Saturday, 8/6/2011, would have been Lucille Ball’s 100th birthday. Though she starred on Broadway, in films and in several other sitcoms, she’ll always be remembered by most of us as Lucy Ricardo, the red-headed housewife who was dying to get into show business. In honor of Lucy’s centenary, I will share a few behind-the-scenes tidbits from the I Love Lucy set.
Slap of Reality
“Job Switching” (often referred to as “The Candy Factory Episode”) has long been one of my personal favorites, particularly the scene where Lucy and Ethel are stuffing their faces and clothing with chocolates while trying to keep up with a speedy conveyor belt. The previous scene featured Lucy hand-dipping chocolates with a real-life dipper that Desi Arnaz had spotted working at the Farmer’s Market on Fairfax Avenue. Amanda Milligan had never seen I Love Lucy (she watched wrestling on Monday nights) but Desi hired her anyway. He thought her deadpan expression would make her a perfect “straight woman” for Lucille to react to.
During rehearsals, Lucille was worried that the scene just wasn’t going to be funny on film because Milligan seemed hesitant to hit her in the face as the script specified. When the cameras were rolling, however, Milligan hauled off and smacked Lucille so hard that Ball feared her nose had been broken. Despite her pain and ringing ears, Ball didn’t call for a “cut”—she didn’t want to have to do another take!
During a break in filming, Lucille asked Milligan “So, how do you like working in show business?” An unsmiling Amanda, who’d spent eight hours per day for the past 30 years dipping chocolates, replied “I’ve never been so bored in my life.”
“Call for Ches— er, Philip Morris!!”
I Love Lucy almost never made it to the air because CBS had trouble securing a sponsor for the show. Finally, tobacco giant Philip Morris signed on at the 11th hour. As a result, lots of smoking was featured in each episode, and the name “Philip Morris” was worked into the dialog whenever plausible. There was, however, one small problem—when it came to rich tobacco flavor, Lucille Ball was a Chesterfield girl. She eventually overcame this little hurdle by having a stagehand stuff any on-camera Philip Morris packs full of Chesterfield cigarettes.
Do You Pop Out at Parties? Are You Unpoopular?
Another one of my favorites, and one that fan’s remember well was, interestingly, not one of Lucille Ball’s favorite episodes. It wasn’t until “Lucy Does a TV Commercial” was voted tops in many viewer polls over the years that she acknowledged that it was a funny episode.
During filming, she was too nervous and worried about messing up her lines (imagine having to say “Vitameatavegamin” that many times during a spiel!) to appreciate the humor. Lucille Ball was many things, including a great physical comedienne, but one thing she was not was an improviser or extemporaneous speaker. Every slurred word of her drunken Vitameatavegamin pitch was written in the script. Lucille even came up with a back-up plan lest she forget her lines: she had script clerk Maury Thompson made-up and placed off-side in front of her podium holding up her lines (there were no cue cards on the I Love Lucy set) much like a real commercial setting. PS-By the way, that stuff Lucy was pouring onto the spoon was apple pectin. Life imitates art by the way: that “pick-me-up” tonic for the aging called Geritol contains 12% alcohol.
The show certainly wasn’t easy, and it did face it’s issues. The actors didn’t have it easy either- everyone has problems in life, but somehow fantastically they never showed it on-screen. Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance, William Frawley, and most of all, Lucille Ball made the show fun, had a fantastic time together, entertained the audience on set as well as at home- yet somehow today, it still seems so crisp, fresh and clever! Only a comedienne with such rich and wonderful talent could do that and manage to have it carried through the ages. She is certainly missed, but thankfully we have a way to always remember her by. Lucille Ball spent 56 years in front of the camera. She made so many movies and TV shows that they are difficult to count. Lucy was also a producer and TV executive, and practically invented the concept of the syndicated rerun. She passed away in 1989. She is certainly missed, but gratefully we will always have a fabulous way to always remember her.
I cannot thank Lucille Ball enough for the fact that such a show has also carried throughout my lifetime, and still makes me so happy and laugh as hard as it always has.