In Normal Times, August Would Bring Tourists
In normal times, August would see Jamestown welcoming tourists from far and wide for the annual Lucille Ball Comedy Festival.
Because of the ongoing pandemic, this year’s festival had to be cancelled. Hopefully, summer 2021 will see things return to normal on what will be the 70th anniversary of the premiere of I Love Lucy.
But there is still much to celebrate. Given the national focus on race, tolerance and diversity that has arisen this year, it is worth remembering that I Love Lucy is notable for its groundbreaking inclusion.
Lucille Ball may be known as the first lady of comedy but she, along with then husband Desi Arnaz, were also pioneers in bringing real world diversity to the insulated and culturally antiseptic world of 1950’s show business.
I Love Lucy debuted in 1951. It marked the first time an interracial couple was featured on network television. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were married in real life and had to fight hard to bring the fictional Ricardos to living rooms all across America — and eventually the world.
It was the transition from radio to TV that presented the opportunity for the couple to work together. On radio, Lucille Ball starred in My Favorite Husband along with Richard Denning as the middle class couple Liz and George Cooper. The success of the radio show led CBS to try to bring the show to television. The format and formula were much the same as what would become I Love Lucy with the comedy coming from Liz Cooper’s whacky antics that tried the patience of her banker husband George.
CBS wanted Denning to continue in the role of the husband but Lucille Ball insisted that Desi Arnaz take the part. Despite both Ball and Arnaz already enjoying respectably high public profiles, CBS balked at the couple’s idea to bring their real life marriage to the fictional world of TV. Jell-O, the main sponsor, was also against the proposal and dropped out. America would never accept or believe a couple of such diverse backgrounds being husband and wife. That was the prejudice within which the corporate brain trust operated.
Never one to shrink from a challenge or to not fight for what they wanted, Lucy and Desi did what versatile performers did in those days – they took their show on the road and directly to the people. They put together an act that served to feature the comedic and musical talents of each of them alone and as a pair. The two were determined to show CBS and sponsors that the pairing could work.
The people ate it up. CBS was paying attention and gave in to the couple’s desire to star together in the TV show. Cigarette company Philip Morris stepped in as sponsor and I Love Lucy was born.
As the saying goes, the rest is history.
No attempt was made to hide Desi’s Cuban background. With his heavy accent that would have been a tall order. Instead, his background was frequently mentioned and never disparaged. In the dynamic that existed between the couple, Desi’s Ricky Ricardo was the level-headed and logical pragmatist. He was the savvy partner of the duo. It was left to Lucy, the American, to play the whacky, impulsive and always star-struck goofball.
Every choice was bold given the times including making the family name ‘Ricardo.’ It was an era when Hollywood shunned ethnic names of any kind and actors routinely changed their surnames into what would be considered acceptably Anglo-Saxon. Thus, fellow 1950’s musical/comedy duo Dino Crocetti and Joseph Levitch were better known as Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.
It was thought important to fit into the lily-white mold of sameness that existed at the time. Ethnicity was something to be hidden as if one’s origins should be a source of shame.
Thumbing their noses at this, Mr. And Mrs. Arnaz became Lucy and Ricky Ricardo on the small screen. The Cuban-born Desi became a T.V. husband and America not only accepted the pair but fell positively head over heels in love with the duo.
Desi’s accent was constantly poked fun at but never his cultural roots or his heritage. Ricky Ricardo was never portrayed or treated as “other.” Along with Lucy, Fred and Ethel – he was always part of the group.
Unbeknownst to any at the time, a cultural phenomenon was being born. The passing decades would turn it into an American institution and perhaps the most iconic television program in that medium’s history.
Certainly, Lucille Ball’s legacy is laughter. But it should not be lost that it is also one of inclusion and diversity in an era where neither of those concepts was talked about – much less sought after or practiced.
Now there’s something else to love about Lucy.