20 Things You Might Not Have Known About I Love Lucy

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 

When I Love Lucy premiered on October 15, 1951, no one could have predicted that it would become one of television’s most beloved and enduring programs of all time. But with a combination of innovative filming techniques, the dogged perfectionism of star Lucille Ball, top-notch writing, the “can do” attitude of the production staff, and the business savvy of Desi Arnaz, I Love Lucy topped the Nielsen ratings for four out of its six seasons and picked up a handful of Emmys along the way. And even though the show’s main stars couldn’t stay married to one another (Lucy and Desi divorced in 1960, after 20 years of marriage), they remained the best of friends. As Desi would proclaim until his dying day, “I Love Lucy was never just a title.”

1. CBS DIDN’T THINK AMERICANS WOULD BUY THAT LUCY WAS MARRIED TO A “FOREIGN” MAN.

When CBS approached Lucille Ball with the offer of turning her popular radio show My Favorite Husband into a television show, she was agreeable with one condition: that her real-life husband, Desi Arnaz, would be cast in the role of her spouse (played on the radio by Richard Denning). The network balked—there was no way that American viewers would accept average housewife Liz Cooper (her character’s name on the radio series) being married to a “foreign” man with an indecipherable accent. Never mind the fact that Lucy and Desi had been married more than a decade; such a “mixed” marriage was unbelievable.

2. LUCY AND DESI HAD TO TAKE THEIR SHOW ON THE ROAD TO CONVINCE THE NETWORK BRASS.

Arnaz had a successful career touring the country with his rhumba band, which was one of the reasons Lucille wanted him to get cast as her TV husband—to keep him off the road and close to home. In an effort to show the network (and potential sponsors) that they could work together as a comedy team, they crafted a sort of vaudevillian skit that was inserted into the middle of performances by the Desi Arnaz Orchestra during a tour in the summer of 1950. The audiences roared over Lucille’s antics and her interaction with Desi as she interrupted his band’s concert confusedly, cello in hand, thinking she had an audition scheduled. The “Professor” skit not only convinced the network powers that be that the couple could, in fact, be convincing as husband and wife—it also was such a hit that it was incorporated into episode six of I Love Lucy’s first season.

3. THE SHOW BROKE GROUND IN SEVERAL WAYS, SIMPLY BECAUSE THE ARNAZES WOULDN’T MOVE TO NEW YORK.

Lucille and Desi wanted to work in Los Angeles, near their home and their new baby daughter Lucie. But in 1951 the majority of television shows were broadcast from New York, and that’s where sponsor Philip Morris wanted their show to originate as well. In those days the U.S. wasn’t wired for television from coast-to-coast; shows broadcast live could only be transmitted so far. As a result, such shows were preserved on kinescopes (a movie camera aimed at a TV monitor that recorded the show in negligible quality) and shipped to distant stations.

Philip Morris objected to I Love Lucy being performed in California and the kinescopes sent to New York; their biggest cigarette market was up and down the east coast and they wanted the best TV picture quality for that area. Desi Arnaz suggested that the show be filmed with three cameras, like a stage play, which would provide the same quality picture for every market. But multi-cameras had never been used on a situation comedy before, and there were many obstacles involved, not the least of which was accommodating a live studio audience (Desi knew that Lucille worked best when she got immediate audience feedback).

Desi hired legendary cinematographer Karl Freund to help solve the dilemma, and along with writer-producer Jess Oppenheimer and director Marc Daniels, they built a set, and the necessary filming equipment was strategically placed. CBS balked at the additional expense involved in this undertaking, so Arnaz struck a deal: He and Lucille would take a large cut in their salaries and their company, Desilu Productions, would retain ownership of the films in exchange. The enduring high quality of the 35 millimeter film was part of the reason that I Love Lucy became so popular in rerun syndication, and Desilu’s 100 percent ownership of the series made Lucille and Desi the first millionaire TV stars.

4. ONLY LUCY WAS ALLOWED TO MAKE FUN OF RICKY’S FRACTURED ENGLISH.

After a few episodes were filmed, it became an unwritten rule that only Lucy would ever poke fun at her husband’s pronunciation problems. The writers had allowed other characters to make remarks, but in each case the “joke” was met with stony silence from the studio audience. For some reason, it seemed cruel when anyone other than Lucy “mucked” Ricky’s English.

5. SMOKING WAS REQUIRED ON-CAMERA.

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 dialogue whenever plausible. There was, however, one small problem: 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.

6. WILLIAM FRAWLEY WAS FAR FROM THE FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY FRED MERTZ.

Lucille Ball was eager to have Gale Gordon, whom she’d worked with on her My Favorite Husband radio show, play crusty neighbor and landlord Fred Mertz. But Gordon, who had a steady gig at the time on the Our Miss Brooks radio program, asked for more money than Desilu had to offer. Character actor William Frawley knew Ball in passing (they’d met back in the 1940s) and phoned her personally when he read about her upcoming TV show in the trade papers to inquire if there might be a part for him. CBS and Philip Morris were wary of hiring Frawley, who had a reputation for being a heavy drinker. But Arnaz (no stranger to the bottle himself) thought that Frawley was just curmudgeonly enough to bring Fred Mertz to life. He met Frawley for lunch at Nickodell’s on Melrose Avenue and offered him the role with the proviso that if he missed work for any reason other than legitimate illness, he’d be written out of the show.

7. DORIS ZIFFEL WAS ALMOST ETHEL MERTZ.

Lucille had worked with Bea Benaderet in radio and wanted her to play Ethel Mertz. But Benaderet had just signed on to play Blanche Morton on the TV version of The Burns and Allen Show and was unavailable. Barbara Pepper was a personal friend of Ball’s, and the two had worked in films together, so she was the next serious consideration for the role. Pepper was the right age and body type to play Ethel, but she was also a known alcoholic and the network nixed her after Frawley was hired; two heavy drinkers in the main cast was too risky. I Love Lucy had already gone into early rehearsals by the time director Marc Daniels saw Vivian Vance performing in a play at the La Jolla Playhouse and recommended her to Arnaz. Pepper did play background characters on several I Love Lucy episodes and would go on to land the role of Doris Ziffel on Green Acres.

8. THE “MERTZES” DESPISED ONE ANOTHER OFF-CAMERA.

Vivian Vance was 22 years younger than her TV husband and resented having such an “old poop” play her spouse. Frawley responded in kind, referring to her variously as “that sack of doorknobs” or just plain “b*tch.” But all that animosity was strictly behind the scenes and known mostly only to the series’ writers and directors. Frawley and Vance were savvy enough to not jeopardize their jobs on TV’s most successful show by openly airing their mutual hostility. Even co-workers like Keith Thibodeaux (Little Ricky, a.k.a. Richard Keith) and Roy Rowan (the show’s announcer), who were on the set daily, had no idea that things were less than cuddly between the two actors until years after I Love Lucy ceased production.

9. DESI ARNAZ HAD LIFTS IN HIS SHOES (AND HIS LOVESEAT).

Arnaz listed his height as 5’11” in most official biographies, but those who worked with him knew that in reality he was 5’9” and wore four-inch lifts in his shoes. Lucille Ball stood 5’7” in her stocking feet, and when she wore heels she seemed to tower over her husband. Desi Arnaz Jr. would later explain to an interviewer that his father “was a Cuban with a Latin male’s pride,” which is why it was important to him to be taller than his wife. A dual-purpose, subtle additional cushion (undetectable by the viewing audience) was added to the Ricardos’ loveseat so that Ricky would be taller than Lucy while seated, and would also give him the extra boost needed to gracefully rise from a sitting position up onto his elevator shoes.

10. ARNAZ FLATLY REJECTED A SCENE THAT INVOLVED RICKY CHEATING ON HIS TAXES.

Desi Arnaz was an unabashed believer in the American Dream and was very patriotic when it came to his adopted homeland. Desi was 17 years old when Fulgencio Batista overthrew the Cuban government and the Arnaz family fled to Miami with little more than the clothes they were wearing. The family lived in a warehouse with some other refugees and Desi got a job cleaning birdcages for a man who sold canaries to pet stores. As he said during his acceptance speech on Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town in 1954, “From cleaning canary cages to this night in New York is a long ways. And I don’t think there’s any other country in the world that could give you that opportunity.” So when a scene in the original script for the episode “Lucy Tells the Truth” called for Ricky to fudge some numbers on his income tax return, Arnaz refused to play it and asked the writers to remove it. He didn’t want the audience to think that Ricky would cheat the U.S. government.

11. THE CANDY LADY WAS A BIG DIPPER IN REAL LIFE.

“Job Switching” (often referred to as “The Candy Factory Episode”) has long been a fan favorite, 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 stage manager Herb Browar found at See’s Candies on Santa Monica Boulevard.

Amanda Milligan had never seen I Love Lucy (she watched wrestling on Monday nights), but Browar hired her anyway; he thought her deadpan expression would make her the 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, 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” because she did not 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 Milligan, who’d spent eight hours per day for the past 30 years putting swirls on chocolates, replied, “I’ve never been so bored in my life.”

12. LUCILLE WAS TOO STRESSED TO APPRECIATE THE HUMOR IN ONE OF HER MOST POPULAR EPISODES.

Another fan favorite was, interestingly, not one of 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.

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 in the script. Lucille even came up with a backup plan, lest she forget her lines: She had script supervisor 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.

By the way, that stuff Lucy was pouring onto the spoon was apple pectin.

13. BECAUSE THE SHOW WAS FILMED IN FRONT OF AN AUDIENCE, THEY HESITATED TO YELL “CUT” AND RESHOOT SCENES.

As a result, the occasional blooper was left in and sort of papered-over. One classic example occurred in “Redecorating the Mertzes’ Apartment,” at the breakfast table when Lucy is musing aloud about how to repair both the Mertzes’ marriage and their tacky apartment. See how Desi saves the scene after she mistakenly says “paint the furniture and reupholster the old furniture.”

14. LUCILLE’S PREGNANCY CREATED PANIC BEHIND THE SCENES.

During season two, Ball discovered that she was pregnant. While the Arnazes were overjoyed (Lucille had previously suffered three miscarriages before giving birth to daughter Lucie in July 1951), they were also concerned about the fate of their hit series. Other than the late 1940s sitcom Mary Kay and Johnny (which also starred a real-life married couple), a visibly pregnant female had never starred on a TV series. It would be impossible to conceal Lucille’s condition because, as Desi told the network, “she got as big as a house when she was carrying Lucie.”

Eventually, the network agreed to write Ball’s pregnancy into the show, and Desi hired a local Catholic priest, a minister, and a rabbi to sit in while each episode was filmed to determine whether there was anything objectionable. CBS deemed that the word “pregnant” was vulgar, so it was replaced with “expecting” (or, as Ricky pronounced it, “‘spectin’”). The scene at the Tropicana, where Lucy finally breaks the news to Ricky, was genuinely emotional for the actors, who both started crying and Desi had to be prompted “sing the baby song!” Director William Asher reshot that scene, but decided that the raw emotion in the original take made for a more poignant moment and used it.

15. LITTLE RICKY AND DESI ARNAZ JR. WERE BORN ON THE SAME DAY.

The Arnazes already knew that Lucille would give birth via Caesarian section when her time came (as that was how Lucie had been delivered), and Ball’s obstetrician regularly scheduled all his C-sections on Mondays. As luck would have it, I Love Lucy aired on Monday nights, so with the pregnancy episodes timed just so, Ball went to the hospital the same night that Lucy Ricardo did.

What the Arnazes did not know in advance, however, was the gender of their pending bundle of joy. I Love Lucy head writer Jess Oppenheimer had decided that the Ricardos would have a boy, so when Desi Arnaz Jr. was born, Desi Sr. joyfully called Jess to announce proudly, “Lucy followed your script! Ain’t she something?!” (By the way, a record-breaking 71.7 percent of American televisions were tuned in that Monday night to see the Ricardo baby, which topped the number of folks who watched Dwight D. Eisenhower get sworn in as President the following day.)

16. LUCILLE TRULY SUFFERED FOR THAT ICONIC GRAPE-STOMPING EPISODE.

“Lucy’s Italian Movie” faced a variety of obstacles. First was getting a vineyard to donate the necessary grapes for stomping. The company that ultimately agreed did so with the proviso that it must be mentioned in the script that foot-pressing was an outmoded method of making wine in Italy. Next was the local extra cast to wrestle Lucille in the grape vat; Teresa Tirelli didn’t speak any English and an interpreter had to explain the scene to her. Apparently something was lost in the translation because Tirelli didn’t grasp that this was supposed to be a filmed-from-the-waist-up fake fight and she literally held Lucille’s head under the grape mush until the star very nearly drowned. And even though the show was broadcast in black and white, Ball, Arnaz, and the production staff were sticklers for detail so a formula for a purplish/blue dye had to be worked out that would properly tint Lucille’s flesh and hair without irritating her skin or reacting with the chemicals used to keep her permed locks that famous henna color for that final scene.

17. LUCILLE EXASPERATED GUEST STAR HARPO MARX.

Ball was a long-time admirer of Harpo Marx, but when it came to actually working with him, she was unprepared for his “never the same way twice” approach to his comedy routines. In the Hollywood episode where she was required to mirror his moves, she insisted on incessant rehearsals to get the bit just right. But Harpo’s attitude was “I’ve done this bit for 35 years, why do I need so much rehearsal?” In the end, this was one of the few instances where the scene was re-shot several times after the studio audience had left and was later pieced together by editor Dann Cahn.

18. THE LONGEST LAUGH ON THE SHOW LASTED 65 SECONDS.

When Lucy hid dozens of eggs and then danced the tango with Ricky (resulting in the inevitable blouse full of scrambled yolks), the audience roared for so long that ultimately some of the laughter had to be edited out in the final film. Neither Ball nor Vance had used eggs during rehearsals so that their onscreen reactions would be more genuine when the shells cracked and the albumen slimed its way down their flesh.

19. ARNAZ REQUIRED AS MUCH REALISM AS POSSIBLE, NO MATTER THE COST OR DIFFICULTY.

No matter how wacky the situation, Arnaz tried hard to maintain some veracity, thinking that the audience would believe it (and thus find it more humorous) if the actors believed it. So when a scene in “Pioneer Women” required an eight-foot-long loaf of bread to pop out of the oven, the producers found a New York bakery willing to bake one. (It was rye bread, by the way, and when filming was finished it was cut up and served to the audience.) Likewise, in “Deep Sea Fishing” when Ricky and Fred entered into a bet with Lucy and Ethel to see who could catch the biggest fish, two 100-plus pound tunas were purchased at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, packed in ice into child-sized coffins and air-shipped to Hollywood.

20. THE “UH-OH” LADY HEARD IN THE STUDIO AUDIENCE WAS LUCILLE’S MOM.

Quite often when Lucy Ricardo was stepping into a precarious situation, a woman in the audience could be heard uttering “uh-oh.” That was Dede Ball, who attended every taping and tended to get wrapped up in the proceedings. I Love Lucy sound engineer Glen Glenn was the co-founder of Glen Glenn Sound, and in the 1960s and ‘70s his company was one of the leading providers of laugh tracks, or canned laughter, to TV sitcoms. Many of the yuks used in their recordings were culled from I Love Lucy and The Red Skelton Show, which is why Dede’s “uh-oh” could be heard years later on shows she’d never seen, much less been in attendance.

Additional Sources:
A Book, by Desi Arnaz; The Lucy Book, by Geoffrey Mark Fidelman; Meet the Mertzes, by Ron Edelman and Audrey Kupferberg; The “I Love Lucy” Book, by Bart Andrews; Lucy & Ricky & Fred & Ethel: The Story of I Love Lucy, by Bart Andrews; Laughs, Luck….and Lucy, by Jess Oppenheimer

'143,' Fred Rogers's Code for "I Love You," Gets Its Own Holiday in Pennsylvania

Family Communications Inc./Getty Images
Family Communications Inc./Getty Images

"It takes one letter to say I and four letters to say love and three letters to say you. One hundred and forty-three."

That quote from Fred Rogers has become a symbol of the children's entertainer's legacy. The number 143, his special code for "I love you," is used by a charity inspired by Rogers, and it was spotlighted in the recent documentary movie Won't You Be My Neighbor? Now, Mister Rogers's favorite number has its own holiday in Pennsylvania.

As Philly Voice reports, Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf declared May 23 to be 143 Day in the state. Rogers was born in Westmoreland County near Pittsburgh and he spent his whole life in the area. By honoring the famous Pennsylvanian with his own holiday, the organizers behind the statewide 143 Day campaign hope to inspire residents to be kind to their neighbors on May 23 and every day of the year.

The initiative encourages schools, businesses, and citizens to share their acts of kindness on social media with the hashtag #143DayinPA. A "kindness tracker" on the campaign's website keeps how many time the hashtag has been used, and so far, over a 6000 acts of kindness have been shared online. And if someone has trouble thinking of ways to honor the spirit of Mister Rogers, the campaign's "kindness generator" can come up with a suggestion for them.

One hundred and forty-three was more than just a fun saying for Fred Rogers: It was a lucky number he made part of his lifestyle. The television personality even went so far as to go swimming every day to maintain his weight at the number.

[h/t Philly Voice]

10 Bizarre Documentaries That Are Stranger Than Fiction

A still from Abducted in Plain Sight
A still from Abducted in Plain Sight
Top Knot Films

Documentaries have grown considerably more ambitious since Fred Ott’s Sneeze, an 1894 clip that documents the irritated sinus cavities of its subject in just five seconds. They can inspire, as in the case of 2019’s Academy Award-winning Free Solo, about bold mountain climber Alex Honnold. They can shine a light on cultural overachievers like Fred Rogers, the subject of 2018’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? And they can parse political history, with films like 2003's The Fog of War shedding light on decisions that shaped the world.

Other documentaries set out to chronicle true stories that, were they presented as a fictitious, might be hard for people to believe. We’ve profiled such films in previous lists, which you can find here, here, and here. If you’ve already made your way through those tales of cannibals, tragic love affairs, and twist-laden true crime, here are 10 more that will have you staring at your television in disbelief.  

1. Abducted in Plain Sight (2017)

When Idaho native Jan Broberg was 12 years old in 1974, her neighbor began to take an unseemly and inappropriate interest in her. What begins as a disturbing portrait of predation quickly spirals into an unbelievable and audacious attempt to manipulate Jan’s entire family. Director Skye Borgman’s portrait of seemingly reasonable people who become ensnared in a monstrous plot to separate them from their daughter has drawn some shocking reactions since it began streaming on Netflix earlier this year.

2. The Wolfpack (2015)

Confined to their apartment in a Manhattan housing project for years by parents wary of the world outside their door, the seven Angulo siblings developed an understanding about life through movies. The Wolfpack depicts their attempts to cope with reality after finally emerging from their involuntary exile. Hulu subscribers can watch it now.

3. Three Identical Strangers (2018)

The highly marketable conceit of director Tim Wardle’s documentary is that triplets born in 1961 then separated spent the first 18 years of their lives totally ignorant of their siblings. When they reconnect, it’s a joy. But the movie quickly switches gears to explore the question of why they were separated at birth to begin with. It’s that investigation—and the chilling answer—that lends Three Identical Strangers its bittersweet, haunting atmosphere. It’s currently on Hulu.

4. Tickled (2016)

A ball of yarn bouncing down a flight of stairs is the best metaphor we can summon for the narrative of Tickled, which follows New Zealand journalist David Farrier on what appears at first glance to be a silly story about the world of “competitive endurance tickling.” In the course of reporting on this unusual subculture, Farrier crosses paths with people who would prefer their hobbies remain discreet. When he refuses to let the story go, things grow increasingly tense and dangerous. HBO subscribers can see the film, and it’s also available as a $3.99 rental on Amazon Prime.

5. Billboard Boys (2018)

In 1982, an Allentown, Pennsylvania radio station sponsored a contest in which three men agreed to live underneath a billboard. The last man remaining would win a brand-new motor home, a considerable incentive in the economically-struggling area. Three contestants went up, but things didn't go as planned. It's available for free to Amazon Prime members.

6. Hands on a Hardbody: The Documentary (1997)

How far would you be willing to go for a new pick-up truck? That’s the deceptively simple premise for this documentary chronicling an endurance contest in Longview, Texas, where participants agree to keep one hand on the vehicle at all times: The last person standing wins. What begins as a group seeking a prize evolves into a battle of attrition, with all the psychological games and mental fortitude that comes with it. The film can be hard to find, but you can watch the first nine minutes on YouTube for free (above) and then catch the rest for $9.99 on iTunes.

7. My Kid Could Paint That (2007)

At the age of 4, upstate New York resident Marla Olmstead began painting sprawling abstract art that her parents sold for premium prices. Later on, a 60 Minutes report called into question whether Marla had some assistance with her work. Was she a child prodigy, or simply a creative girl who had a little help? And if she did, should it matter? My Kid Could Paint That investigates Marla’s process, but it also sheds light on the world of abstract art and the question of who gets to decide whether a creative impulse is valid. You can rent the film for $3.99 on Amazon.

8. Beware the Slenderman (2016)

In 2014, two Wisconsin girls came to a disturbing decision: In order to appease the “Slenderman,” an internet-sourced boogeyman, they would attempt to murder a classmate. The victim survived, but three lives have been altered forever. Beware the Slenderman explores the intersection where mental illness, social media, and urban mythology collide to result in a horrific crime. It’s available to HBO viewers or as a rental on Amazon for $3.99.

9. The Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Killer (1992)

For years, Richard Kuklinski satisfied his homicidal urges by taking on contract killings for organized crime families in New York and New Jersey. Following his arrest and conviction, he agreed to sit down and elaborate on his unusual methodologies for disposing of victims and how he balanced his violent tendencies with a seemingly normal domestic life that included marriage and children. (You can see an example of Kuklinski's chilling disposition in the clip above.) In addition to The Iceman Tapes, which originally aired on HBO, Kuklinski participated in two follow-ups: The Iceman Confesses: Secrets of a Mafia Hitman in 2001 and The Iceman and the Psychiatrist in 2003. See them on HBO or watch the original and both follow-ups for free on Amazon Prime.

10. Tabloid (2010)

Filmmaker Errol Morris (The Fog of War) details the unusual love affair between beauty queen Joyce McKinney and Kirk Anderson, who alleged McKinney kidnapped and assaulted him after believing he had been brainwashed by the Mormon church. That’s only the beginning of this twisty—and twisted—story, which illustrates how people can perceive the same event in completely different ways. It’s currently streaming on Hulu.

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