I Call on Lucy and Desi
from The Saturday Evening Post, May 31, 1958
by Pete Martin
I was visiting Lucille Ball in her Beverly Hills home. It is located in the Rosemary Clooney, Jose' Ferrer, Jimmy Stewart belt- the Ferrers and the Stewarts live there-the same being a quietly conservative, luxurious cluster of homes not too many golf drives removed from Sunset Boulevard.
We had both read the anniversary number of a show-business publication. It was thick with vanity advertising, and we were discussing that aspect of it.
In it, certain actors filled a whole page with their portraits, but put no identification under them. "That kills me," I said. "You are automatically supposed to know who they are, which certainly takes a puffed-up ego. Somebody like Bob Hope or Jack Benny or Clark Gable doesn't need a name under his picture; otherwise--"
"You can get bawled out for having too little ego too," Lucy Ball told me. "Once, at a cocktail party in Philadelphia, somebody said to me, 'Be nice to that man over there. He's with a local paper.' I went over to him and said, 'I'm Lucille Ball,' and he said sarcastically, 'You don't say!' and I just died, because all I'd wanted to be was friendly."
"Why do you suppose he was so sarcastic?" I asked.
"I guess he thought it was like Jimmy Durante coming up to him and saying coyly, 'I'm Jimmy Durante,' only Jimmy wouldn't have been coy about it, and even if he had, the man should have said, 'You don't have to tell me, Jimmy. I recognized you,' or something human, instead of being nasty. Anyhow, the next day his paper tore into me as an example of false humility, while actually all I was trying to do was to tell the man who I was. The people I'm most grateful for in this world are those who just stick out their hand and identify themselves."
"I'm no good at names either," I said.
"I have a good friend, Jim Stokes, who lives in Denver," she said. "He has a wonderful family, but they're just thoroughly nice people instead of being stupefying and unforgettable personalities. There's not an Orson Welles in the lot. Jim knows that, so he never sees me without putting out his hand and saying, 'I'm Jim Stokes. Remember? How're you?' I'm so grateful to him I want to kiss him. He's so much better than the kind who grab your hand, hang onto it and say 'I'll bet you don't know who I am!' and you don't. Desi and I refuse to stand there snapping our fingers and saying, 'Now don't tell us. We know. Ah--ah--ah!"
"While I'm at it," she went on, "I think it's only courteous for a writer to find out a little about a person he's going to interview. Sometimes a writer starts talking to an entertainer with 'Tell me all about yourself.' If he does that his words just lie there on the floor and quiver. It's also hard to get a crush on a reporter who asks, 'What have you been doing lately?' when you've been so busy that your friends have been begging you to slow down."
"I'm not worried," I said. "I've done my homework on you and Desi. Which brings me to a question. When you and Desi decided to go on TV, did you think of it as a big, fat gamble?"
"We've been asked that many times," she said. "At first we were inclined to say 'yes'; then give a long explanation. It made a better story that way, and it was pleasant to see an interviewer's face light up because he thought he'd struck pay dirt. But it really wasn't a big decision. It was tied up with the fact that I was pregant[sic]."
"I never knew that was your reason for quitting the movies," I said.
"You never knew because I never made a point of telling anybody about it," she said. "But let's get this straight. The pregnancy that led up to I Love Lucy was my second one. It was my first pregnancy that got me out of pictures. I was tickled to death, for two reasons: I wanted a baby and I was never very happy in pictures. Don't get me wrong. I'm grateful for what pictures did for me. If a girl wants to be an actress and she's paid good money for sixteen years while she learns, she's a jerk if she's ungrateful. But with the exception of one or two pictures, I've never done anything I liked."
"What was your typical picture role?" I asked.
"You're cast in pictures for what somebody thinks you look like," she went on, "and the general idea seemed to be that I resembled 'the other woman' or a colorful and too-dashing showgirl. What I felt like was a station-wagon housewife from Connecticut. I'd always leaned toward the homy bits in a script, and it was those bits that led up to I Love Lucy. That series began to take form and shape when I started having disputes with my movie studio, Columbia, about roles and finances."
"I thought you were at MGM," I said.
"I had my release from Metro," she said. "I'd gone to Columbia, but I wasn't happy at Columbia ever. Harry Cohn, who headed the studio, has passed on now, but he is so involved in the story of my quitting the movies I can't leave him out. If he seems a heavy as far as I'm concerned, I'm not a hypocrite. He'd been asking me to do things I didn't like, which meant an impasse, because I wasn't about to do something I thought was bad for me. He was trying to break my contract, and I was all for letting him break it, and at the same time he was keeping me from doing a picture for Cecil B. De Mille on a loan-out."
"Which De Mille picture was it?" I asked.
"The Greatest Show on Earth," she told me. "Betty Hutton finally did the part Mr. De Mille wanted me for, but before that, he and I had discussed it on the q.t., and I said I'd love to do it. He'd asked, 'How can you?' and I'd said, 'I have no idea, but I will.' I had several meetings with Mr. Cohn about it, but his idea was to outfox me. He kept saying, 'You don't have time. You owe me a picture.'
"'That's ridiculous,' I said. 'You have nothing for me to do, and the De Mille picture is a great opportunity.'
"'We'll see,' he said; which meant he was going to hold out on me. In the meantime the De Mille company was ready to leave for Florida and begin shooting, and I was so excited I couldn't breathe. To me, working with Mr. De Mille was the living end. I'd had some nice directors and some good ones, no super ones.
"I was getting nowhere with Mr. Cohn, so I said to him, 'I'm asking you again. Why can't you let me make this picture? You've loaned me out for dogs before when it didn't matter.' What really concerned him was trying to get out of having to pay me the eighty-five grand he would owe me if I made the one more picture for him he had contracted to have me do. If he'd asked me to let him out of that commitment, I would have agreed to forget the whole deal. But that was too simple. He wanted to outsmart me, so one day he sent me a script about the size of a small pamphlet, called The Magic Carpet.
"I read the script, and as I read I became hysterical with laughter. It was a Hymie Levin script. His name wasn't really Hymie Levin, but since he was a nice man and I wouldn't want to hurt his feelings, I'll call him that, because he made what were called 'the lease breakers.' If they wanted you out of your contract, they sent you a genuine Hymie Levin script. He has made some fine pictures since, but at that time a Levin script was a short, hurried B picture with any cast he could sling together. When I realized what was up, I was elated, although I didn't know what Desi would say to the idea that had popped into my head. When he got home, I said, 'I have a script I want you to read.' He read it, looked at me and asked, 'Are you cra-zee o something?' I said, 'All I have to do is appear in this picture and I not only get $85,000 but I've worked my way out of my contract and I can accept the De Mille role. I'm going to fool them. I'm not going to turn it down.'
"'You wouldn't dare,' Desi said.
"'Why not?' I asked. 'Hymie Levin is a likeable man; besides, it'll only take me five days to finish it.'"
"'You haven't told me what that Levin story was about," I said.
"I've never even seen the picture," she said, "so I don't remember much about it. As I recall it, I was a harem girl, lying on a divan in lam'e pantaloons, while slaves fed me grapes. I sent word to Columbia that I would be delighted to do the picture; then I checked in for my costume fittings. I tried on the muslin mockup of my body they kept to use for fitzip it. And I was puzzled. I'd made a picture only a couple of months before. The muslin figure had been perfect then, but now it missed closing by two or three inches. I didn't realize I'd put on so much weight. I must have been lying around eating too much. Then the next day I had a strange feeling."
"Like morning sickness?" I asked.
"Exactly," she said. "But I thought, It couldn't be. We'd been trying for years, and Desi and I had made up our minds that we couldn't have a baby. Nevertheless, the doctor said one was on the way. After that, the trick was to let nobody know. If Mr. Cohn had realized that I was pregnant, he could have refused to take a chance on an expectant mother in a film, and if I couldn't have done the Levin opus, it would have let him out of his commitment to me."
"I thought Turkish harem girls' middles were supposed to be plump," I said.
"Not so plump as this Turkish girl's middle looked," she chuckled. "I quickly found that pregnancy made me expand like a balloon, but, of course, I couldn't tell anybody, not even the wardrobe girl who was trying to tuck me into my lame'pants and my Turkish bra. I walked around all day trying not to breathe, and every night the wardrobe girl said, ' I simply don't know what's happening, Miss Ball. I let your things out last night myself.' And I said carelessly, 'Apparently you didn't let them out far enough. You're going to have to let them out some more.'
"I finished the picture, collected Columbia's money and, with Desi, went to see Mr. De Mille with tears streaming down my face. 'Why are you crying?' Mr. De M. asked, and I said, 'I've always wanted to work with you, and this is the only opportunity I'll ever have, but I can't do your picture. I'm pregnant.' It was very sad. Even Mr. De Mille had tears in his eyes. He shook Desi's hand solemnly and said, 'I want to congratulate you. You're the only one who's ever crossed up Cecil B. De Mille, his wife, Paramount and Harry Cohn all at the same time.'"
"So that's how you got inot TV?" I asked.
"She said, 'I was finished with Columbia an I had no other commitments except having a baby. Television was coming in, so I sat home with Desi, and we dreamed up I Love Lucy. I told Desi, 'I want you to play my husband,' but my talent agency didn't approve. The people there said the public wouldn't believe I was married to Desi. He talked with a Cuban accent, and, after all, what typical American girl is married to a Latin? American girls marry them all the time, of course, but not on TV. Unhappily, I lost that baby, and to get my mind off my loss, I said to Desi and the agency, 'We'll try out our proposed TV act in vaudeville.' We did, and the public accepted our Cuban-American marriage in spite of the doubts of the talent agency people."
"What was your act like?" I asked.
She told me, "It was mostly husband-and-wife situation comedy. Mixed in with it was a little music, dancing, gags and serious stuff. I became pregnant again, so we couldn't continue our tour, but we were convinced we were on the right track and we sold Desi to CBS as my TV husband. I don't remember the business details. I was pregnant and happy, and I knew I would be available eventually, and that's all I recall."
"One of the things that interest me about you," I said, "is this: unlike most successful comediennes-such as Edna Mae Oliver, Zasu Pitts or Imogene Coca, to name three--you don't look like a comedienne. You're a good-looking, sexy dame who's pleasingly stacked. As a comedienne, you must have found that something to overcome."
"The only thing wrong with the big analysis you've just made," she told me, "is I'm not beautiful, I'm not sexy and I don't have a good figure."
"I've seen photographs of you which make you look mighty toothsome," I said.
"I've seen photographs of me that amazed me, too," she said, "but I'm no competition in the glamour-girl department. However, I'll go this far: I probably do have a little more evenness of features than Imogene or Zasu."
"You go further than that," I insisted.
"Whether I do or not," she said, "I did have something to overcome that we haven't talked about. Most comedy successes stem from long-standing inferiority complexes, and I had mine."
I asked, "What do you trace yours back to?"
"My father died when I was four," she said. "He was twenty-three and mother was even younger. She married again, and for seven or eight years I was with my stepfather's Swedish parents, so I felt out of of things. Mother made it up to me later, but until I was nine it was tough going. My step-grandparents had stern, old-country ideas. They treated other children the way I wanted to be treated, but not me. They did that to discipline me, but for me it was the wrong way to bring up a child. It gave me a feeling of frustration and of reaching-out-and-trying-to-please. I found the quickest and easiest way to do that was to make people laugh."
"When did you make that discovery?" I asked.
"I was twelve," she said. "Bernard Drake, the principal of my school, recognized my urge for approval. The school was in Celoron, New York. Celoron is near Jamestown. I'd do anything for a smile-sell tickets, fix the stage, clean the office-and, recognizing my need, he saw to it that I had a part in school plays and operettas. My mother and my stepfather also encouraged me to act, dance, and sing. I remember they drove me miles through the snow to see the famous monologist, Julius Tannen, on the Chautauqua circuit."
"I'm older than you," I said. "I saw William Jennings Bryan and a groiup[sic] of Swiss bell-ringers in a Chautauqua tent."
She tried to figure mentally how far back that must have been; then gave up. "I watched Tannen make people cry, sob, laugh and roar," she said, "and after that, when the Jamestown Elks and Shriners put on a show, I was in there knocking myself out."
"I was hoping you'd tell me about yourself from the day you were born until you arrived in Hollywood," I said.
"I was born in Jamestown, New York," she told me. "It was a place I seemed to be continually trying to get away from, even if it meant running away. The first time I took my small brother and sister with me, but we were picked up and sent home. After that when I ran away, I ran in the direction of New York."
"You haven't really told me too much about your early years," I said. "Does it bore you to talk about them?"
"Have you ever met anyone who's bored with his own story?" she asked. I admitted I hadn't. "You still haven't," she laughed. "Suppose I give you a few quick items from my childhood. There was, for example, the time when a skunk got into the tent in our back yard where my brother and I were sleeping. On another occasion we had a tragedy. The chicken coop back of our house caught fire, and I've never gotten over the fact that the hens roasted rather than leave their chicks. Then pretty soon I was twelve years old and playing basketball and softball and doing an Apache dance in a dance so enthusiastically I threw one arm out of joing, but I finished the performance. When I was fourteen, I persuaded mother to send me to dramatic school."
"Where?" I asked.
"To the John Murray Anderson-Robert Milton Dramatic School, in New York," she said. "I was so shy I was terrified. Bette Davis was the star pupil. There was nothing shy about her. I can see her now, starring in plays while I hid behind the scenery. And I took elocution, and Robert Milton made me repeat 'water' and 'horses' because I pronounced them 'worter' and 'haases.' I was so miserable mother brought me home, and I spent the next few months writing poetry."
"What particular poet inspired you?" I asked.
"I wasn't inspired by anything," she told me. "I just liked to rhyme. I think it was a form of nervousness. When I was fifteen I finally made the sophomore class in high school, although I don't know how I did it--I flunked algebra three times. The following summer mother arranged for me to visit friends in New York. This time I wanted to be in vaudeville, but I never met anybody who knew how to get in vaudeville, so I decided to be a showgirl and I answered a call for an Earl Carroll tryout. I was tall and thin, but measurements weren't the whole bit then. Other things counted, too, although I can't remember what. I rehearsed for two weeks, then a man said to me, 'Miss Belmont!' (That's who I'd decided to be.) 'You're through.'
"He didn't say why, but I found out later I was so young and so dumb I wasn't contributing anything, and I didn't walk like a showgirl. As you know, showgirls are supposed to walk like clothes models. I don't know why they picked me in the first place. Earl Carroll's showgirls had great bodies, which looked fine in abbreviated costumes. I didn't. I went home and cried. I asked some of the girls I'd met, 'What'll I do now?' and they said, 'There'll be other calls. Maybe there'll be a Shubert call, but, of course you won't make that.' I was going on sixteen, and Shubert girls were femmes fatales, dripping diamonds and minks, but I was picked for a Shubert show anyhow. We rehearsed for two weeks, and I was fired again. That time I really suffered."
"In what way?" I asked.
"Shubert girls were the living, witchy end. They didn't want any fresh competition. They'd say, 'Think you're pretty cute, don't you?' 'Call that a figure?' 'Go home!' Horrible things to say to a kid self-conscious about being skinny anyhow. I planned ways to kill myself so I wouldn't have to go home and tell everybody I'd lost another job. I thought, I'll get killed faster in Central Park because cars go faster there. But I want to get hit by a big car--with a handsome man in it. Then I had a flash of sanity. I said to myself, If I'm thinking this way, maybe I don't want to die. So I regrouped my forces.
"I was still trying to get into show business, but in the meantime I had taken a cheap, dark, dismal room of my own and I was starving to death. I slipped into people's seats in cafe's and drank the coffee they left in their cups or ate the pieces of doughnut they discarded. Then one morning I picked up a paper and saw the word 'model.' I said OK, I'll model.' I looked up a place that needed models for Size 10 to 14 coats. Coats will cover my missing figure, I thought, and I got the job."
"I'm beginning to think that you must have looked good," I told her, "in spite of the way you knock yourself physically."
"I looked clean and neat, anyhow," she said. "And since I was working for actual pay, I rented a room. Finally I met another model, who told me, 'My husband's a commercial photographer, and you're the type he needs for an assignment.' So I started commercial photography modeling. I also posed for artists, and I was on a twenty-four-sheet billboard poster for Chesterfield. Then I got a job modeling at Hattie Carnegie's."
"I've been told to ask you about a bullet that ricocheted into the bathtub in your hotel room about that time," I said.
She told me, "A gang war was going on around the corner. I didn't hear the bullet whang into the tub, but the water suddenly began to disappear. I got out and tried to mop the floor. That's all there is to that story.
"Later that summer I wandered over to Broadway and stood before the Palace Theater, hoping to see some actors. Sylvia Hollow, a New York woman agent I knew said, 'How'd you like to leave this heat?' I said, 'I'd love to,' and she asked, 'How about California? I've just come from Jim Mulvey's office upstairs. He had twelve girls leaving to be poster girls in the next Goldwyn movie, and one of them can't go. You're a poster girl, aren't you?"
"Your Chesterfield poster must have qualified you," I suggested.
She nodded. "I met Mr. Mulvey and he said, 'All right.' I made a long-distance call to mother and went back to Hattie Carnegie's. She gave me a coat, a hat and a dress, and said, 'God bless you. It'll be good experience, and if you don't like it, you can come back to work.' I've never been back.
"I was with Mr. Goldwyn a year and a half," she said; "then I asked him if I could go, for by that time I was a last year's Goldwyn Girl and I'd been released to the back row. Mr. Goldwyn was very nice. 'You can do better,' he said, and 'I'm sorry we don't have more for you to do here,' so I moved over to Columbia, where my principal work was being chased before a camera by Ted Healey and his Stooges. Then Gene Raymond, Barbara Reed, Ann Southern and I were first let out the same night. That was my first stay at Columbia. I came back years later.
"A couple of days later I had a call from a friend, Dick Green. He said, 'RKO is looking for ex-Bergdorf girls.'"
"Is that supposed to be a slightly higher cut of model?" I asked.
"I guess so," she said. "Anyhow, I'd worked a fashion show at Bergdorf's once, so RKO tagged me. I was there for seven years. During that time my pay went to $3500 a week, but I was only a queen of the B's, so once more I asked for my release and went to MGM, where I spent several happy years working for Papa Louis B. Mayer. However, they typecast me as a musical-comedy queen, and although it was a glamorous and well-paid type of typecasting, that and the orange-colored hair they gave me drove me back to Columbia."
"Tell me about your first meeting with Desi," I said.
"I met him at the RKO studio in May, 1940," she said. "We were filming Too Many Girls, the stage show in which Desi made his first big hit."
"What was his first reaction when he saw you?" I asked.
"He asked me for a date that very night," she said, "and pretty soon we were married--in spite of the way he drove a car."
I didn't let her non sequiter throw me. I tried for more details.
"The first time I drove with him," she explained, "although he slowed to eighty miles an hour at corners, I thought he was a maniac. When I said, 'Mother wouldn't like this,' he slowed down. On another date he hit a low spot in the paving on a side street. Desi merely said, 'We dropped something,' and kept on going. I'll say we dropped something--only a fender and a bumper."
"That should have wowed you," I said. "Bold men who live dangerously are supposed to appeal to dames."
"Not me," she said flatly. "He frightened me. Marrying Desi was the boldest thing I ever did. I'd always gone with older men. I'd also achieved some stability in Hollywood, while Desi seemed headed in another direction."
"Somebody told me to ask you about Desi ordering a car during the last war," I said.
"Remember how hard it was to get cars?" she asked. "Ours was falling apart. Desi was away, and I was home one afternoon when a stranger rounded the corner. He asked, 'Is Deesee here?' I said, 'Do you mean Desi?' and he said, 'Yes, Deesee.' I said, 'He's in Chicago,' and he said, 'I've got his car here. He ordered it eight weeks ago. You'd better make up your mind sister. A lot of people want this crate.'
"I looked at it. It was fire-engine red; it screamed when it saw my pink hair. I said, 'I'm sorry, but we won't be able to take it. You'll have to get another color; maybe blue.' He went away mumbling, and when Desi called me that night I said, airily, 'Your car came today, but I sent it back.' He practically climbed through the phone, and after a few husbandly remarks, I called the man back at midnight and said, 'I hope you haven't done anything with that car. I've just had hell bawled out of me.' So we got it, and I kept my hair covered when I was in it. How about another question?"
I said, "There's some very broad baggy-pants, putty-nose comedy in I Love Lucy; yet amazingly, it is credible to your viewers. The fact that very few housewives are slapped in the face with pies doesn't seem to bother people. Do you think such things happen in ordinary families?"
"Our show is based on exaggerated satire," she said. "We start with a normal premise; then take our characters beyond that, but not beyond the point where the viewing public likes to have them taken. Once in a while we have slapstick situations on our show. But critics like generalizations, so they label all our shows slapstick. Last season, when I broke an egg or two, we had a laugh that went on so long that we had to cut the laugh track in half."
"I didn't see it," I said.
"I had five dozen eggs tucked away in my bosom," she explained. "I had to do a dance, and they got jostled." She looked at me questioningly. "I can see you think it sounds farfetched," she said.
"I don't say it was farfetched," I said. "I just don't think it happens in every family."
"In our story it was very logical," she said seriously.
I said, "Everybody gives you and Desi credit for being masters of the double take and timing. I know a double take when I see it, but I've never been able to describe it."
"You've just picked two things nobody can fill you in on," she said: "timing and double takes. If you know what a double take is, why do you need it described?"
I said, "It seems to me the longer you wait between a take and a double take, the more effective it is."
"Edward Everett Horton does the longest double takes of anyone," she said, "and since he also does the best, you may be right about waiting. He can wait for four pages of script and still get a laugh. I can't take credit for having a sense of timing. A talent for timing is God-given. Nobody can teach you that. It's having a feeling for your audience plus an instinctive knowledge of how to react to that feeling. When we have guest stars, I have to be on my toes. I learned a few lessons from Tallulah. That girl made me feel I'd been sleigh riding." She thought of something else and volunteered, "Arthur Godfrey helped us get where we are. You may quote me on that."
"How did he help?" I asked.
She told me, "Every Monday night he told his viewers to stay tuned for us. It was the biggest lift that we could have had."
"Let's talk about your son, little Desi, who was a national institution by the time he arrived," I said.
She said, "We were in the middle of a very successful TV show, which was a thing no one would want to drop. We were Number One, which in those days was much higher than it is today. At one time, I Love Lucy had a rating of almost sixty, and with today's intense competition that won't happen again. Anyway, I was suddenly pregnant again and we faced the question: Should I stop working for months or stay on the job? Desi told me, 'If you want my vote, we'll stay on until you have the baby.' The idea was a startling one, but he went to work on it the way he goes to work on everything else. First he got permission from the network. He said, 'We think the American people will buy Lucy's having a baby if it's done with taste. Pregnant women are not kept off the streets, so why should she be kept off television? There's nothing disgraceful about a wife becoming a mother.' The furor it all caused was a revelation to me."
"You mean a favorable or an unfavorable furor?" I asked.
"Favorable," she told me. "Hundreds of thousands of women all over the country who were pregnant along with me wrote me encouraging notes, and after our baby was born, I received thirty thousand congratulatory telegrams and letters."
"How did you handle the timing so your actor baby would appear on the screen the same week your own baby was born?" I asked.
"Our first child, Lucie, had been born by Caesarean section," she said. "Little Desi was delivered by Caesarean section too. If you know your baby is going to be a Caesarean baby, it helps you call your shots."
She paused and asked me, "Are we almost through? My daughter will be home almost any minute on the school bus, and I promised her I'd come outside and meet her. There was something about how the other kids on the bus don't believe she's really Lucille Ball's daughter."
I certainly didn't want to interfere with anything that important, so I decided to get the rest of the story from Desi. I said good-by to Lucy and I saw her husband the next afternoon in his office. He'd been in Chicago trying to tie up the loose ends of the $6,150,000 deal in which he had purchased the two RKO studios.
I told him, "Watching your company, Desilu, buy the two big RKO studios was like standing at a crossroads and watching somebody take a significant turn. I've been covering the Hollywood beat for years, and it seemed a landmark to me when the first of the major movie studios was bought by an independent TV producer. You are one of the key figures in a new industry."
"I don't know about that," he said. "But I do know that Desilu is filming so many TV shows that we needed more room. Buying the old RKO Hollywood studio and the RKO-Pathe' lot gives us a total of thirty-three sound stages. That's four more than MGM has, and eleven more than Twentieth Century-Fox owns. And we're filming ten hours of usable film each week."
"How many hours is MGM shooting?" I asked him.
"They're not even close," Desi told me. "We turn out the equivalent of two hundred and forty feature films a year. I doubt if MGM totals more than thirty or forty features a year."
"Who decided you ought to go into television, you or Lucy?" I asked.
"Circumstances decided for us," he said. "It was more of a gamble for Lucy than me. She was getting upwards of $100,000 a picture, which was better than I was doing, although I was making $75,000 a year in the band-and-record business--and I'm not apologizing for that--but hadn't been able to stay together very much. RKO had dropped me, and I couldn't get a job in the movies. Everybody thought of me as just a guy who played the bongo drums, so I said good-by to Hollywood and hit the road again. Marriage is no good on a long-distance telephone basis, and I thought if I got into another musical play it would help. So I hung around New York, eating at 21. Lucy wrote me a letter. She said, 'The trouble with 21 is if you eat there it means people think you're so successful you're not looking for a job. Eat at Sardi's.'
"'Everybody is always reading his own reviews at Sardi's,' I argued, but Lucy insisted, so I went to Sardi's every night for a month. Nobody even said hello, and I went back to 21."
"So you went into television together so you two could have more home life?"
"Right," he agreed. "Lucy had been doing My Favorite Husband on radio, and the idea was for her to do practically the same thing on television with me. The catch was, as Lucy probably told you, everybody said I wasn't right to play her husband. We solved that by trying out I Love Lucy on the road. Of our first Lucy pilot film, twenty minutes of it was out of our vaudeville sketch."
"I've been told," I said, "that you were among the first to realize the value of filmed shows as opposed to live shows."
"Let's put it this way," he said: "I was among the first to believe that film was the answer to telecasting. If a show can't leave a studio, its action is limited by how long it takes an actor to change his clothes or to get from one spot to another. So you compromise. It's touch enough to have to write a show every week without having somebody say, 'You can't do that because it will require an exterior shot.'"
"When you two did your first Lucy-and-Desi show, did you decide to base it on yourselves?" I asked.
"Not exactly," he said. "Lucy Ricardo of I Love Lucy is not Lucille Ball, the movie star, and Ricky Ricardo is not me. Most people have a mental picture of a movie star as a guy who drives a car with fins like a B-52 and whose problem is whether to buy another oil well or an extra chalet in Switzerland. So instead of playing Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz straight, we came up with a script in which Lucy was a no-talent housewife who had a yen to get into show business. We visualized her husband as Ricky Ricardo, a struggling band leader, but who was essentially a fellow trying to make a living, just like any other Joe. He had all the problems any other husband has; the only thing was his wife was fiercely ambitious for him and, in trying to help him, she frequently fell on her face.
"The difference was that Lucy carried the solving of her problems further than even the dizziest American housewife. Most people wish they could kick their inhibitions over the way we do, but since most people can't, they enjoy seeing Lucy do it for them. I've just had a letter from a guy who thanked us for saving his marriage. 'We were about to bust up,' he wrote. 'I thought my wife was nuts. Then I took a look at Lucy and I realized that all women are alike, so now it doesn't bother me any more.'"
I said, "Tell me more about the decision you made to keep Lucy on the air almost up to the time your second baby was born."
He said, "We didn't want to do anything that would upset the public. I called the heads of the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faiths in Los Angeles and asked them to assign representatives to keep an eye on our shows. So for eight weeks a rabbi, a Protestant minister, and a Catholic priest checked every foot of film we shot. There was nothing we had to throw out except the word 'pregnant.' CBS didn't like that, so we used 'expectant.' CBS thought it a nicer word."
"The important thing was that you weren't imitating anything else that was already on TV," I suggested.
"In this country imitation doesn't work," Desi told me. "To be a success, you must do something different. I found that out when I first came here. I had never done anything. My father had been mayor of our home town in Cuba. Then a revolution came; he lost his money. We reached Miami with nothing. Finally I got a job with a little band, singing and playing the guitar. My first band job was with the Siboney Septet. I don't know why it was called a Septet, since there were only five of us. I guess septet sounded better."
"When did you get your own band?" I asked.
He said, "Xavier Cugat dropped in on one of our tea dances and offered me a job, but after eight months I went back to Miami with Nick Nicoletti, Cugat's secretary, who quit at the same time. We had only twenty dollars between us, but by the time we were down to our last five bucks we had a connection with a man who was opening a night spot. Nick and I 'accepted' a job for 'our five-piece Cuban band.' The band was supplied by Cugat, and except for me, the leader, there wasn't a Cuban in the bunch."
"What were they?" I asked.
"Three Brooklyn boys handled the piano, saxophone, and violin," he said. "There was a Spaniard on the drums, an Italian boy on the bass. We sounded terrible. We were advertised as 'The only Latin-American band in Miami Beach,' but we didn't fool anybody. We only played one set when we were given two weeks' notice. Luckily for me, Ted Husing was there when we were fired, and Ted told the owner, 'The band isn't much but the young leader-singer has something. If you'll keep him, I'll broadcast his music every night free on my radio program.' And he did, but the band was so lousy I had to figure something to drown it out. That's how I started the first conga line in the U.S."
"You mean you invented it?" I asked.
"So far as this country is concerned I did," he said. "The idea spread over the whole country, and I played a year at La Conga night club on Fifty-second Street in New York."
"Did you remember the conga rhythm from your Cuban days?" I asked.
Desi said, "It originated in my home town, Santiago, during carnival time."
He paused a moment; then went on, "While I was in New York, Rodgers and Hart offered me a part in their musical, Too Many Girls. Then I came to Hollywood to make the film version of that show, and as Lucy has already told you, I met her."
"What was your first reaction when you saw her?" I asked him. "What with her orange-pink hair and her huge, chinablue eyes, meeting her is quite an experience visually."
He grinned. "George Abbott, the director, introduced us," he told me, "and I said to George, 'Wow! What a honk of woman!'" Desi's grin changed to a nostalgic smile. "I've never changed my mind," he said.