He Loves Lucy
by Ronald Sklar
Dig this if you can. It’s a Monday night in 1954 and you want to go clothes shopping. Forget it, daddy-o. All the stores in town are closed for the evening and you look like a damned fool for being the only idiot walking the streets. And why? It’s not only because all the clothes in the fifties are ugly. It’s because we love Lucy.
Yes, everything you heard about that wacky redhead is true. I Love Lucy, one of America’s most-watched television programs of all time, was responsible for more prototype couch potatoes than statistics dare to record. Amazing things happened in this country during this program’s Monday evening time slot. From 9-9:30 PM during the years 1951 through 1960, retail establishments shut down, crime declined, water pressure dropped, the lion lay down with the lamb – even President Eisenhower wheeled in the old television for a look-see. Let Tim Allen or Roseanne match them apples.
Lucille Ball, the redheaded clown responsible for all this inactivity, has been dead for over ten years, but her star continues to rise. Her classic show is playing somewhere in the world during every minute of the day, every day of the year. Lucy memorabilia continues to sell into the umpteen millions and now the US Post Office has even issued a Lucy stamp. In fact, America – not always quick to forgive – has continued to love her even after she starred in watered-down versions of her original classic during the 60s, 70s and 80s. Lucille – or “Lucy,” as those close to her called her – continues to be the mistress of her domain, setting the standard for what will be copied to death: the modern American sitcom, filmed live before a studio audience and lousy with wacky situations and innocent misunderstandings.
Why Lucy? And why forever? The answer is attempted in Gregg Oppenheimer’s book, Laughs, Luck…and Lucy: How I Came To Create the Most Popular Sitcom of All Time (Syracuse University Press).
First a little explanation. Gregg’s father is the late Jess Oppenheimer, who played a major part in helping us love Lucy. He was the producer and head writer of 153 of the most beloved Lucy episodes – the ones that rerun endlessly in your head. His career spans back to early radio, writing for the likes of such obscure nobodies as Fred Astaire, Jack Benny and Fanny Brice. Lucy was his lucky charm, though, and his association with her earned him two Emmys and a place in pop culture history. His son, Gregg, traded in the unstable career of a lawyer for the more grounded lifestyle of a book writer. He’s off to a good start: his Lucy book is chock full of insight into what makes us love Lucy. It’s written in the voice of his father, and garnered from tons of dad’s scripts, interviews, seminars and unfinished projects. Yes, writing the story posthumously is a novel idea indeed. As Lucy’s friend Ethel would often say, “that’s the craziest idea I’ve ever heard.” But Lucy would always respond with, “you got a better one?” And the same applies here.
In a recent telephone interview, Gregg recalls, “My mother and my sister and I bugged my dad for years to put some of his great stories down on paper. In the early 80s, he started writing his memoirs. He wrote about 85-100 pages and gave it to me to edit. I was a lawyer at the time. I got really busy with my law firm, and in 1988 he passed away.
“I was so sad that he hadn’t finished it, and I wanted to put something together for his family – for his grandchildren mostly – I wanted to give them a sense of what kind of guy he was. I decided to do the book in his voice, as if somebody spent an evening with my dad. I didn’t know if it was going to be a publishable book when I finished.”
Fear not. The book is more than just book. It also contains a free audio CD featuring “Lucy’s Lost Scenes,” which includes “new” nuggets from I Love Lucy – discovered after more than forty-five years! You’ll also get never-before-published Lucy scripts and dialogues as well as behind-the-scenes stories and photographs.
Gregg first met Lucy when he was four, in a conversation straight out of a sitcom. Lucy asked him, “Where did you get those big brown eyes?” Gregg responded, “They came with the face.” He grew up in a house with nine television sets (in an era when people were lucky to even have one). He recalls, “All but one of those sets had been on TV. Dad would use it as a prop and then bring it home.”
Not a bad little start to life, considering that CBS owns 90 percent of I Love Lucy and Gregg’s mother owns the other ten (Lucie Arnaz handles the Lucille Ball estate.). Gregg was the same age as little Lucie and his earliest memories include elaborate birthday parties in the Arnaz backyard in Beverly Hills, with a great clown and a working Ferris wheel.
So we all want to know: what was the real Lucy like, and would we love her anyway? “She wasn’t anything like Lucy Ricardo,” Gregg says. “She was very hard-nosed, but she had a great imagination. She wasn’t an ad-libber, although people thought she was. She worked so hard. She rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed, much harder than people do now.”
Perhaps she worked too hard. Despite her breathtaking beauty and limitless energy and ability, the world only wanted her to be Lucy, not Lucille. Gregg says, “When she did Wildcat on Broadway, over the course of the run of that show, the character became more and more like Lucy Ricardo, because that’s what the people wanted. She was an extremely talented actress, but this was the role she was born to play.”
And how do you explain Lucy‘s universal and timeless appeal? Gregg says, “You had a script that didn’t insult anybody’s intelligence. There are great shows today, but Lucy appeals to children and adults. There aren’t that many successful comedies since then that are both timeless and that a seven-year-old can enjoy as much as an adult. This was for everybody. That, and the writing was excellent. Everything worked on that show. There wasn’t a single sour note. There were tremendous creative minds and talent at work. And very rarely did they use a name that fifty years from then people would have trouble remembering.”
After Lucy, Jess went to NBC as an executive in program development. He did several pilots that he had trouble selling. He also wrote and produced unsuccessful sitcoms for Glynns Johns and Debbie Reynolds in the 60s, but he made up for it by producing the uber-classic Get Smart. Another of his more notable triumphs is the development of the TelePrompTer, which has since saved the careers of many lesser-talented television personalities. However, he will be forever associated with Lucy.
Jess had told Gregg that in order to create farce, you have to have believable people in unbelievable situations or unbelievable people in believable situations. You take people along slowly, one step at a time.
It’s amazing how true that is, and how we love Lucy for taking us along.
Hey all you Lucyheads: you’d better visit www.lucylibrary.com for a really satisfying Lucy fix. And all the profits from the site benefit the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. Not a bad deal!
Copyright ©1999 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: April 28, 1999.