TV Time Capsule: I Love Lucy, The Very First Show (1990)

Monday, April 30, 1990

by Chris Baker

Think you’ve seen every episode of “I Love Lucy” dozens of times? You probably have.

But maybe you’ve never seen the sitcom’s “lost” pilot, which CBS aired for the first time on this night in 1990 under the banner “I Love Lucy: The Very First Show.”

On March 10, 1951, Desi Arnaz and wife Lucille Ball, who was five months pregnant, filmed the pilot, which they financed with $5,000 out of their own pockets. The 34-minute film was never intended for broadcast; the couple made it to sell “I Love Lucy” to a sponsor. (Eventually, Phillip Morris signed on.)

The pilot’s plot finds Cuban bandleader Ricky Ricardo landing a TV gig and wacky wife Lucy scheming to get in on his act.

USA Today described the film as “clumsy,” noting that a tissue paper wall collapses in one scene and in another, Arnaz breaks up when Lucy makes fun of Ricky’s English.

For almost 40 years, the only kinescope or motion picture record of the pilot was lost.

Then, in 1989, the magnificently named B. Donald “Bud” Grant, formerly CBS’s top entertainment executive, attended a Christmas dinner where Joanne Perez, the 80-something widow of the Spanish clown Pepito, who appears in the pilot, mentioned she had a copy.

Grant brokered a deal with Perez, producing the one-hour “Very First Show” special around the lost episode.

Lucie Arnaz, with whom Ball was pregnant when she filmed the pilot, hosted the special on a replica of the Ricardos’ living room.

(“It was kind of wonderful and spooky to be sitting there,” Arnaz told USA Today. “Everything looks the same except that big armchair with those funny circles on it isn’t there.”)

In his review, the Washington Post’s Tom Shales noted the absence of William Frawley and Vivian Vance – a.k.a. Fred and Ethel Mertz – who weren’t added to the cast until “I Love Lucy” became a series.

“They aren’t in the pilot. And they are missed,” Shales wrote.

“The Very First Show” was seen in 19.5 million homes, becoming the week’s top-rated show and giving the network – then in third place – a much-needed ratings boost.

Thanks to “Lucy,” CBS missed first place by one tenth of a ratings point – its strongest finish since its broadcast of “Lonesome Dove” in February 1989.

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