Sunday, April 29, 1990
Byline: Ray Richmond, The Orange County Register
On March 2, 1951, a pilot episode was shot for a televised version of a comedy radio show that Lucille Ball had done called “My Favorite Husband.” By October of that year, “I Love Lucy” was on the air and starting a six-season, 179-episode television run that would make it the most successful television series of its time — and quite possibly in TV history. The show’s popularity endures in reruns all over the globe, unwavering more than three decades after its original run. But there was always something missing: the pilot. CBS never aired that first 34-minute segment that had convinced the network to go ahead with the show, and it was never included in any syndication rerun packages for the simple reason that no one seemed to have a copy.
This was long before the days of videotaping. That first episode was shot on 16-millimeter film, called a kinescope. Only a few copies of it were ever made. It was gone, and it was largely forgotten. Then a concerted search began for the pilot in the 1980s, mostly at the behest of the New York City-based Museum of Broadcasting. It regularly ran ads in entertainment publications that were headlined, “We’d Love Lucy” and explain that it would pay good money for a pilot.
In February 1990, it suddenly surfaced. It’s going to appear on TV for the first time as part of an hour-long CBS special Monday night called, “I Love Lucy: The Very First Show” (10 p.m., KCBS/2). Lucie Arnaz hosts.
First there were the lost “Honeymooners” episodes, now the lost “I Love Lucy” pilot. Author Bart Andrews, considered the world’s foremost “I Love Lucy” authority after seeing each of the 179 episodes some 100 times and writing books such as “The`I Love Lucy’ Book” and “Loving Lucy,” has a difficult time concealing his excitement at the pilot discovery. “To me, this pilot is the biggest find in terms of archival material in the history of the medium,” said Andrews, who is working on his third “Lucy” book (The “‘I Love Lucy’ Companion”). “There is no other single TV show that has been coveted as long as this pilot. People have really been talking about trying to find it since 1975.”
In the pilot episode, Desi Arnaz plays the role of Cuban bandleader Larry Lopez (later changed to Ricky Ricardo), whose dingy American wife Lucy (Lucille Ball, of course) drives him crazy by doing an impromptu band audition to attract the attention of talent scouts in the audience. Much of the material from the pilot later found its way into the series’ sixth episode of the first season. But that hardly matters. For all intents and purposes, it’s 34 minutes of vintage Lucy that the audience has never seen.
The story of how the pilot was found is oddly simple, considering all the effort that went into unearthing it. It was presumed for years that the only hope for finding the pilot rested with Desi Arnaz. After Arnaz died in December of 1986, his daughter Lucie was asked to look under his bed, since some claimed that he had stored a copy there. “There was nothing there,” Andrews says.
Then last December, a woman named Joanne Perez was reading an article in TV Guide about the discovery of the “I Love Lucy Christmas Show,” an episode that had run only once on CBS and never in syndication and which the network broadcast at Christmastime. The last paragraph of the TV Guide story detailed how CBS, while saying the Christmas episode was nice, was “really looking for the `I Love Lucy’ pilot.” Perez read the line and was immediately struck that she might have a copy. She remembered that her late husband, the famed vaudeville clown named Pepito, appeared in the pilot and was given a copy of the film as a gift. A check under her bed confirmed what Perez had suspected: the pilot was there. “It had been there all along, all these years, and no one had thought to ask her about it,” Andrews says.
Perez, now 84, declined all interview requests this week. But as Andrews relays the story, Perez has a daughter who was an acquaintance of Bud Grant, former CBS programming chief and now a successful independent producer. Grant got hold of it, molded it into a special, and here it is on Monday. “I hope Mrs. Perez really held CBS up for the tape,” Andrews says. “I mean, this is the only copy in existence. It’s very valuable. She could have just about named her price.” No one, certainly not CBS, is saying what that price was.
Lucy is again back in prime time, and that comes a great delight to Bob Carroll Jr. Carroll, now 71 and living in Hollywood with his second wife, and his longtime writing partner, Madelyn Pugh Davis, cowrote every one of the 179 “I Love Lucy” half-hour episodes as well as the 13 hour-long segments. The pair later collaborated for several years on “The Lucy Show” and “Here’s Lucy,” writing for Ball’s shows 21 years. Carroll and Davis also penned the pilot with the help of “I Love Lucy” creator and producer Jess Oppenheimer, who died two years ago. At the time the pilot was produced, no one had an inkling of what they were working on — certainly not Carroll. “Never in our wildest dreams could we have predicted what would happen,” Carroll admits. “At the time, it was just another job for us. We’d done the radio show, so it just seemed natural that we’d do the TV show, too.” The radio show, “My Favorite Husband,” starred Lucy, Bea Benaderet, Gale Gordon (who later starred on “The Lucy Show” and “Here’s Lucy”) and Richard Denning. It ran from 1948 to ’50.
CBS had long wanted to turn “My Favorite Husband” into a TV series starring Lucy and her radio hubby, Denning. But Lucy insisted that her real-life husband, Arnaz, work as her co-star — or there would be no deal. “She wanted Desi there kind of to save her marriage, really,” Carroll recalls. “That wasn’t news to anyone back then.” Indeed, Arnaz’s womanizing was legendary, and — as Andrews confirms — Lucy wanted Desi close by so he would have less time to stray. “CBS was dead set against it,” Carroll adds. “They asked who was going to believe that this redheaded American woman was married to this Cuban bandleader, even though they really were married. It made no sense.” Carroll notes that CBS eventually compromised and allowed Lucy and Desi to create a touring vaudeville act in 1950. If the country thought they were funny, they could do the TV show together, too. The vaudeville-inspired pilot followed. The rest is history.
“I Love Lucy” 40 years later stills hauls in audiences and is even creating a prime-time stir. The show airs in reruns in more than 80 countries, and it’s said that “I Love Lucy” runs every minute of every day somewhere on the globe. Stations nationwide regularly run marathons of the series. Locally, KTTV/11 runs “I Love Lucy” 19 times a week. It’s on twice weekday mornings (9 and 9:30 a.m.), once each weeknight (11 p.m.) and twice each on Saturday and Sunday (4 and 4:30 p.m.). It even manages to find its way up into the sky. When Carroll flew on TWA to Boston, Paris and Vienna on a trip last year, he recalls that an “I Love Lucy” episode was shown before the main movie on every flight. When the ” `I Love Lucy’ Christmas Special” aired on CBS in December, it emerged as the sixth most-watched show in the ratings that week. An even bigger audience is expected Monday for ” `I Love Lucy’: The Very First Show.” Will this show never die? “I sure hope not,” Carroll replies. “It’s given me a great life.”
The Orange County Register
April 29, 1990
on page M18
BLACK & WHITE PHOTO