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COVER STORY

No Desi, No 'Lucy' : An Author Pieces Together the Teaming that Made TV History

February 10, 1991|BART ANDREWS

It was inevitable. A movie about Lucille Ball, the American icon, the Queen of Comedy, the First Lady of Television. A shoo-in, a sure-fire ratings-getter.

An earlier program, the Dec. 18, 1989, airing of the 1956 "I Love Lucy" Christmas episode garnered CBS a 18.5 rating, placing it No. 6 on the Nielsen list for the week. Then on April 30, 1990, when CBS trotted out the long-lost "Lucy" pilot and built a one-hour special around it hosted by Lucie Arnaz, it topped the Nielsen chart for the week.

Can "Lucy & Desi: Before the Laughter," airing Sunday on CBS fail? For more than 23 years, Lucille Ball reigned supreme at CBS, starring in three sitcoms (four if you count the three years of the hourlong "Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour," 1957-60), while earning countless awards, mind-boggling ratings and setting standards for television comedy that 40 years later are hard to match. Her last venture into TV was a dismal failure, lasting only eight weeks on ABC in 1986; it is clear that Lucy-ites savor vintage "Lucy"--the work she did on the tube in the '50s and early '60s as Lucy Ricardo and Lucy Carmichael.

Recognizing this, CBS assigned a $3.2-million budget to filmmaker Larry Thompson, who made the two-hour TV movie after conducting an exhaustive, nationwide talent search last summer for the two actors who would play Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in a story set in the '40s. (The roles went to Frances Fisher and Maurice Benard.)

"Lucy & Desi" is not the story of "I Love Lucy." Thompson, who also produced a television biography on the Duke and Duchess of Windsor ("The Woman He Loved") chose to concentrate on Lucy and Desi's stormy relationship before their television careers--how they met, married, loved and battled.

There was a lot of Angst over the project, most of it from the Lucille Ball camp. Daughter Lucie felt it was too soon to do a movie about her parents, saying recently: "I read an early draft of the script and I just thought it wasn't enough. I wanted to see a deeper story. I wanted to see what made these people tick. But it'll only be on for one night and it'll be off. Their story will be told again, I'm sure, by somebody else and maybe better."

"Lucy & Desi" takes place on the evening of Saturday, Sept. 8, 1951, the date of the filming of the first episode of "I Love Lucy," titled "Lucy Thinks Ricky Is Trying to Murder Her." The bulk of the movie is comprised of flashbacks of the 1940s, all leading up to the start of the most celebrated television series in history.

Experts agree that the better story is how "I Love Lucy" went on the air (perhaps that was Thompson's ingenious plan all along, a sequel). In any case, that is the story we will tell here.

It all began when CBS nixed Lucy's idea of having her husband co-star with her in a video version of her hit radio series "My Favorite Husband."

"If Paley won't accept us as a team," 33-year-old Desi told Lucy in early 1950, "then let's go on the road and test it. You go on tour with me and the band in June. We'll work up an act and see what happens. If the public can accept us as a comedy team, then CBS can't possibly ignore us."

It sounded good to Lucy, 38, who wanted nothing more than to work with her husband of nine years in an effort to save their shaky marriage and, she hoped, start a family.

The Arnazes sought the help of an old fishing buddy of Desi's, Pepito Perez. The internationally known performer, who was billed as "The Spanish Clown" when he headlined the Hippodrome, agreed to help fashion an act for the couple.

Lucy and Desi spent nearly a week in March 1950 holed up in a hotel suite learning some original comic routines devised by Pepito and film legend Buster Keaton, Lucy's mentor from MGM. These comedy bits would serve them well: They would become the focal point of the pilot a year later and be used in several episodes of "I Love Lucy."

Pepito and Keaton worked their charges furiously. Lucy rehearsed endless hours impersonating a baggy-pants "professor" bent on joining the Arnaz band with his prop celloand a seal honking out the notes to "How Dry I Am" on a strange-looking homemade contraption dubbed a "saxa-fifa-trona-phono-vich." Some songs and husband-and-wife sketches written by two of Lucy's radio writers, Bob Carroll Jr. and Madelyn Pugh, were added to the 20-minute act.

The vaudeville bits, which would play between sets of Desi's rhumba band, opened at the Chicago Paramount Theatre on June 2, 1950. "After the first show, Desi and I looked at each other in wild surprise," Lucille Ball recounted in "The 'I Love Lucy' Book." "Well, I guess we can work together after all. We're on our way!"

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