Monday, April 30, 1990
by Tom Shales
The Washington Post
On Dec. 18, 1989, 33 years after its first and only previous broadcast, CBS aired “The I Love Lucy Christmas Show” in prime time. Result: A very healthy 18.6 rating and 28 share, good enough to put the special in sixth place for the week, one of the few CBS entertainment shows to rank that high all year.
At last-a way for the once-proud network to crawl out of the ratings sub-cellar where it has languished for two whole seasons: All CBS has to do is keep finding lost episodes of “I Love Lucy”! Lucille Ball had helped build the network in life; maybe she could help rebuild it in death.
The plan, besides being a little morbid, has its limitations, since all the other “I Love Lucy” episodes have been in perpetual syndication for decades. Even so, archaeologists have managed to turn up another one. Tonight at 10 on Channel 9, CBS presents a one-hour special built around the newly rediscovered 34-minute pilot for “I Love Lucy,” shot on March 2, 1951, and never aired until now.
All this time, the pilot was believed lost. It was used to sell “I Love Lucy” to a sponsor, and since the actual series differed radically from the pilot, it was never shown on TV. Rumor had it that Desi Arnaz, who co-produced the show with Ball, his wife, had a copy under his bed.
But that’s not the bed it turned up under. Arnaz apparently had given a print of the episode to Pepito, a clown who’s featured in the show. Pepito’s widow discovered it, and gave it to B. Donald (Bud) Grant, the former CBS Entertainment president who now runs Grant/Tribune Productions, and is producing the special that includes it.
The special was not available for advance screening but the episode was. Its value is mainly historical. While the essential premise of the show remained the same-a Cuban-born band leader working in New York tries to keep his wacky red-headed wife from breaking into show business-many of the details changed.
Among these was the addition of two neighbors to act as foils for Lucy: William Frawley and Vivian Vance as Fred and Ethel Mertz. They aren’t in the pilot. And they are missed.
And wait till you get a load of the Ricardos’ crazy, cramped, apparently one-room, seventh-floor apartment. It’s nothing like the cozy third-floor flat where Lucy and Ricky later dwelled.
Otherwise, the pilot largely resembles “The Audition,” an “I Love Lucy” episode that did air on Nov. 19, 1951 (according to Bart Andrews’s invaluable guide, “The I Love Lucy Book”).
As in that episode, the pilot involves a clown taking a spill during a rehearsal at Ricky’s nightclub, and Lucy showing up in baggy pants to take his place. She plays the “saxa-fifa-trona-phono-vich,” a row of horns usually honked by a trained seal.
The bagginess of the pants was convenient because Ball was four months pregnant with daughter Lucie, who will appear on tonight’s special.
Jerry Hausner, who plays Ricky Ricardo’s agent, Jerry, in the pilot-and who appeared in many episodes of the series over its prosperous run-is believed to be the last surviving member of the pilot’s cast. Hausner, who turns 81 on May 20, lives in Encino, Calif.
“In the series, I was going to be Desi’s best friend and manager and all that stuff,” Hausner recalls-his voice nearly as sharp and punchy as it was 40 years ago. “When we made the pilot, the Mertzes were not even thought of. Somebody came up with the idea that the Ricardos ought to have friends other than me.” So Hausner did not become the weekly regular he thought he would.
However, in addition to the occasional Jerry-the-agent spots, Hausner contributed another characterization to the series. Since he’d been the voice of Baby Snooks’s little brother on Fannie Brice’s radio show, he was accomplished at making baby gurgles. He became the voice of Little Ricky as an infant.
Hausner’s memories of the show, and of Ball and Arnaz, are not particularly fond.
“You don’t think in terms of whether you’re happy or not when you’re doing it. You’re making a living,” Hausner says. “Lucy was always wrapped up in whatever she was doing and as many times as I was on the show, if anybody had asked her my name, she wouldn’t have known it. A lot of stars are like that.
“But I have great respect for her talent. She was hard-working and tireless; she never got tired, and she worked 16, 18 hours a day. Even when she was pregnant, she was like a locomotive. And she expected everyone else to be.”
Arnaz was the boss as well as the co-star. Hausner remembers him as a heavy drinker with a bad temper. One night, during shooting, an onstage telephone hookup between the two men failed, just as Hausner had warned Arnaz it would, and Desi blew up.
“He screamed at me and called me names in front of the audience,” Hausner remembers. “He was drunk a lot of the time. He could be an ornery bastard. I went to the producer and said, `Write me out of this thing.’ “
Before leaving, he returned some of Arnaz’s insults. “I said to him, `All your talent is in your wife’s name! I’ll be on this show when you’re off it!’ And a funny thing-six years later, after the divorce, Lucy was doing a different series and had me on. And she said to me, `Well you were right. You’re here, and he’s not.’ “
Hausner, whose last appearance in a sitcom was in the short-lived “Coming of Age” on CBS in 1988, says he saw “I Love Lucy” for the first time only a few years ago, having caught some of the reruns that air twice a day on a Los Angeles station.
“I never watched it back then, no. We were so busy working, we never watched TV. And I lived in Europe for several years. I’ve been living my life and not worrying about television. But recently, I have seen some of the shows. Since my wife passed away, I’ve been making my own breakfast, and I watch it in the mornings in the kitchen. And I’ve been very excited about how good I was.”
Those tuning in the “Lucy” pilot tonight expecting a laugh riot will be disappointed. While it was indeed written by Madelyn Pugh, Bob Carroll Jr. and Jess Oppenheimer-the team that did most of the writing on the series, joined in the fifth season by Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf-the format hadn’t been perfected.
Instead of a domestic sitcom with vaudeville elements, the pilot is mostly vaudeville stuff, including material Arnaz and Ball had done in a nightclub act. Their home life isn’t grounded in reality as it would be later. The pilot appears to be a kinescope, which means it was shot with TV cameras and filmed off monitors, perhaps because it still wasn’t certain at that point whether “Lucy” would be a live or filmed show. There was no tape then.
By the time it went on the air, “I Love Lucy” was shot via a three-camera film process still common on sitcoms today. Arnaz helped perfect it.
Among the jarring notes in the pilot is a speech Ricky delivers to Lucy about the proper role of a wife. It’s a little worse than anything that appeared in the series itself, but not dissimilar to sentiments expressed commonly in ’50s sitcoms.
“I want a wife who’s just a wife,” Ricky tells Lucy. “Now look, all you gotta do: clean the house for me, hand me my pipe when I come home at night, cook for me and be the mama for my children.” The speech is especially ironic considering that without powerhouse Lucy, there would have been no show.
For better and for worse, the “I Love Lucy” pilot is a Hubble telescope to another time; its historical value to television is indisputable. Indeed, until it turned up, the Museum of Broadcasting in New York regularly ran ads asking for information as to its whereabouts.
“We’ve been looking for it for three or four years, at least,” says Robert M. Batscha, director of the museum. “We searched all over the place.” Batscha says Grant/Tribune Productions has agreed to donate the print to the museum’s permanent collection.
The discovery of the pilot would seem to end the search for missing “Lucy’s.” Wellll-yes and no. Batscha says that among the lost treasures the museum would love to get its hands on is an early appearance by Ball and Arnaz, in character as Lucy and Ricky, on the old “Ed Wynn Show.” He’d be very excited to locate it.
So, it hardly needs to be said, would CBS.
ON THE AIR
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