Monday, April 30, 1990
by Hal Boedeker, Knight-Ridder Newspapers
Tonight, CBS will take us back to March 2, 1951, a night television history was made — then lost for almost 40 years.
On that day, two characters named Lucy and Ricky Ricardo were born — they were to have been Lucy and Larry Lopez. They lived in a world of hazy images, flimsy sets and vaudeville routines. Fred and Ethel Mertz did not exist.
This was the day Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz shot the pilot for “I Love Lucy.”
It never aired. Philip Morris, the tobacco company, and the show’s sponsor, thought it needed some fine tuning. So Lucy’s creators tinkered with the format.
They added the Mertzes and followed the advice of Broadway lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, who was among a group of show biz notables invited to a screening. “Make them a warm, dizzy, lovable couple, and you’l have a hit,” he urged. “Don’t dwell on his show biz career.”
These were the humble beginnings of the most enduring show in television history. Its six seasons’ supply of 179 episodes, repeated throughout the years, has won a worldwide audience.
But those beginnings were lost. Lucy and Desi, unbeknownst to others, had given the 34-minute pilot reel to an associate as a gift.
For years, the Museum of Broadcasting in new York ran ads inquiring about the show. “We’d Love Lucy,” the ads pleaded. Where was it?
It turned out it was in a can marked “Lucy-Desi-Pepito Audition.”
The widow of Pepito Perez — who played Pepito the Spanish Clown in the pilot — found it in her attic. The hoopla over CBS’ showing of the long-unseen “I Love Lucy” Christmas special last uyear spurred Joanne Perez’s search. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz had given the pilot to her husband, who was a guest in the show and helped create the routines.
CBS will share this latest Lucy lore Monday night. “I Love Lucy: The Very First Show” will air at 10-11 p.m.
The material will be familiar; it was later used in the sixth “I Love Lucy” episode, titled “The Audition.” Ricky’s agent comes over to the apartment to tell him about an audition that night. Lucy plots to get involved.
Don’t expect the familiar world of Lucy, says Lucy historian Bart Andrews after he saw the pilot last week for the first time. Andrews describes himself as a “hard-core Lucyite.”
The kinescope images have poor quality, the apartment is totally different and the cheap sets shake. Lucy looks different, too; her hair is flowing, and she’s heavier: she was pregnant with Lucie Arnaz.
Monday night’s hourlong special consists of the 34-minute pilot, interviews with series writers Madelyn Pugh Davis and Bob Carroll Jr., and old interviews with Lucy and Desi. Lucie Arnaz serves as host.