy and Jack to sink into quicksand in front of a live studio audience?

The man recalled later: “The script called for Lucy to have a special vault built to convince Jack his money would be safe in Mr. Mooney’s bank. When it’s finished, she gives him a tour… After making their way through an obstacle course designed to protect his money – wild Indians, a gorilla, man-eating piranhas, snapping turtles, a guillotine – they arrive at and eventually sink into a pit of quicksand.”

The show was filmed, of course, on the same Desilu soundstage as earlier Lucy episodes – and it just happened to have a six-foot square hole in the stage floor. The hole was normally covered with thick boards so it was solid like the rest of the stage – but when needed, the boards could be pulled away, and the hole used for special situations. A hydraulic elevator, for example, was installed for a season 2 episode, allowing Lucy, posing as a bank robber, to drop suddenly through the floor, ostensibly into a holding cell in the basement of the Danfield Bank.

Warburton installed a similar elevator for the quicksand scene…

“To create the effect,” remembered Les, “a steel tank had to be built that was flush with the floor, and filled with water and imitation quicksand. A hydraulic elevator was then installed to lower Lucy and Jack into the muck.”

Milt Josefsberg, writing in his book, The Jack Benny Show, went into even greater detail: “For the quicksand routine, we had to build a small special elevator in this hole. The floor around it was raised about a foot via a small sloping wall, and the entire area was then filled with lukewarm water. Then this small lake was covered with a dark sawdust-like material, a couple of inches thick, which floated on the surface, giving it the appearance of solid ground. As Lucy and Jack walked into this pit, the slightly sloping walls made them seem to sink. When they reached the ‘elevator hole,’ they stood still, the machinery was turned on, the elevator went down, and they slowly began to sink from view.”

Because the machinery powering the elevator sat beneath it, the floor could only descend four or five feet. According to Josefsberg, “When Lucy and Jack felt the elevator stop as it reached bottom, they were almost shoulder high in the gooey mixture, but now they slowly bent their knees, giving further illusion that they were going to disappear into a bottomless pit.”

“It was a lot of work,” recalled Warburton, “but the audience loved it!”

Warburton, who joined The Lucy Show in 1963, started his Hollywood career as a prop man with 20th Century-Fox Studios in 1946. His first picture was “Captain From Castile,” starring Tyrone Power in 1947.

“Most special effects men begin as prop men,” he explained. “The only way to learn special effects is to make them.”

Of course, working in front of a studio audience presented challenges that working in motion pictures did not.

“We never want to give the gag away beforehand to the studio audience,” he explained. “In a picture, you can stand out of camera range and ‘pull the string’ to make something happen. You can’t do that with 350 people watching.

“Also, when you build a prop, it has to be ready when the audience is present, and it has to work the first time. You can’t come back and shoot it again tomorrow if it doesn’t.”

Les’ quicksand effect reportedly cost Desilu a cool $25,000! Lucy later commented, “I don’t mind how expensive a gag is, as long as it gets a good laugh!”

Included on THE LUCY SHOW: THE OFFICIAL SIXTH & FINAL SEASON is not only “Lucy Gets Jack Benny’s Account,” but brief snippets (or “trims”) from the original camera footage of this episode, allowing fans to get never-before-seen glimpses of the Lucy company at work. I hope you enjoy it!

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