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. 


18 comments:

  1. Coincidentally, I've been recently reading and watching interview videos of Desi Arnaz and Luci Arnaz.

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    1. Coincidently, Mitchell? I prefer to think of it as divine providence.

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  2. "Loo-seee... you got some 'splainin' to do. I 'spressly forbit you to do a number don at the clup!"

    Hi, Kirk!

    Happy 104th birthday (in heaven) to Desi Arnaz. I looked up the date that interview on Late Night With David Letterman aired. The show was broadcast May 23, 1983. There's a very good chance I was watching that night. I had discovered the Letterman show three months earlier while recovering from hip surgery. Sleepless, I stayed up late every night and got myself hooked on Dave, Paul, Chris Elliott, Larry "Bud" Melman and the gang. In the decades that followed I was a regular Letterman viewer. As I watched that interview, it occurred to me that Desi Arnaz was more entertaining than 99% of the talk show guests I have seen over the years. Thick Cuban accent aside, Desi had a knack for choosing interesting stories to tell. He didn't ramble on. He kept them brief and left everyone laughing with the punchlines.

    Of course, I also watched I Love Lucy every week during its original run. I admired Desi for being an innovator and a savvy businessman. He knew how to produce a hit TV series. The bean counters created obstacles, but he always found a way around them, even at his own expense. The result was the most iconic and universally loved sitcom of all time. I well remember that scene at the Trop when Ricky, the nightclub audience and millions of viewers across the nation first learn that Loo-see is 'spectin'... that the stork is comin' to visit... that she is in a family way... that he is about to be a father. It is a golden moment in TV history and I agree the emotions are real. As Desi explained to Dave, the jittery networks and sponsors never gave audiences enough credit for being sophisticated enough to handle a fact of life such as pregnancy (even though everybody knows that pregnancy is dirty!!!) To the contrary, viewers embraced the story line. People cared, their hearts were touched, and ratings soared.

    I saw some of Lucille Ball's guest shots on talk shows later in her life and she struck me as "Karenish." Suffice it to say that I found Lucy McGillicuddy Ricardo more likable than the woman who played her.

    Thanks for tracing the career of Desi Arnaz on his birthday, good buddy Kirk. As usual, you did a fine job and covered all the bases. Enjoy the rest of your week!

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    2. Shady, I'm glad you pointed out that Desi Arnaz could be entertaining in his own right, apart from being a straight man to his wife. I remember when he hosted Saturday Night Live in the 1970s, and led a conga line right off the stage and into the audience! In a book I have about SNL, producer Lorne Michaels is quoted as saying that he was afraid Arnaz was going to have a coronary on live TV, so intense was his performance.

      I don't know that I would call her a "Karen"--in current slang, isn't that suppose to be a white female bigot? Lucille Ball wasn't THAT!--but I will agree that in her interviews, particularly the later ones, a certain bitchiness comes through. In things I've read about Ball, which includes a biography, writers, producers, and other actors were always perplexed that someone who seemed so humorless could be so funny on cue, as if she were some kind of sourpuss comedy savant. Again from what I've read, much of her surliness can be traced to a tough, occasionally impoverished, childhood. She was never able to take much comfort in her success, feeling it was all just temporary. In interviews, Ball never described her chosen profession in terms of art, preferring instead to go on about her work ethic, as if she were giving a lecture at a corporate-sponsored attitude-training seminar. Yet those comic performances came from SOMEWHERE in her psyche. Maybe it was a kind of release.

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  3. Hello Kirk, I know about the phenomenal popularity of Ball and Arnaz, and I have seen some of the shows, but somehow Lucy is never my favorite comedienne*. At the time of her show (all seen much later through reruns), there was a competing program called I Married Joan, with the old-time comedienne Joan Davis, whose persona and comedy I much prefer. Also, her husband on the show was Jim Backus, who of course was a Clevelander.
    --Jim
    *I know this is the old-fashioned term, but seems fitting to use when discussing these 1950's comics.

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    1. Jim, I've heard of I Married Joan, but have never seen it. I remember an interview I saw once with Cindy Williams of Laverne and Shirley fame, where she cites Joan Davis as an inspiration. Since I find Williams very funny, I'd have to think I'd find Davis funny as well.

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    1. Debra, it's all that goes into the making of a legend that intrigues me.

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  5. I remember watching I Love Lucy when it was shown over here in the 90s. So Kirk, I know him! And of course his wife too!

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  6. Great post.

    I had no idea that he was do accomplished. The straight man usually gets overlooked.

    I have such find my memories of these watching that show that stretch throughout my life.

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    1. In addition to everything else, Brian, Desi Arnaz also had the makings of a pretty good dramatic actor. Really, there's only one film to go by in that regard, 1943's Bataan, but he has a nifty death scene.

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  8. I don't mind that your posts are long. They are extremely educational.

    I really liked the show. I remember growing up and laughing at Ricky Ricardo's yelling "Lucy".

    I have a friend who collects all things Lucille Ball. She has several dolls dressed from the different famous scenes.

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    1. Oh, I've had a lot longer posts than this, JM. I once had a post so long that here in the comment section, John Gray (who does the Going Gently blog) claimed that he had to stop reading to eat a sandwich!

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  9. Very informative. Thanks for sharing.

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In order to keep the hucksters, humbugs, scoundrels, psychos, morons, and last but not least, artificial intelligentsia at bay, I have decided to turn on comment moderation. On the plus side, I've gotten rid of the word verification.