Sunday, June 26, 1994
Lovers of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz will not want to miss an outstanding new video: the historic, unnamed pilot show that loosely served as the basis for their legendary comedy series “I Love Lucy.”
The tape, a CBS Video release, features narration by Lucie Arnaz, Ball and Arnaz’ daughter, as well as candid interviews with Lucy, Desi and others involved in the production of the pilot and development of the show.
However, the pilot does not feature Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, the characters Ball and Arnaz played on “I Love Lucy.”
Prior to “I Love Lucy,” Ball was best known as the star of dozens of mostly unmemorable Hollywood features. Arnaz had made a handful of films, but had earned his greatest fame as a bandleader.
“For some time, [Lucy] tried to find a way to incorporate her career with Desi’s, but the racial prejudice against him as a potential leading man was still strong, and this in itself was an irritation to her,” noted Charles Higham, in his Lucille Ball biography. He added that William S. Paley, chairman of CBS, felt “that it would be difficult for the public to accept a Latin leading man.”
Lucy was then starring in a radio show, “My Favorite Husband,” opposite Richard Denning. Bart Andrews, author of “The Story of ‘I Love Lucy,’” observed, “CBS wanted to transfer [this show] to the new medium of television. That’s when the Ball ultimatum was handed down: No Desi, no TV show.”
In order to convince CBS of the viability of Lucy and Desi as a fictionalized married couple, the pair hit the road with a vaudeville-style act. Billing themselves as Desi Arnaz & Band with Lucille Ball, they included various slap-tick routines involving a movie actress attempting to become a part of her bandleader husband’s act.
Assisting Lucy and Desi in devising the routines was Desi’s old friend, Pepito Perez, a veteran performer known as Pepito the Spanish Clown.
The act premiered on June 2, 1950, at the Paramount Theater in Chicago. “Variety,” the show business trade publication, described it asa a “sock new act. Turn really gets hilarious when a Red Skelton-type character in oversized tails and crushed hat [played by Ball] comes inning down the aisle seeking an audition with the band. It breaks up the audience.”
How would this transfer into a weekly TV series? Lucy and Desi put up $8,000 of their own money and borrowed an additional $8,000 to produce a pilot. (Some reports state that the amount was $5,000.) The result would, hopefully, convince the powers that be of the viability of Lucy and (especially) Desi as TV series co-stars. As seen today, the pilot is at once crude and fascinating, a genuine piece of television history.
Ball and Arnaz play Ball and Arnaz, rather than Lucy and Ricky Ricardo. William Frawley and Vivian Vance (who later were to be cast as the Ricardo’s neighbors, Fred and Ethel Mertz) are nowhere to be seen. There is an emphasis on Ball’s ability as a slapstick comedienne (utilizing bits devised by Pepito), and especially on Arnaz’ charisma as a musical performer and leading man.
“[Lucy] was playing Lucille Ball, a successful movie actress, married to a Cuban orchestra leader who was also very successful,” recalled Desi Arnaz in his autobiography. “… it was funny and well written, but I felt that the television audience would not identify themselves with this kind of couple … So we changed the format to a more down-to-earth situation.”
The characters became the Lucy and Ricky the world was to come to know: a struggling orchestra leader and his scatterbrained wife, who yearns to make it in show business despite her singular lack of talent. Added were Fred and Ethel Mertz, and the battle-of-the-sexes scenarios featuring Lucy and Ethel pitted against Ricky and Fred.
The eventual result: the show earned a sponsor (Philip Morris cigarettes), and a slot in the CBS line-up. During its six-year run of original episodes, “I Love Lucy” was never once out of the top three in ratings.
And what became of the pilot film? Arnaz presented it as a gift to Pepito, in appreciation for all of his input. It was never broadcast on TV. For four decades it was unseen outside of Pepito’s family gatherings, and was considered a missing artifact of television history.
After learning that it was considered lost, Pepito’s widow [Joanne Perez] made the pilot available. It was broadcast by CBS a while back , and now it comes to home video.