Sunday, March 28, 2021

Quips and Quotations (Prepubescent Publishing Edition)


Quite often somebody will say, 'What year do your books take place?' and the only answer I can give is, in childhood.

--Beverly Cleary


Friday, March 26, 2021

Vital Viewing (Naked Light Bulbs, Rude Remarks, and Vulgar Actions Edition)


Playwright Tennessee Williams was born on this day in 1911 (he died in 1983.) Williams was about 63 when he sat down for an interview with talk show host Dick Cavett in a leafy courtyard of an antebellum era New Orleans hotel. As his plays were an unusual blend of tragedy, comedy, poetry, social commentary, sex, violence, and local color, you might expect the man himself to be somewhat unusual, and Williams certainly doesn't disappoint, but he's unusual in the most charming, wonderfully Southern twangy way possible. Though any careful, or even sloppy, reading of his work would indicate a rather dark nature, he seems to be in good humor here. Watch and listen:

It took me a bit of googling to find out who the hell this pirate was that Cavett was talking about. As Williams suggested, Jean Lafitte was an obvious choice, as he was the most famous pirate in New Orleans, having helped Andrew Jackson defend the city against the British during the War of 1812 in exchange for a pardon (what none of the local combatants on either side knew is that a peace treaty had been signed in Belgium a few weeks earlier. Life before the telegraph.) But he wasn't involved with any plot to bring Napoleon to America. 

Turns out it was a friend of Laffite's named Dominique You. A wealthy New Orleanian and former mayor by the name of Nicholas Girod sponsored a plan to have You rescue Napoleon Bonaparte from his second exile on St. Helena (Elba was the first), bring him to America, and set him up in a guest room in Girod's home, where the Little Corporal would presumably live rent-free. This was a popular scheme in New Orleans, which at the time had a heavily ethnic French presence, and, who knows, had Napoleon not died before You had even set sail, it might have gotten Girod another term as mayor. The house is still in existence, and is now a restaurant called The Napoleon House. So Cavett knew what he was talking about, even if it was a bit of a digression from anything having to do with Tennessee Williams. But look at me, I'm digressing myself! So lets get back to the playwright.

He was born Thomas Lanier Williams III, but thought Tom was a rather "dull name" for a writer, and so started calling himself "Tennessee" when he was about 27 years old and his playwriting career began in earnest. According to John Lahr's acclaimed 2014 biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, which right now is sitting to the left of the computer I'm writing this on, he lived in the actual state of Tennessee for just two separate years of his life, the first time when he was still a toddler, and the second time when he had been sent there to recover from a nervous breakdown after--I mean no disrespect but for personal reasons I can't help but smile--working in a shoe warehouse. However, Williams' father, though not particularly distinguished himself (an alcoholic who gambled away his middle-management earnings, he once got part of his ear bit off in a poker fight), came from a distinguished line of Tennesseans including that state's first senator, and so by giving himself that nickname, young Tom Williams figured he could claim a piece of that linage for himself. As for where he did live in his life, until he was eight he lived mostly in Mississippi in the house of his maternal grandfather, an Episcopal minister from Illinois, just enough time for him to acquire that Southern accent. After his father, who had been a traveling shoe salesman, was transferred to the shoe company's home office in St. Louis, Williams, his prim and proper mother Edwina, mentally troubled sister Rose (the model for Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie), and younger brother Dakin (often depicted in Williams biographies as the most normal one of the bunch, later in life he was seen as a bit of a character himself) were packed off to the hustle and the bustle and the Northern accents of a major Midwestern industrial city. The difference between the two environments would pop up again and again in his plays (as did just about every other facet of Williams life with the notable exception of his homosexuality, and even that was there, though thinly camouflaged.) Jumping ahead to the last thirty years of his life, Williams mostly divided his time between Manhattan, the home of Broadway where his plays were produced, and Key West, the bohemian island and city just off of Florida's southernmost tip. And there were extended trips abroad where he palled around with the likes of Gore Vidal and Truman Capote (at first the three of them together, and then, once Vidal and Capote had a falling-out, separately.) In-between and interspersed and intertwined with all of that were residencies in the aforementioned New Orleans, the setting of a number of his plays, including one of his most famous. If you were listening to that Cavett interview carefully, you would have heard a line read from one of those plays. If you weren't listening carefully (and shame on you for not doing so), I'll repeat it here:  

"They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields!"

Obviously that line is packed with allegorical meaning, but that's not the only thing. It's also packed with...


...literal meaning.

(There's a River Styx Road that runs through Cleveland's southern exurbs. I wonder if I could turn that into a play.)

A Streetcar Named Desire wasn't Tennessee William's first Broadway hit. That would have been the St. Louis "memory play" The Glass Menagerie, which came out in 1945, two years earlier. But the success of Streetcar did prove Williams was no one-hit-wonder (in fact, he eventually became a seven-hit wonder, nine-hit wonder if you throw in off-Broadway, ten-hit wonder if you add an original screenplay, eleven-hit wonder if you count a best-selling memoir, a sixteen-hit-wonder if you throw in the movie adaptations, and I think that's it--Oh, wait, there were several highly-rated TV adaptations, and some of his Broadway flops did quite well when performed by regional companies, but I can't count them as hits because my pocket calculator just upped and died on me.) 

In 1951, A Streetcar Named Desire was turned into a movie, starring Vivien Leigh as Blanche, Marlon Brando as Stanley, Kim Hunter as Stella, and--I'm going to let you guess the last one..................That's right, Karl Malden as Mitch, not looking all that much different than he did when he played opposite Michael Douglas in The Streets of San Francisco some twenty years later. Brando, Hunter, and Malden all were in the original 1947 Broadway production (I've gone online and looked at pictures from that production, and Malden STILL looks like he did in The Streets of San Francisco!) 

Here's the trailer: 

If the above doesn't convince you that this movie might not be a bad way to kill 125 minutes, here's a couple of more reasons:

Stanley Kowalski, widely considered to be the villain of the piece (though some literary scholars would consider that an oversimplification.) Was Marlon Brando's hiring an oversimplification? As Williams described it after hearing him read for the part, Brando was "God-sent". Except God hadn't read the play's own instructions, which states Stanley is about 30 years old, the same age as Mitch. Brando was 23, 12 years younger than Malden, and a whopping 15 years younger than Jessica Tandy, who originated the role of Blanche, Stanley's sister-in-law. Even Kim Hunter, who played Blanche's sister and Stanley's wife Stella, was two years older. Director Elia Kazan (who also helmed the film version) privately thought Williams was turned on by Brando. Williams did admit that "he was just about the best-looking young man I've ever seen", but the wily wordsmith also offered this explanation and/or rationalization:  "It had not occurred to me before what an excellent value would come through casting a very young actor in this part. It humanizes the character of Stanley in that it becomes the brutality and callousness of youth rather than a vicious old man ... A new value came out of Brando's reading which was by far the best reading I have ever heard." Whether he said this before or after the cold shower, I can't say, but Brando got the part, got up on stage, and turned on theatergoers. Then he got the film role, went before the camera, and once the prints went out to the nation's movie palaces, turned on moviegoers. In fact, he became a movie star and kept on turning on moviegoers right through the 1950s, and into the 1960s, until his steady diet of Mallomars, cinnamon buns, and jars of peanut butter finally caught up to him (fortunately for him, he had genuine acting talent to fall back on, thus allowing him to make potentially no-longer-turned-on audiences an offer they could not refuse.) Here's Brando in, if not necessarily the best, then at least the most famous scene in the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire:    

Lust means never having to say you're sorry.

Charlton Heston and (in make-up) Kim Hunter. No matter her appearance, Hunter seems to have no problem attracting shirtless males.

As I said earlier, Jessica Tandy (right) originated the role of Blanche DuBois on stage, and the theater critics of the day thought she did a superb job, something we have to partially take their word for as the performance was never captured on film (however, we do have the audio .) Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden, at the time all relatively unknown outside New York City, got to repeat their roles in front of a Hollywood camera. Elia Kazan, who got to repeat his role behind a Hollywood camera, also wanted Tandy for the film version, but the studio execs didn't. Although Tandy finally became a household name in her senior years (thanks to such 1980s movies as Cocoon and, especially, Driving Miss Daisy), she wasn't one in 1951. What the execs wanted was an actress with a national following, i.e., a movie star. Vivien Leigh (above) had some prior experience playing a Southern belle, and had also portrayed Blanche on the London stage (husband Larry was the director), so she got the gig. Nothing against Jessica Tandy--I have fond memories of her and Morgan Freeman's humorous exchanges as they motored about the Jim Crow South--but I don't see how Blanche DuBois can get much better than this:   

Tomorrow is another day. At least it is for that paperboy.

Like the character she played, Leigh eventually succumbed to mental illness. In fact, she even blamed that character, claiming Blanche had "tipped me over into madness." 

I still haven't convinced you to watch this movie? You find the whole Southern Gothic thing too off-putting? All that black-and-white drama with now-dead actors is something you just can't relate to? And what's with all the jazz music? Aren't they supposed to listen to the Grand Ole Opry in the South?

Perhaps this charming young woman can help make it more accessible for you:

I love how, after she tells of Stella returning to Stanley, she can't help but blurt out a hushed "stupid". And dig that shocked Mickey Mouse on her jacket. That says it all.

Tennessee Williams father was a southerner who spent spent so much time in the North that it's said he eventually lost his southern accent. Tennessee Williams mother was a northerner who spent so much time in the South that it's said she eventually gained a southern accent. Somehow in transit they hooked up with each other, opposites attracted while going in opposite directions. Cornelius Coffin "C.C." Williams and the former Edwina Dakin never divorced, but it's telling that I'm forced to use separate pictures because I couldn't find one online with both of them in it. Obviously, there were conflicts there. So be it. As any lit professor worth his tenure will tell you, conflict fuels the best fiction, and it fueled Tennessee's plays. There's the conflict between rural calm and urban restlessness, the conflict between cultural enrichment and industrial efficiency, the conflict between the religious and the secular, the conflict between tradition and originality, the conflict between uniformity and individuality, the conflict between homogeneity and multiculturalism, the conflict between nonconformity and economic survival, the conflict between self-actualization and a social life, the conflict between free will and chromosomes,  the conflict between the head and the heart, the conflict between the head and the loins, the conflict between the heart and the loins, the conflict between boy-meets-girl and (as Williams' generation viewed it)  the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name, and, as every bit as pronounced in his work as anything sexual, the conflict between upward mobility and downward mobility. Finally, there's the conflict between the Mason and the Dixon, a line Williams spent his entire life straddling. The Dixon part is what gets everybody's attention, but Williams also had things to say about the Mason. Y'all just have to get past the regional dialects and regional colloquialisms to know what they are. Ultimately, his writing was universal, as all art strives to be. And all artists, be they painters, writers, or actors. Take Vivien Leigh. When she wasn't playing Southern belles, she talked with an English accent!  


"Mom, Elvis. Elvis, Mom."

Actually, by the time rock 'n' roll arrived on the scene, Tennessee Williams was about 45 years old, not exactly its target audience, and so probably didn't listen to too much of it. However, he does seem to have been a fan of at least one of its musical antecedents:

 In that interview with Dick Cavett, Williams mentions that during one of his stays, perhaps his first stay, in New Orleans, he'd head to the bar after a full day of writing and listen on the jukebox to the proto-doo wop group The Ink Spots. Here's their biggest hit (which Williams and Cavett try but fail to sing), "If I Didn't Care".  Give it a listen. Who knows? Maybe it will inspire you to write your own Streetcar Named Desire.

Now get back to your typewriters, er, keyboards.

Hey, I hope you enjoyed this trip into the heart of Tennessee (the man, not the state.) I guess that's a bit of hyperbole as I got nowhere near his heart, and, to mix a metaphor, barely scratched the surface of his career (though that's not much of a mixture given the trenchant nature of his work.) As long as this post was, I never got around to Big Daddy, or Carroll Baker in her short nightie in a crib, or Anna Magnani and her tattooed friends, or those hungry little kids that drove Liz Taylor to a shrink. Maybe next time. For now, so long, and remember... kind to strangers. They depend on it.









Saturday, March 20, 2021

Quips and Quotations (Vernal Equinox Edition)


If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.

--Anne Bradstreet

Sunday, March 14, 2021

The Photoeccentric Effect


When I was in grade school, the standard comeback would have been, "No thanks, I use toilet paper." Of course, you really shouldn't say that to one of the greatest scientific minds of the 20th century. But then, why is one of the greatest scientific minds of the 20th century sticking his tongue out in the first place? Well, you first have to look at the...

...bigger picture.

It's March 14, 1951, Albert Einstein's 72nd birthday. Princeton University's Institute of Advanced Study, his place of employment for the past 18 years, had thrown a party for him. Also in attendance were two friends of Einstein's, Frank Aydelotte, a former director of the institute, and his wife Marie. Once the party had wound down, the three of them walked out of the institute to a waiting limousine, followed all the way by a group of reporters and photographers, the reporters asking Einstein (but not the Aydelottes) for quotes for the next day's editions, the photographers asking him (but not the Aydelottes) to just stop and smile for the cameras. But, you know, before we go any further, maybe we should look at the reason why these reporter and photographers were so interested in Einstein (but not the Aydelottes) in the first place.


Albert Einstein had been a celebrity, a household name, ever since a 1919 solar eclipse had shown the stars to be in a different place in the sky than they had been hours earlier, thereby proving Einstein's theory of a few years before that starlight doesn't travel in a straight line, that there's no such thing as a straight line in the larger, gravitational scheme of things, that outer space is less like the Great Plains, where you can have your car (or starship) set on cruise control for days on end, and more like San Francisco, with streets that go up and down, the lights in the sky, not just the stars but also comets, meteors, and natural satellites, all just runaway cable cars, relatively speaking. Now you may be wondering if this has something to do with Einstein's famous equation  E = mc2. While one begat the other, they're really two different theories, though both with the word "relativity" in their names (probably to emphasize the begetting.) E stands for energy, = stands for equals, m stands for mass, and c2 stands for the speed of light squared. Basically energy and mass are two sides of the same electrodynamic coin, and the speed of light squared is a calculation on just how much potential energy can be derived from a particular object. Say somebody rubs two sticks together at 186,282 miles per second. The resulting flame would be visible from low Earth orbit. Fortunately for anybody in the vicinity, not least the person holding the sticks, nobody can move their arms that fast. However, a person can rub the sticks just fast enough for some of the wood to whittle away and cause a spark to appear: mass converted into energy (of course, people were rubbing sticks together to start fires some one hundred thousand years before Einstein came up with his equation, but they didn't know the science behind it, and instead paid homage to the god of camping.) Einstein coined the term E = mc2  in 1912 (though the theory itself preceded it by seven years.) While it was well-known among physicists, the phrase didn't become part of the layman's vernacular until 1946 when Time magazine put the equation on its cover along with an illustration of Einstein himself and a fungus-shaped cloud. This was a bit unfair to Einstein as he wasn't anywhere near Los Alamos in the 1940s (some of his left-leaning political statements had cost him a security clearance), but it certainly contributed to his fame. And maybe to his notoriety as many readers of Time were left wondering if American citizenship had been granted six years earlier to a mad scientist.

 Getting back to his 72nd birthday, that notoriety wasn't about to stop that group of reporters and  photographers waiting outside the Institute of Advanced Study, much to Einstein's annoyance. As I said before, they followed him and the Ayedollets all the way out to the car. One photographer, Arthur Sasse of the United Press wire service, was particularly persistent. And insistent. "Professor, smile for your birthday picture!" he shouted out after a by-now weary Einstein and the Ayedollets had climbed into the back seat but had not yet closed the door. Instead of smiling, the scientist stuck out his tongue, and Sasse instinctively snapped the picture. Then the door closed, and the limo drove off into the New Jersey night.

The photo almost didn't get published. As Sasse himself remembered, "The assignment editor liked it but the chief editor didn't. So they had a conference with the big chiefs upstairs. The picture got okayed and we used it." United Press, today United Press International, has fallen on hard times in recent years and is now owned by Moonies, but back in 1951 it was a pretty big deal, the second-largest American wire service behind the Associated Press. That meant Einstein and his tongue appeared in a lot of papers. The response was uniformly positive. This scientist wasn't mad, just madcap! Surprisingly, given the moment of pique that had produced the picture, Einstein himself approved. A German-born Jew who took flight once he got wind that the Nazis had him in their crosshairs, he seemed to accept, and at times even encouraged, his adopted country's latter-day view of him as a dotty but lovable academic, America's cuddly genius. And this was one of the times he encouraged, requesting and receiving from United Press nine copies of the photo, which he turned into greeting cards that he sent to friends, sometimes with a caption that said the picture summed up his political views. Just another way he was ahead of his time.

The media of the day chalked it up as just another one of his "eccentricities", along with riding a bike, wearing sweatshirts in his off-hours, and hanging around ice cream parlors with a cone in hand. Of course, those aren't eccentricities at all but commonplace character traits. Even sticking out a tongue is something we've all either done or felt like doing (perhaps Sasse should feel grateful that he didn't get the finger.) I suspect the press and public seized upon those traits because it was an easier way of relating to Einstein than what were, for the layman at least, his true eccentricities: theories that said the universe was one big putt-putt course; that you can lose a few pounds outrunning a beam from a flashlight; that if a passenger in a rickshaw looks at his watch and a passenger on the Earth-to-Alpha Centauri Express looks at her watch, both watches are going to tell a different time even if both passengers are looking at their watches at the same time which they can't do anyway because there's no such thing as the same time; that the speed of light is the only thing you can count on in this Universe because everything else including time, distance, and solid objects are open to interpretation; and that all of reality is made up of itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny tinderboxes that, once opened, can wipe out entire population centers.

Albert Einstein died in 1955. A Princeton Hospital pathologist named Thomas Harvey who had done the autopsy decided the great scientist's brain was too important to waste, so, without telling anybody,  took it home with him. Einstein's heirs eventually found out about the theft, but after hearing Harvey out and becoming convinced that his motives were scientific and not monetary (which seems to have been the case) cut some sort of deal with him. Harvey died in 2007. His heirs donated the sliced and diced remains of the brain, along with many photographs of it intact, to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland, near Washington D.C.

As for Einstein's tongue, I'm afraid that was cremated along with the rest of his body, though, in a sense... has achieved its own kind of immortality.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Quips and Quotations (Rust Belt Rock Edition)



Hey gang...Well, if you're reading this then I am off to catch up with that big club tour in the sky. But before the bus pulls out I wanted to thank all of you for being part of my musical journey, both on the stage, on record, and behind the microphone here at WNCX...Somebody once said that if you love your job then it's not really work. And if that's true (and I definitely think it is) then I have been happily out of work for over fifty years!

--Michael Stanley, Cleveland-area rock star--yep, that's how we rightfully viewed him--local television personality, and radio disc jockey. The Michael Stanley Band was a popular attraction here on America's North Coast from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s and set attendance records at such local venues as the Richfield Coliseum and Blossom Music Center, a big deal at the time as these places were where all the nationally-known rock acts--including Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, The Rolling Stones, and Bruce Springsteen--played when they swung by the Metropolis of the Western Reserve during the mayorships of Ralph Perk, Dennis Kucinich, and George Voinovich. If all this info is a bit too local for you, then I should point out that MSB came pretty damn close to being a nationally-known rock act itself as it made the Top 40 several times and once even had a video on MTV. The above quote is from a purposely posthumous letter posted on the web site of the classic rock station where Stanley's been deejaying for the past few years.

The guy who sings lead and gets run over by the tow motor in the above clip is keyboardist Kevin Raleigh, who also wrote the song, MSB's biggest hit. What follows are songs where Stanley himself sings lead. After all, the band IS named after him:  

Finally, here's a video shot in and around Cleveland:

Good place for a hall of fame, huh?

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Vital Viewing (Immigrant Impresario Edition)

Singer, bandleader, actor, television producer, studio head, and, for a few years there, Hollywood power player Desi Arnaz was born on this day in 1917 (he died in 1986.) All those things tie into what he's  most fondly remembered for, playing Ricky Ricardo, the long-suffering husband of the restlessly motivated, zealously impulsive, always-in-over-her-red-head Lucy (played by his real-life wife at the time, Lucille Ball, who by most accounts wasn't any of those things) in what just might be the most popular, certainly the most legendary, situation-comedy of all time, I Love Lucy. In 1983, Arnaz was lured out of retirement to appear as a guest on Late Night with David Letterman. At 66 still very much a bon vivant, he seems to be enjoying himself. Watch:

Arnaz covered a lot of ground in that interview, which in turn means I have a lot of ground to cover as I give you background information, facts and figures, commentary, etc., so  don't say I didn't warn you.

Arnaz got somewhat technical talking about the number of cameras used during the filming of an I Love Lucy episode. Letterman would have known what he was talking about, but I'm not sure the audience did. Virtually every movie, and any TV show that looks like a movie--one with as many exterior scenes as interior scenes, wide shots as well as close-ups, no clearly-defined proscenium arch, really, anything that doesn't resemble a stage play--is filmed with a single camera. Say there's two actors talking to each other, what the professionals call an "establishing shot",  and the director wants to close in on just one of those actors faces for a moment. He'll have to yell "Cut!", stop filming, and then have the camera physically positioned in front of that actor's face, after which he'll yell something like "Lights! Cameras! Action!", and resume filming. Then, if the director wants to go back to a wide shot, he'll have to again yell "Cut!", move the camera to where it was before, and again with the "Lights! Camera! Action!".  Another, possibly more simpler way of doing it, would be to film all the wide shots, at once, all the close-ups at once, and then put it all together in the editing room. Either way would be impossible in a live TV production, the dominant form of television in the early 1950s before the advent of video tape. C'mon, the people watching at home aren't going to wait while they're moving around a camera. They'll switch channels! Also consider that many live television broadcasts had studio audiences. They could get in the way of the camera, and vice-versa. The solution for this problem was to use multiple cameras, usually three, sometimes four. If the director wanted to show something from a different angle, he simply switched from one camera to another. Saved a lot of time, and kept the audience, both in the studio and at home, from getting bored. 

Both CBS and sponsor Philip Morris thought Desi and Lucy would save them a lot of time and money if they would just do the show in New York City, which meant, among other things, that it could be broadcast live. But the Arnazes lived in Hollywood, and wanted to continue to live in Hollywood, even taking a paycut to do so. Why did it even matter? A continent-wide coaxial cable that would link East Coast and West Coast had yet to be completed. This meant live broadcasts were limited to the East Coast and the Midwest, the same people who got to see the sun rise and set a few hours before Californians. It was also a bigger chunk of the population. all good reasons to give them first dibs on a live broadcast. However, a few shows were filmed instead of broadcast live, and Desi proposed doing the same for I Love Lucy. The network and cigarette company reluctantly allowed it. Then another problem popped up. Lucille Ball's comic stylings were much more instinctual then methodical. In fact, she often wasn't convinced a script was even funny until she heard people laughing, which then energized and motivated her enough to give an even funnier performance. So a studio audience was crucial. But I already told you the difficulties an audience presented for something filmed with a single camera. One solution was the kinescope, and in fact the pilot had been preserved that way. Prior to the introduction of video tape later in the '50s, the only way to save a live TV performance was by essentially filming the image on a camera monitor. When it came to network broadcasts, people on the West Coast saw mostly kinescopes. But these took a long time to develop, and once developed, the picture was very inferior to what you would have seen in a live broadcast. And since I Love Lucy wasn't going to be shown live anyway, it made no sense to have people on the East Coast, West Coast, and in the Midwest see the same crummy image. Then Desi hit upon an idea. Why not use three movie cameras (as opposed to three television cameras for a live broadcast) for I Love Lucy? It wouldn't have been a first, as Amos and Andy was already using three movie cameras as a way of saving money. But that show didn't have a studio audience. In the case of I Love Lucy, at least initially it would have cost more money to use three cameras, as a movie set would have to be refurbished to accommodate an audience. CBS balked at the extra expense, so Desi cut a deal with the network. He and Lucy would pay for the refurbishment out of their own pockets, and, in turn, they would get 80% ownership of the finished product. Desi never made a smarter business move. In a few short years, he and Lucy were able to sell the now-very valuable reruns back to CBS for four millions dollars, a large enough sum in 1950s money to allow them to buy the RKO studio, which then became Desilu, already the name of their production company.


Desi mentioned a few names in that Letterman interview. I don't think I have to tell you who Fred and Ethel were, though it would have been nice if he told us the actors real names: William Frawley and Vivian Vance. A Karl Freund came up. An Austrian cinematographer who worked with Fritz Lang on Metropolis, he emigrated to America in the 1930s, and was employed on many, many Hollywood films, including Dracula, The Good Earth, Golden Boy, Key Largo, and The Mummy (which he also directed.) It was left up to Freund to figure out a way to make the three movie camera system work, and he did so beautifully, hiding the studio audience from the viewer at home, and devising a "flat lighting" system that kept the Ricardo apartment from being engulfed in shadows. And then there's the people in the above photograph. Aside from Lucy and Desi, who are the others? On the left chatting with Lucille Ball are Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll Jr., a writing team that had previously worked on Lucy's popular radio show My Favorite Husband, and by the time of the Letterman interview were writing and producing Alice. The man on the right who's got Desi's attention is Jess Oppenheimer, who not only wrote but produced both My Favorite Husband and I Love Lucy. It was Oppenheimer who came up with the TV series most well-known plot device, Lucy Ricardo trying to break into her husband's nightclub act. Honestly, I wish Ricky wouldn't have gotten so upset whenever she attempted to do that. The results, after all, were pretty amusing, and I'm sure the audience at the Tropicana would have been equally amused.

The man that ran out onto the set during the interview wasn't just some nut who got past NBC security but Jack Parr, who served as host of The Tonight Show in the late '50s and early '60s. He was very popular during that era, but hardly a television fixture in the 1980s, so it may have been something of a coup for David Letterman that he talked him into dropping by, even if all you saw of Parr was a blur.


When Desi Arnaz talks about his fellow Cubans not shaving, it's obviously a reference to Fidel Castro, who took over the island nation in 1959 (though I should point out that the children in the above picture are all New Yorkers. Instead of Cowboys and Indians, apparently some '50s kids preferred playing Cuban Revolutionaries.) The Cold War was still going strong in 1983, so I'm not sure why Arnaz felt he had to drop hints--"If you know what I mean"--then come right out and say Castro's name. Maybe he still had relatives living there. Ironically, Arnaz had just as much reason to hold a grudge against Castro's predecessor, Fulgencio Batista, and, who knows, maybe he did. A former president of Cuba in 1930s and '40s, Batista decided in 1952 that he would like his old job back. When it became apparent he couldn't do that in a fair and open election, he led a right-wing coup against the current democratically-elected president (I wonder if he got help from the Proud Boys.) I haven't been able to find out what grudge Batista had against Desi's father, a former mayor of Santiago and at the time of the coup a member of the Cuban House of Representatives, but the latter was thrown in jail and had all his property--a palatial estate, three ranches, and a vacation mansion on a private island--confiscated. Six months later, Desi's father was released from jail but told that he and his family had better leave Cuba. Up to that point, Desi had lived a rich kid's existence. Now at 16 he was a refugee in Miami. He attended a Catholic high school, and, upon graduation, decided to go into show business. For a while he sang and played conga drum in Xavier Cugat's band, and then started his own, the Desi Arnaz Orchestra. He and his band were a hit in the New York City nightclubs, where he introduced conga line dancing. Rodgers and Hart cast him in their musical Too Many Girls, which became a hit on Broadway. Desi also appeared in the movie version, as did a bleached blond starlet--the red dye was still a few years away--named Lucille Ball. The two fell in love and got married, and as they say, the rest is history. And sometimes a gossip column.

As nervous as Lucille Ball's pregnancy had originally made the execs at CBS, it proved to be a ratings winner. The January 1953 episode where she finally gives birth was watched by more people than any other television broadcast in history up to that point. However, instead of showing you that, I want you to see this scene from a month earlier when Ricky Ricardo first finds out he's going to be a father:

Well, that's one way to break into a husband's nightclub act.

Perhaps I shouldn't be so glib, because I AM impressed with that clip. There's an emotional honesty to it that transcends the TV fiction. Lucille Ball looks like she's on the verge of tears--the happy kind of tears--and Desi Arnaz genuinely seems pleased to be sharing the moment not just with the extras on the Tropicana set but with the folks watching it on their television set. I Love Lucy came into being because Desi and Lucy thought working together could save their troubled marriage. With a child on the way, both the real one and its fictional counterpart, it looked as though they had thought right.

I almost named this post "And Bambino Makes Three", until I thought better of it. For one thing, I'm not sure Ricky Ricardo ever referred to a baby as a bambino, though with that thick accent of his and the way he occasionally lapsed into Spanish, it's easy to imagine him doing so. Second, bambino only made three on the TV version. In real life, Lucie Arnaz had arrived a year before Desi Arnaz Jr. But that only made for a nicer photo op. I mean, they look happy, don't they? But troubles lie ahead. Not financial troubles. Far from it. By the end of the 1950s, Desilu was the second largest independent television company in the United States with 12 shows of its own on the air, including The Untouchables, and six shows produced by others that rented out Desilu's facilities, such as The Real McCoys. Not because Desi Arnaz was looking to be a Hollywood mogul, but just so he and his wife could have their own series on their own terms. But being a successful businessman didn't prevent him from indulging in some bad habits. Or maybe the stress of bandleading, singing, acting, producing, and eal-making all at the same time was a bit too much, and he sought refugee in those bad habits. Desi smoked too much, drank too much, gambled too much, and chased girls too much, the last of which was too much for his long-suffering wife, who finally divorced him. For a while after the divorce they shared Desilu, but Lucille bought him out in 1962, and ran it herself--quite successfully--until she was bought out by neighboring Paramount Pictures in 1968. Desi started another production company,, and produced the sitcom The Mothers-in-Laws, starring Eve Arden and Kaye Ballard. It ran for two years. Desi then basically retired, surfacing every so often to do guest appearances, like the one with David Letterman.

 Over the years, Lucille Ball would sometimes disparage Desi Arnaz in interviews, calling him a "loser." Other times, she was quite generous with her praise, acknowledging that he was a pretty smart fellow, and she wouldn't have been the success that she was without him. I guess it depended on what mood she was in at the time, and whether it was the good memories or the bad ones that were just then circulating in her head.