Recently I dropped into a Family Dollar store in Columbia, Tenn., where I noticed a nostalgia magazine by the cash register. Lucille Ball was on the cover. When I mentioned the fact to the twink by the cash register, he gave me a blank look. He did not know who Lucille Ball was. This surprised me because, though Lucy Ball died in 1989, before the twink was born, reruns of “I Love Lucy” continue to be shown on television, here and abroad. Three decades after she died, many of us continue to love Lucy, even those who were not on this planet when she was.
I first saw “I Love Lucy” in 1957, when I was four years old. That by itself would not be different from the experience of so many others but for the fact that I saw the show in Cuba, where it was dubbed into Spanish as “Yo Quiero a Lucy.” In the USA, “I Love Lucy” was Lucille Ball’s show. In Cuba the show was about Desi Arnaz; the Cuban who went to America, married that funny gringa and made television history. The traits that made Desi unique and unusual in the United States — his rapid-fire delivery, his accent (what accent? I thought everyone talked like that!) and his so-called “Latin” temper — made him “one of us.” I was also a few months younger than Desi Arnaz, Jr., whose cesarean delivery on Jan. 19, 1953 coincided with Little Ricky’s “birth.”
Shortly after my first “Lucy” experience “I Love Lucy” ended its six-year run; Ball and Arnaz divorced (the first divorce I ever heard of); and Fidel Castro replaced Desi Arnaz as the world’s most famous Cuban. In 1962 my family, like Arnaz did 29 years before, moved to the United States. To my delight, Ball returned to television soon after I arrived, in “The Lucy Show.” Though Lucy’s character was now a widow, she still had Vivian Vance as her best pal; not to mention the writers who made the first show such a hit. In fact, Lucy became such a part of my life that the lack of a Cuban did not keep me from enjoying “The Lucy Show” or its successor, “Here’s Lucy,” though I drew the line at the godawful “Life With Lucy.”
Lucille Ball was that rarest of commodities, the female clown. Her television work paved the way for Carol Burnett, Roseanne Barr, Fran Drescher, Ellen DeGeneres, Tina Fey and other funny women. Born in Aug. 6, 1911, Lucille Desiree Ball made over 60 films between 1934 and 1949. In 1940 she married Latin band leader Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha, who was six years younger and who co-starred in her 1940 vehicle “Too Many Girls.” Unfortunately for Lucy, that movie’s title was also a description of their early married life. Desi’s on the road womanizing led Lucy to file for divorce in 1944, but the couple reconciled. Ball’s desire to make Arnaz her TV co-star was based on her determination to save her marriage by keeping him at home.
On Oct. 15, 1951 “I Love Lucy” premiered on CBS. With lesser actors, the show might have been a flop: the tale of a silly housewife who wants to have a life of her own in spite of her husband’s opposition had been done many times before. What made the Ricardos unique and immortal was the unique dynamic that existed between Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, on stage and off. Though Arnaz was basically playing himself, Ball’s scatterbrained redhead persona was different than the hard-driving career woman who played her. Those of us who saw Lucy Ricardo from Ricky’s corner thought she was a crazy woman who, week after week, had to be put in her place by her stern but loving Cuban husband. Only in retrospective did we learn to admire Lucy Ricardo’s weekly acts of rebellion, and an assertiveness that Ricky could barely understand or control. Add to the mix the talents of Vivian Vance and William Frawley and the result were six years of magic — nine, if you include the “Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour.”
One of the most important decisions that Desi Arnaz made as producer of “I Love Lucy” was to tape the show on film before a studio audience. This preserved “I Love Lucy” episodes for posterity, allowing them to be seen again and again, all around the world. Though I saw my first “I Love Lucy” in 1957, I did not get to watch most of the series until the mid-sixties, when CBS showed re-runs on weekday mornings. While other kids spent their summer vacations outdoors, I spent them watching reruns of “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Make Room for Daddy” — both filmed at Desilu Studios — but especially “I Love Lucy.” And while I still related to the Cuban, it was his wife who captured my heart. Though Lucille Ball died on April 26, 1989 (Desi Arnaz died in 1986), she will live forever in reruns.