Superstar Lucille Ball of “I Love Lucy” TV Fame Still Has a Riotous Sense of Humor
Once a CBS fixture, she’s been co-oped for a 90 minute special: “Lucille Ball Moves to NBC”
Washington Star, February 7, 1980: Beverly Hills, California — It sometimes rains in Southern California and, after a heavy shower, a light mist is tarnishing Lotusland. Lucille Ball is huddled in her big house off Sunset Boulevard, a victim of the virus that has come with the weather. The usually radiant redhead has a red nose, pale cheeks, a smoky cough and an irritable disposition.
“I just said that,” she grumps when a reporter asks her to elaborate on the new situation comedy she hopes to sell NBC. Her superstar status has made interviews superfluous for years, but she wants to tell people about her 90-minute special, “Lucille Ball Moves to NBC.” Her first production for NBC, it tells the story — “kiddingly,” she explains — of how Fred Silverman convinced her to leave CBS. The last half-hour of the special, she says, is “just like a sample” of the sit-com she’s producing. It’s called “The Music Mart” and stars Donald O’Connor and Gloria DeHaven as the “big band era” musical parents of Scotty Plummer, “a great banjo player, Liberace discovered him.” Lucy’s husband of the past 18 years, Gary Morton, is executive producer of the entire special which is jammed with NBC luminaries, including Johnny Carson and Bob Hope.
For Lucille Ball, it’s a razzle, dazzle beginning to a new career. At 68, and in semi retirement, she has suddenly changed networks and gone into the sit-com production business again. How did Fred Silverman really talk her into it?
The first laugh of the afternoon, deep, delighted.”He just kept talking. And I just kept saying, ‘I belong to CBS, No! No! No!’ “ Silverman, obviously a man who doesn’t take no for an answer, had ambushed Ball in a Hollywood restaurant. “They sneaked him over to our table,” she says, with glee. After several hours, she took him home with her for more discussion.
The outcome was a compromise. “He wanted me to have a workshop, to work for a whole year with thousands of new faces, to cull out new people. That would take too long. I wanted to start with troupers.” Therefore, Donald O’Connor. “The real meaning to me of a trouper,” she says sternly, banging out her words: “They’re there. They work. They know. They are show-biz.”
So, instead of a workshop, Silverman gave Ball a production company. Besides the O’Connor show, she has three more sit-coms in various stages of development. The way these thing work, they aren’t all automatically going into NBC’s schedule. Silverman will have to pass judgment, she says. But, he has certainly gone to the source. If the star of “I Love Lucy,” a series still fresh in reruns nearly 30 years after its premiere, doesn’t have insights into what makes a good sit-com, who does?
Well, what does make a good sit-com?
“Good writers,” says Lucy. “Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,” her laugh bursts out again, bumping along its gravelly road. “And good memories.” Her natural good humor is returning, along with some color to her face. “It was all new to me. I never had any training. I’m not naturally witty. I don’t say funny things. I can tell you, I don’t ad lib my scripts. I’m not a stand-up comic.”
She learned, she says, from her writers, Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll. “They had what I call a curly sense of humor about domestic situations. Ha! Although neither of them had been married, to each other or to anyone else.” And, although she didn’t know it at the time, “we stole from Laurel and Hardy and from Charlie Chaplin,” says Lucy, whose comedy has been ranked alongside those greats.
The result, of course, was “I Love Lucy,” in which Lucy co-starred with her first husband, Desi Arnaz, to whom she was married 19 years. “The marriage wasn’t good, it was just long,” she says, flat out. And adds, thoughtfully, “But it wasn’t disastrous. Because you can’t have two beautiful children and call it disastrous.” The children are Lucy Arnaz, 27, a singer and actress, now appearing on Broadway in “They’re Playing My Song” — “SRO! SRO! SRO!” exclaims Lucy, loudly, proudly — and Desi Arnaz IV, 25, actor and musician. Both cut their teeth appearing with their parents in “I Love Lucy.”
The usually flamboyant Lucille Ball is rather drably dressed in a beige pants suit and wearing a large, heavy gold coin as a pendant. Hair somewhat mussed. No lavishly-painted lips. And, most noticeably absent, those inch-long lashes she bats so bewitchingly as a television clown. But, as she begins to forget about her virus and warms up to the interview there is a transfiguration. Her face, again inhabited by her comic spirit, changes expression every half-second. Her eyes, even without the lashes, become round, huge.
She’s in motion now, sitting back, for one of those belly laughs, then leaning forward, elbows on her knees, to drive home a punch-line, her gold coin swinging back and forth. “It’s an old gambling coin, a 20 dollar gold piece,” she explains. “God!” she exclaims, an improvisation occurring to her in spite of herself. “Wouldn’t people grab that to get on a bus. I’d say to the driver, ‘Sir, sorry, it’s all I have with me today.’ “That’s Just fine,’” answers Lucy in her bus driver voice, impossibly lower than her own, punctuating each word. “‘Where do you want to go?’’ “Cleveland!”
Her house is big and old, “pushed out in all directions” in the 25 years she’s lived there, the swimming pool a relatively recent addition. “I had no pool when the children were little. I had one in Northridge (where she had another home) to worry about. I had the ocean. I had the pool in Palm Springs (at a vacation home). I wanted one place I didn’t have to wake up at 5 in the morning with a splash.”
Despite her legendary success as a comic, Lucille Ball considers motherhood her greatest triumph. “Just having a career, that would be very boring. The best part of my life is having children. They keep you young,” she says, the laughs rolling out again. “They keep you worried longer.”
Lucy’s worried plenty about her kids, The drug scene terrified her. Her son, Desi, she explains, had an exceptionally early exposure, when, at 11, he formed his own musical group with other kids of stars. “His peers were so much older,” she says, “There were a great many things I worried about constantly. I’ve never had a problem, but they were exposed to it.” She’s grateful that Desi’s early fame was short-lived. “Now’s the time for him to be having fun with his music.”
As a precaution, Lucy took her kids out of school — a public school and a private school — and brought them to work with her at the studios where they flourished under a tutor. “There were too many of their friends coming here stoned, just to go to a prom.”
Possibly as a result of her sheltering, her daughter spent her 15th through 19th years sitting around the house watching movies and television. Sitting with her was her one and only boyfriend. “They used to sit over there,” says Lucy, pointing at a love seat in the middle of her big living room. “Fifteen to 19, right there. We couldn’t get her to go out on another date.” “Will you go out roller skating or something.” Lucy nagged. “Mu-tttther,” said her daughter. “Well, she married him on her 20th birthday, we had a wedding that went on for blocks,” roars Lucy. “And one year to the day” the marriage was over.
Lucy Arnaz, unmarried, flamboyant like her mom, roaringly successful, and Desi Arnaz IV, just married to actress Linda Purl, working at his career as an actor, “more serious,” continue to delight and amaze their mother.
“I had them late in life,” she relates. “I’d lost two and I thought, my God, I’ll be too old to have children. During my ninth year of marriage, my mother-in-law, who was one of the most beautiful South American ladies ever, said to me, ‘You become Catholic. You have baby.’ So I went and had instruction and” — Lucy claps her hands __”five months later I was pregnant. For me, the birth of a child, it was a miracle. I couldn’t believe it.”
The interview is ending, but by now, Lucy is charged up. “You made me feel good,” she says, “My adrenalin is going. Say, did I tell the story about Lynn Fontanne?” Lucy leaps from her chair to stage center to act out her meeting with the famous, aged actress, at one of several recent awards ceremonies for Henry Fonda. “They asked me to escort Miss Fontanne to the stage,” she relates. Lucy.style, the encounter was a debacle. Before the story was over, Ball was on her knees — one of her legs is still weak after a skiing accident several years ago — before Fontanne, who was kissing her hand and telling her, “I am your most favorite, is that how how say say it?”
So, of course, Lucy kissed Fontanne’s hand. “I was in such awe.” And then, of course, she couldn’t get up. “I tried and finally, I said, Aw, the hell with it!” Lucy, who has been crawling around on her living room floor, finally boosts herself up and falls back into her chair, gasping with laughter, her little dog — quietly unobtrusive until now — barking in alarm. “It’s all right, honey,” she tells the dog, “I’m just telling stories. She’s thinks when I’m yelling, there’s something wrong.”
Lucy’s been up on the stage accepting awards for herself, alongside Bob Hope, many a time, too. After one such ceremony, she opened the newspaper to read stories about both of them which were so detailed they read like obituaries. “The next day, Bob called me up and wanted to know if I was still alive!”
“What’s left for me to say?” she says, subsiding. Then, thoughtfully: “I just want to see my grandchildren.”
[This article appeared originally in The Washington Star, February 7, 1980 as Lucille Ball: Laughing All The Way to NBC #200 in a collection of more than 100 newspaper articles by Judy Flander from the second wave of the Women’s Movement reflecting the fervor and ingenuity of the women who rode the wave.]