Behind the scenes of ‘I Love Lucy’
When the ditzy-but-lovable Lucille Ball and her Cuban husband, Ricky Ricardo, first appeared on the screen in 1951, no one could have predicted that it would become one of television’s most-adored programs.
It’s been decades since the show last aired, but we still can’t get enough! Lucy, you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do, because if you’re a fan of the show, you’re going to love these behind-the-scene facts!
The network considered Lucy’s marriage to Arnaz ‘too controversial’
I Love Lucy came into existence thanks to Lucille Ball’s 1948 radio show, My Favorite Husband. When she was finally approached about doing a sitcom, she agreed, on one condition. Ball told executives that her real-life husband, Desi Arnaz, had to play her spouse in the show, or she wouldn’t do it.
This put the network in a tough position. They assumed that there was no way American viewers would accept the idea of interracial marriage on television. It was a risky move at the time, but it certainly worked out for them in the end!
Ball almost drowned on-set
The “Lucy’s Italian Movie” episode contains one of the liveliest scenes in the show, but what viewers don’t know is that the scene almost turned deadly for Lucille Ball. In the episode, Lucy steps into a vat of grapes with a few local Italian women, where they proceed to stomp them in a hilarious fashion.
Ball says she got into a heated argument with one of the women, opera singer Teresa Tirelli D’Amico. Apparently, it was lost in translation with D’Amico that the fake fight was only being filmed from the waist up. During the scene, D’Amico held Ball’s head under the mushed grapes, causing the star to almost choke to death.
The ‘Mertzes’ really did hate each other
Although things seemed to be fun and fancy-free on screen, in real life, the Mertzes couldn’t bear to be in the same room with each other. The back and forth between Fred and Ethel was playful but, behind the scenes, Vivian Vance and William Frawley’s unkind words would escalate into heated arguments.
Vance, who played Ethel, once called Frawley an “old poop,” to which he responded by calling her multiple vulgarities. After I Love Lucy wrapped, there were talks of a spin-off involving the Mertzes, but Vance quickly nipped that in the bud, admitting she refused to work with Frawley ever again.
Ball’s pregnancy caused an uproar
During the show’s second season, Ball fell pregnant, which caused a frenzy. The soon-to-be parents were, of course, thrilled, but they were also concerned about the future of their TV show.
At the time, the word “pregnant” alone was deemed too vulgar for audiences, so it was replaced with “expecting.” It was decided that Ball’s pregnancy would be written into the show, so Desi Arnaz hired a Catholic priest, minister, and rabbi to sit in for each episode to steer clear of any offensive language.
CBS didn’t want to add William Frawley to the cast
It seems that Vivian Vance wasn’t the only one who found herself at ends with William Frawley. Originally, Ball wanted to cast actors Bea Benaderet and Gale Gordon as the Mertzes, but it fell through. They then tried to hire James Gleason to play the part of Fred, but couldn’t afford to pay him.
When Frawley found out the first choices fell through, he gave Ball and Arnaz a call about the part. CBS was hesitant to hire the actor, as he had a reputation for being unreliable and troublesome. But things worked out. According to Arnaz, “He never missed a day’s work, nor was he even a few minutes late during all the years he was with us.”
Only Lucy was allowed to tease Desi about one specific thing
Ricky’s problems with pronunciation often ended up being the butt of Lucy’s jokes, but it became an unwritten rule that other characters were not allowed to joke about his accent.
When the writers did allow a jab or two from someone other than Lucy, the joke was met with silence from the studio audience. Audiences didn’t like to see anyone make fun of Ricky unless it was Lucy was delivering the punchline.
Lucille’s natural hair color is not red
Although we recognize Lucille Ball by her vibrant red locks, she wasn’t a natural redhead. Ball was a natural brunette, and she went blonde when she started modeling.
She finally made the switch to the eye-catching red when her hairdresser, Sydney Guilaroff, told her that “The hair is brown, but the soul is on fire.” Ball’s hair dye was so precious that it was kept in a garage safe so that it was always available.
The Arnazes refused to move to NYC, which caused issues
Since the show’s sponsor, Philip Morris, was based in New York, it became evident he wanted I Love Lucy to be shot there too. To broadcast television shows coast to coast, the footage had to be preserved on kinescopes and shipped to different stations, which lowered picture quality.
This made it necessary for the couple to relocate, as their target audience was on the east coast. Arnaz suggested they film the show using three cameras like a stage play, which would transfer the same quality picture across the coast. So, Arnaz and Ball took a cut in their salaries to make the accommodations, allowing them to stay in Los Angeles.
A live audience created a unique problem
Arnaz was well aware that Lucille Ball worked best when she got immediate audience feedback, which is why he fought so hard to have a live audience when filming.
However, as a result of this live audience, there was hesitation before calling “cut” or asking for a reshoot. This meant that in order to avoid reshooting some scenes, bloopers had to be left in the final cut from time to time.
Ball let nerves get the best of her
The episode, “Lucy Does a TV Commercial,” was a fan favorite, but it was one of Ball’s least favorite episodes. While filming, Ball was so nervous about messing up her lines (in her defense, try saying “Vitameatavegamin” multiple times without messing up) that she completely missed the humor of the episode.
Although she was a successful comedienne, improvising was not her strong suit. She insisted that the script supervisor, Maury Thompson, stand off-screen to hold up her lines in case she forgot.
The show practically invented reruns
When Lucille Ball went on maternity leave in 1952, the studio and network execs went into a full-fledged panic, realizing they would not be able to release new episodes until Ball recovered. In reply to Philp Morris’ demand to have the show aired weekly, they decided to play earlier episodes.
Airing reruns proved to be a great business move since it helped boost the show’s longevity and allowed Arnaz and Ball to take some time off. I Love Lucy essentially birthed the idea of syndication and when the Arnazes sold the syndication rights of the first 180 episodes back to CBS, they made $5 million ($19.5 million today).
Arnaz had quite a wandering eye
The famous Hollywood pimp, Scotty Bowers wrote in his book, Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars, that Arnaz was “a sweetheart of a guy, with a healthy heterosexual appetite. He often called me up for girls, tipping them more generously than anyone else I knew.”
Ball was very aware of Arnaz’s relationship with Bowers and made sure he knew. Bowers says in his book that one night at a party, she approached him, slapped him, and yelled, “You! You stop pimping for my husband, y’ hear!” Bowers writes that he had no anger towards Ball, adding, “Nobody ever messed around with Lucille. Her temper equaled her charm.”
There was almost a scene where Ricky cheats the government
There was a scene in the original script for the episode, “Lucy Tells the Truth,” that involved Ricky messing up some numbers on his income tax return. Upon reading it, Arnaz flew into a rage. Known for being a firm believer in the American dream, Arnaz was offended.
During his speech on Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town, he admitted, “From cleaning canary cages to this night in New York is a long way. And I don’t think there’s any other country in the world that could give you that opportunity.” Arnaz made it clear that Ricky was a patriotic man, not wanting the audience to think he would cheat the U.S. government.
Arnaz demanded realism, regardless of cost
No matter how surreal the situation in an episode, Desi Arnaz would go extra lengths to make sure it was as realistic as possible. For example, in the episode “Pioneer Women,” there is a scene that involves an 8-foot loaf of bread.
Instead of making the 8-foot a prop, the producers found a New York bakery willing to make it. After filming, the large loaf was cut up and served to the attending audience.
The ‘Uh-Oh’ lady in the audience was Lucille’s mother
Perhaps you recall that every time Lucy Ricardo got herself into trouble, you would hear a woman’s “uh-oh” echo from the audience. Well, that “uh-oh” woman had a name, and it was Dede Ball, Lucille’s mother.
The I Love Lucy sound engineer, Glen Glenn, was the co-founder of Glen Glenn Sound, one of the leading companies that produced laugh tracks for sitcoms in the ’60s and ’70s. Many of the tracks came from pre-recorded laughter from I Love Lucy, which is why you can still hear Dede’s “uh-oh” on later television sitcoms.
The show was one big smoking ad
Network execs found that financing I Love Lucy would be difficult, so they jumped at the opportunity to partner with a big-time tobacco company, Philip Morris. They sponsored the show for three years, heavily contributing to on-screen cigarette usage. The very first episode of the sitcom opened with a Philip Morris spokesman holding a pack of smokes towards the audience.
Before transitioning into the actual episode, the spokesman takes an exaggerated drag, listing the benefits of smoking Philip Morris. At the height of I Love Lucy‘s fame, nearly half of all Americans smoked, and it was made very clear that the “only way” to truly enjoy the sitcom was with a cigarette in hand.
The longest laugh lasted 65 seconds
The longest laugh recorded on I Love Lucy occurred after Lucy hid dozens of eggs then danced with Ricky. The audience’s laughter raged on for over a minute. It was so long that some of the laughter had to be edited out of the final cut.
When practicing for the scene, Ball and Arnaz decided not to practice with real eggs so that their reactions would be realistic when they finally filmed the scene in front of an audience. To this day, it remains one of the longest recorded laughs in television history.
Arnaz wore lifts in his shoes
If you were to quickly search for Arnaz’s height, you would likely find mixed answers. In many biographies, Arnaz is listed as 5’11”, but those who worked closely with him know that this was only because he wore 4-inch lifts in his shoes.
Arnaz was actually 5’9, but when his 5’7 wife stood in heels, she towered over him. As a result, Arnaz decided to start wearing lifts. He later explained that he was like his father in the sense that he “was a Cuban with a Latin male’s pride,” which is why he felt the need to be taller than Ball.
The candy dipping lady had a hilarious encounter with Ball
Amanda Milligan, the real-life candy dipper hired to be Lucy’s manager in the episode “Job Switching,” had never seen an episode of I Love Lucy before. During rehearsals, Lucille worried that the scene’s humor may be lost since Milligan seemed hesitant to hit her in the face as the script asked.
However, when the cameras began rolling, Milligan hit Ball so hard in the face she feared that her nose had been broken. Despite the lingering pain, Ball didn’t want to “cut,” because she didn’t want to do the scene again.
Lucy and Ricky had to sleep in separate beds
Although Lucy and Ricky were married in the show, the sitcom tried to diminish any possible sexual situation between the two to keep it family-friendly. This meant the couple had sleep in two separate beds when they shot bedroom scenes.
The Hays Code was a strict set of rules created in 1930 to enforce censorship in TV and film. One “big no” was “Any licentious or suggestive nudity.” Although it wasn’t exactly forbidden, showing a “man and woman in bed together” was considered too suggestive for American audiences.
Lucy and Desi took the show on the road to convince the network
Before playing Ricky Ricardo, Arnaz was in a successful rumba band that was in the midst of a tour when the show was originally pitched.
To convince the network that the long-time couple could work together, they created a skit that would be implemented in the middle of Arnaz’s performance with his band. Audiences roared for the pair, which ultimately convinced the network that the couple would be a riot on screen.
Lucy met Desi on the set of a musical comedy
Lucille Ball was 28 when she met a 23-year-old Desi Arnaz on the set of the film Too Many Girls. It was love at first sight. There have always been quite a few lovable and intriguing on/off-screen romances, but Ball and Arnaz will always hold a special place in America’s heart.
Friends admitted that it was odd to see the strong-willed Ball so smitten. Close friend Actress Ruta Lee told Closer Magazine, “I found it surprising because she was such a strong, independent lady, but when it came to Desi, she was very old-fashioned.”
Ball struggled when Harpo Marx guest starred
Ball had always been a huge fan of Harpo Marx, but when the pair finally worked together, she had trouble keeping up. As a comedian, Marx had a “never the same way twice” method to his routines, unlike Ball, who followed the script precisely.
In the “Hollywood” episode where Ball has to mirror Marx’s moves, she insisted that the pair follow a strict routine to be practiced beforehand. However, Marx’s approach to the scene was, “I’ve done this bit for 35 years, why do I need so much rehearsal?” In the end, they needed to reshoot the scene several times after the audience left.
The show earned an impressive ‘first’
The first TV Guide Magazine was released on April 3, 1953, but it wasn’t Lucille Ball or Desi Arnaz who made the cover. It was Little Ricky who graced the cover of the first magazine, along with the caption, “Lucy’s $50,000,000 Baby.”
Desi Arnaz Jr., (pictured above) the couple’s real-life child, later admitted: “Because that cover was so widely seen, everyone thought I played Little Ricky, and that’s stuck with me throughout my life. Of course, my parents only added to the misunderstanding by casting a series of infants – there were six in all – who matched the TV Guide photo.”
Ball was the first female to run a major Hollywood studio
Desilu Productions, named after both Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, was first formed by the couple in 1950. The company was known for producing popular shows such as The Untouchables, Star Trek and, of course, their own program, I Love Lucy.
Desilu Productions remained the second-largest independent television production company in the U.S. until 1962. When MCA bought Universal Pictures, Desilu became the number one independent production company until it was sold in 1967. After Ball sold Desilu, she established her own production company in 1968, called Lucille Ball Productions.
Lucy owes a lot of her success to comedian Jack Benny
Jess Oppenheimer explained to Ball’s biographer, Charles Hugham, that she would often hide behind the scripts at her radio show, saying, “She didn’t fully trust her instincts as a clown. I tried to encourage her to ham it up more, to allow a pause for the laughs I was sure she could get.”
Oppenheimer continued: “Finally, I told her I was sending her to school one Sunday. I got her passes to the taping of The Jack Benny Show. Benny was the master of the silent reaction, which he would hold sometimes for twenty seconds on the radio. And it worked. Lucy went and saw him, and she told me the next, ‘I never realized what you can do with just a script and a microphone.’ From then on, she became much more free, much more daring.”
The Desilu Playhouse was created for the show
When it was time to begin production for I Love Lucy, it was difficult for them to find a studio that was big enough to house a full studio audience. That’s when Desi Arnaz woke up in the middle of the night with a perfect idea.
It was decided that they would use a movie studio, which had never been done before. To accomplish this feat, General Service Studios Stage 2 had to be completely soundproofed. Arnaz had to go door to door to get people from the neighborhood to give their OK to use the studio. And thus, Desi Playhouse was born.
The show ended at No. 1 in Nielsen Ratings
During its run, I Love Lucy became the most-watched show in the United States for four of its six seasons! When the show ended, it was the first to end its run at the top of the Nielsen ratings, a feat which has only been accomplished by The Andy Griffith Show and Seinfeld since.
The show has been syndicated and translated into dozens of languages across the world and remains popular with Americans, bringing in 40 million each year. In 2013, six decades after the show premiered, the Christmas episode played on CBS, where it attracted more than 8 million viewers.
Little Ricky and Desi Arnaz Jr. were born on the same day
Since the Arnazes first child, Lucie, was born through C-section, it was recommended that their next child be born the same way. It so happened that Ball’s obstetrician scheduled all his C-sections on Mondays, which was the day I Love Lucy aired.
So, the episode where Lucy Ricardo gives birth to her child aired on the same day that Lucille Ball gave birth in real life. This particular episode broke records with 71.7% of American televisions tuning in that night to get a glimpse of the Ricardo baby.
‘I Love Lucy’ had animated segments, too
When I Love Lucy went into commercial breaks, an “animated bumper” would appear, which featured animated versions of both Lucy and Desi to help promote their beloved sponsor, Philip Morris cigarettes.
Of course, this wasn’t the first time something like this had been done. We saw a similar situation with The Flintstones that featured Fred, Wilma, Barney, and Betty talking about the luxury of Philip Morris products.