LUCILLE BALL

by Albert H. Morehead
pub. Cosmopolitan Jan. 1953, p. 14

Just two years ago, which was almost a year before the American public learned to love Lucy, Lucille Ball sat beside me at a table in Lindy’s restaurant and said, “There’s a need for an all-around comedienne — one who plays everything from slapstick to romance. I’m the girl, and I’m out to prove it.”

She did prove it, so overwhelmingly that we need hardly dwell upon it. Unexpectedly, too. On that occasion two years ago, television wasn’t uppermost in Lucy’s thoughts. Like every other actor and actress she had eventual TV plans and that was all. But the next television season found her with the top show and biggest weekly audience of all time. And she got there as a comedienne, just as she said.

Lucy (no one, all her life, has called her anything but Lucy) may be the only glamour girl in history whose fondest ambition was to have custard pies thrown in her face. But though her blonde beauty and eye-filling figure may have gotten her most of her jobs, Lucy has always been a comic at heart. If you meet Lucy Ball in real life, you’ll find she talks the same and acts the same (with due allowance for the comedy scripts) as the Lucy Ricardo you see on the television screen. Her expressive face and dry manner of speech somehow make commonplace remarks sound funny.

Being a natural comic, Lucy tells her life story as though it were an unbroken record of failures. (For some perverse reason a failure often makes a hilarious story, while there’s nothing funny about a success.) She tells how she flunked out of dramatic school and was fired from her first four chorus-girl jobs. How her only stage offer was from a burlesque impresario who wanted to gild her like a statue and bill her as “the Beaut from Butte” (Lucy was born in the Montana metropolis). How she turned this one down in favor of a soda-jerking job and finally became a dress model at $25 a week, on which she supported herself and helped to support her family. How she struggled along in Hollywood as an extra and bit player.

The part she leaves out is considerably better. She rose from the dress-house to the cover-girl class (though today, nearly twenty years later, she appears on more magazine covers than any model ever did). She went to Hollywood in a group of New York’s leading models and was a full-fledged star there for more than ten years. She was a famous beauty, and the editor of the British magazine Moonbeams described her as “that loveliest of all Americans.”

The fact remains that at the beginning of 1951 Lucille Ball’s career seemed to be petering out. In the movies she was still offered plenty of parts, but no longer as the star in musical extravaganzas like “DuBarry Was a Lady” and “Best Foot Forward.” Rather she had come to be cast as the friend of the heroine. She had her own radio show, “My Favorite Husband,” and it was highly thought of, but nevertheless the sponsor cancelled. That was no disgrace, at a time when sponsors were deserting radio en masse, but an unsponsored show puts no money in the bank.

Worst of all, her marriage was foundering — after ten years. Not because of the stormy married life Hollywood had predicted when Desi Arnaz, the temperamental Latin, married Lucy Ball, the crisp-tongued actress. They had their fights, but they didn’t have so many of them — they couldn’t, because they weren’t together enough. Desi was almost always on the road leading his band. When he did get home Lucy was usually making a picture and out all day, six days a week, early morning to 8 o’clock at night.

This was the unhappy situation when CBS suggested that Lucy do a TV version of “My Favorite Husband.” She quickly saw the opportunity to have her cake and eat it too. Radio had done well with genuine married couples playing themselves, like Ozzie and Harriet; why shouldn’t Desi play the husband? They got up an act — much like the present “I Love Lucy,” except tor its title — and set out to test it in vaudeville for fourteen weeks.

The test was cut short after six weeks for a very welcome reason. Lucy was pregnant, with their first child.

It was more than welcome, it was a miracle. At twenty, Lucy had been in an automobile accident and, apparently, permanently crippled. For nearly four years she couldn’t walk, and the doctors marveled when she finally recovered. It was feared that this would keep her childless, and when it proved not to, the Arnaz reconciliation was complete.

“We’re both sentimentalists,” says Lucy. “The trouble is, I try not to show it. Desi doesn’t mind if he does.”

Their sentimentality reveals itself in the way they name their most prized possessions after themselves. Their ranch is named Desilu. Desi’s fishing boat is named Desilu. Their business enterprise, which produces “I Love Lucy,” is named Desilu Productions, Inc. And their daughter was christened Lucie Desiree, which was as close as they could come.

Now Lucy is quite famously “expecting” again — they have planned it so that Lucy Ricardo in the television show will have a baby at precisely the same time, which is to be on the 19th of this month if the doctors are right, as Lucy Ball Arnaz in real life will have hers. And they hope it is a son who can be named Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y Ball, after his father. If it turns out to be a girl, they will rely on inspiration again to find a name combining their own. With a following that approaches thirty-five million viewers, they don’t doubt that there will be some letters to help them.

Though Lucy found herself unable to continue her live appearances in the Desi-and-Lucy test show, work on the television version continued. She kept her weight down, gaining only thirty pounds before Lucie Desiree was born in July, 1951, and resuming her normal weight of 132 less than six weeks later. All this time they were shooting on their “pilot film,” with the camera carefully avoiding side views of Lucy. In August they showed the pilot film for the first time, and it was gobbled up by the first advertising agency that saw it, the Blow agency, which was looking for a show tor Philip Morris cigarettes.

One thing Desi and Lucy had learned in their six weeks of vaudeville was that they shouldn’t use their own names. Perhaps Lucille Ball didn’t command as high a salary as she once had, and band business was lousy, but it was still impossible to convince the general public that a couple who could earn $100,000 a year, and who had a private ranch and a swimming pool, had any real problems. “We were just too rich,” says Lucy. “1 wonder how Ozzie and Harriet (Nelson) and Phil and Alice (Harris) get away with it. We couldn’t.” So they invented Ricky and Lucy Ricardo, to make it more believable that a $100 prize in a radio quiz show, or a burnt steak worth $2.65, could be important.

When anything succeeds in show business, there are plenty of people willing to take the credit. In the case of  “I Love Lucy,” the credits seem to be evenly split. CBS proposed the show and put up all the money to pay for the pilot film. The Blow agency suggested the name “I Love Lucy” (and any movie man will assure you that a good name often draws more at the box office than a good show). Lucy’s antics can’t be underrated. But no show is better than its producer, and Desi Arnaz was the producer. Lucy says flatly, “Desi did it.” The others, when this proposition is presented to them, are inclined to agree.

“I Love Lucy” is produced by the Desilu corporation, as previously mentioned. Desi and Lucy own all of it, in equal shares, and Desi, as president, runs it.

The use of a corporat1on is a relatively new wrinkle in the business dealings of entertainers with high earnings. It is an entirely legitimate tax-saving method.

The theory is this: A name star actually has two things to sell. One is his name. It has value in endorsements of manufactured products, in drawing crowds to a movie or viewers to a television show, and so on. The name is a piece of property, the same as real estate. The star doesn’t have to do any work to collect a profit on it. Anyone can own the name: himself, or another person, or a corporat1on.

The other thing the star has to sell is his personal services. Only he can render the services, so no one else can own them. Suppose Lucille Ball could not appear in “I Love Lucy,” and they hired Betty Hutton to play the par of Lucy. Betty would have to be paid tor her services. But Desi and Lucy, over and above this payment, would still collect a profit because they own the show and can sell it to a sponsor for more than it costs them.

It works out this way. Suppose Desi and Lucy could earn this year, as a good round figure, $1,000.000. If they had no corporate set-up, they would pay about $900,000 tax on it, and keep $100,000. But Desilu Productions, Inc., owns the show and the names. That means Desilu gets the million dollars. It pays Desi and Lucy $250,000 salary tor their services, a fair enough salary for a couple who don’t get room and board. It pays its own corporate taxes on the other $750,000, which leaves it about $350,000. Desi and Lucy wind up with $70,000 net after taxes from their salaries plus all of the corporation’s share, since they own the corporation.

This is no “loophole” in the tax laws. The Treasury accepts it; if there were any question, the Amos ‘n’ Andy case would settle it. That show will earn more on television this year than it did on radio, with the original actors playing their parts. So how much was for ownership of the name, and how much for personal services?

Desilu, the corporation, has other incomes. In addition to its own show, it produces various competitors: “Our Miss Brooks,” and “I Married Joan,” and the Ozzie-and-Harriet and Burns-and-Allen shows. It makes various commercials, considered the most lucrative facet of the TV-film business, including those tor the Red Skelton show. (But it does not make the Philip Morris commercials that run with “I Love Lucy.”)

There are other paradoxes connected with “I Love Lucy.” One is that the sponsor genuinely regrets the tremendous success of the show. In fact, the sponsor may have to drop it.

The second paradox is that Desilu, with this tremendous success on its hands, shows a loss on every “I Love Lucy” film it sells.

Philip Morris is in a quandary simply because their budget does not permit paying the price that can reasonably be demanded for the most successful television show of all time, a show with more than twelve million TV sets in its audience. They will probably solve the problem by buying every other week, as other sponsors of expensive shows do: they may have done so before this article appears.

The problem that confronts Desilu is one that every producer of television films faces. Each film costs more than any single sponsor could afford to pay for it — about $50,000, which is too much for a half hour show. But the film retains its value after it is first shown. Other sponsors will buy it for non-network stations that the original broadcast does not reach. New TV stations and hitherto untapped territories are opening up, and they are all prospective customers. Since Desi had the foresight to put “I Love Lucy” on 35-millimeter film, which fits the standard projectors in movie theatres, instead of the 16-millimeter film so often used in television, he can combine three or four shows into one full-length feature and show it in foreign theatres all over the world. So technically the Desilu corporation is operating at a profit even if the cash income doesn’t indicate it.

Hollywood generally wonders why Arnaz wasn’t a producer all the time. He has three attributes: good judgment of material; ideas of his own on all phases of the business; and the liberal purse required to hire the best brains available. Desilu’s innovations are manifold. They have fixed up the façade of their sound stage to resemble a summer theatre and have built the seats inside so that they overlook the cameras. (Like any other comedy show, “I Love Lucy” is played before a live audience so that they can postpone the next line till the audience stops laughing.) They have a special camera arrangement and a special editing device that were never before used. The best tribute to Desi’s executive ability is that his competitors have come to him, instead of setting up their own firms and trying to beat him.

Lucy isn’t an entirely silent member of the firm. They used to call her “the shapely blonde with the high I.Q.” — but her voice is never heard on the lot. This is a traditional factor in the Desi-Lucy relationship.

It is unfortunate that the courtship of Lucy by Desi couldn’t have been worked into the “I Love Lucy” sequence. In many respects it was too good to waste.

They met, as so many movie spouses do, via business. Desi, a Cuban aristocrat, who was exiled when his father fell from political power, had made a hit in a Broadway musical called “Too Many Girls.” Lucy was cast opposite him when he went to Hollywood to make a movie of the same show. They had to get together to talk “business,” and with Desi, according to him, it was love at first sight. But not so, apparently, with Lucy. He was then in his early twenties (Lucy is several years older than he is) and at the start she treated him with the condescension of an adult to a child.

Fortunately for their fortunes, Desi treated her the same way. He still does. When an abstruse subject comes up, he lectures her with the patience of a kindergarten teacher instructing her infant charges. Apparently Lucy went for it then, and apparently she still does.

Not that she is voiceless. Lucy is superstitious, in a mild knock-on-wood sort of way, and her superstitions are important. When the name of the show first became “I Love Lucy,” the script writers tended to abbreviate it in accordance with time-honored custom: GWTW is a famous but not unusual example. The first time Lucy saw I.L.L. on the top of a script she rebelled. “I don’t want a show that’s called ‘ill,’” she said quite positively. Desi gravely issued an intercompany memorandum directing that the only authorized abbreviation thereforward would be “Lucy.” That’s what they call the show today. But soon a good omen arrived to offset the bad one. The show was bought by Philip Morris, and that was the brand of cigarettes Lucy already smoked. She thought then that the auspices were good, and so they proved to be. (Desi had to shift brands.)

The Arnazes live a life that could be called middle-class if it weren’t for the four servants and the swimming pool. Their rambling ranch house, on five acres of citrus-fruit land twenty miles north of Los Angeles, has scarcely been touched since they bought it, except that they added a two-room wing when the baby was born. They have reached the age where it is more important to get home and take your shoes off than to eat in a fancy restaurant and be seen by admiring mobs. Lucy, whose movie training has made her an early riser anyway, gets up at 6:30 every morning to feed the baby, now fifteen months old. Desi sleeps till 8:30 and wouldn’t get up then if Lucy didn’t threaten to throw a pitcher of ice water in his face.

Four days a week, Tuesdays through Fridays, they arrive at the studio at 10 a.m. sharp and leave at 6 p.m. Tuesday morning, they read the week’s script for the first time; once the pattern was set, they stopped providing the situations. Wednesday and Thursday they rehearse. Friday afternoon they have a camera rehearsal, and Friday night they shoot the picture before a live audience, which has trouble getting tickets without applying six months in advance. Saturday, Sunday and Monday they take off completely. Desi, who doesn’t feel at home on dry land, almost invariably spends the weekend on his boat; Lucy occasionally goes along, but usually doesn’t because of the baby, or other things to do, or she’s too tired. On working-day nights they play cards (two-hand canasta) or look at television or entertain friends with nothing but conversation.

“I’m a typical housewife at heart,” says Lucy, but apparently it’s a mixed feeling. (Maybe all housewives have mixed feelings.) She counts the laundry and orders the groceries but doesn’t like to cook. She feels along ledges for dust but flicks ashes carelessly onto the floor of the car, rather than reach two feet to the ashtray. She stocks up with beefsteak but runs out of coffee. She watches her weight carefully (you couldn’t ask for better than 132 pounds with a 26-inch waist and a 35-inch bust) but she manages to fluctuate just enough so that she never has anything to wear.

An independent analyst would say it is Lucy’s typicalness that makes her such a good salesman. When she talks to housewives, they aren’t repelled by any holier-than-thou approach, so they trust her. But Lucy says it hasn’t anything to do with that. It’s all her previous experience.

“If you want to be a dress model, you’d better know how to sell,” she says. “You walk out in that dress, and if the buyer doesn’t buy you’re a punk model. It wouldn’t occur to the boss that there’s anything wrong with the dress. So what do you do? You wave your hips.”

In movieland they remember her selling technique by a picture called “The Big Street.” There was a part in it for a showgirl paralyzed from the hips down. Lucy, remembering her own three and a half years in the same predicament, rushed in to demand the part.

“That’s me,” she declared.

“That’s for you?” asked the producer. “Why?”

“I didn’t say ‘That’s for me,’” Lucy retorted. “I said ‘That’s me.’ I can play that part without rehearsal.”

She didn’t play it without rehearsal, but she played it, and it was one of her most-praised performances — besides being her own favorite part. Which is strange, because Lucy didn’t want to be a dramatic actress. She wanted to be a comedienne. She still does.

“I don’t know why,” she says, “but I just love it when they laugh.” Well, she couldn’t ask for more laughs than she’s gotten on “I Love Lucy.” And inasmuch as you are the person who laughs, you who love Lucy, there is one thing you can count on: Lucy loves you, too.