This essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to the Loving Lucy Blogathon, which is being hosted today by True Classics: The ABCs of Classic Film in honor of the centennial birthday celebration of Lucille Ball. TDOY has an additional post up at Edward Copeland’s Tangents, toasting our favorite “crazy redhead.” (Portions of this piece were recycled from a November 2003 post at TDOY’s former Salon Blogs location.)
The woman born Lucille Désirée Ball in Jamestown, NY one hundred years ago on this date dabbled in many facets of show business/entertainment throughout her career—model, Broadway actress, silver screen glamour queen—before finding her “niche” as a true television icon in such classic boob tube situation comedies as Here’s Lucy, The Lucy Show…and the most popular and successful of them all, I Love Lucy. It’s been said that people were unaware of Ball’s flair for comedy during the halcyon portion of her show business beginnings, but they overlook the fact that she certainly received an education from some first-rate practitioners of mirth: she worked in short subjects alongside the likes of the Three Stooges, Leon Errol, Billy Gilbert, and Edgar Kennedy; feature films with Eddie Cantor, the Marx Brothers, Red Skelton, Bob Hope, and Abbott & Costello (not to mention befriending the legendary Buster Keaton at M-G-M when she was a starlet and he had been reduced to being a gag writer); and radio broadcasts with Jack Haley, Phil Baker, Jimmy Durante, and Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy. (Lucy not only appeared on radio with Bergen and his famous dummy, she was also the leading lady in 1941’s Look Who’s Laughing, a film that also allowed her to work with Jim and Marian Jordan—better known as radio’s “Fibber McGee & Molly.”)
It was radio, oddly enough, that gave Lucille Ball amply free reign to display her talents when the motion picture studios occasionally found themselves puzzled as to how to make the best use of her gifts; she appeared on dramatic anthology series like The Lux Radio Theatre, The Gulf Screen Guild Theatre (and its later incarnation, The Lady Esther Screen Guild Theatre), and Screen Director’s Playhouse, and in addition starred often on “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills,” Suspense, in such half-hour classics as “Dime a Dance” and “The Ten Grand.” Lucy’s previous experience in radio (which began back in 1938 when she was a regular on Jack Haley’s The Wonder Show, which featured a young Gale Gordon as announcer) had shown her that there was a great deal of stability performing in the medium…something that she had been searching for ever since her marriage to Desi Arnaz in 1940. She observed “that radio interfered less with a normal home life than any other entertainment medium, a fact borne out by the experience of such happily married radio greats as Mary Livingstone and Jack Benny, Fred Allen and Portland Hoffa, Gracie Allen and George Burns, and Harriet and Ozzie Nelson.”
Lucy’s agent, Don Sharpe, began shopping around for a radio series suited to her talents and discussed the proposition with CBS Radio’s vice president of programming, Harry Ackerman. Ackerman had entertained ideas of adapting author Isabel Scott Rorick’s 1941 best-seller Mr. & Mrs. Cugat: The Record of a Happy Marriage as a series; the novel had already seen silver screen action as Are Husbands Necessary? (1942), with Ray Milland and Betty Field as the book’s main characters, George and Liz Cugat. Lucy liked the idea but very much wanted her real-life husband Desi to play opposite her on the show; in his profession as a bandleader, Arnaz spent a lot of time on the road (legend has it he had the libido of a Kennedy) and Lucy was very much interested in a project that would keep him closer to home, thus relieving the strain on their marriage. The network said “no dice,” believing that no one would buy that the Arnazes were husband and wife despite the fact…well, that they really were husband and wife.
So, on July 5, 1948—in a timeslot that had originally been set aside for the premiere of Our Miss Brooks, a radio sitcom that Lucy had also been considered for before Eve Arden agreed to the title role—CBS premiered My Favorite Husband, a domcom (domestic comedy) starring Lucy as former socialite-turned-housewife Elizabeth (Liz) Elliott Cugat, and Lee Bowman as her husband George, former playboy-turned-bank-vice-president. The premiere episode (touted as a “special preview program”) spotlighted the couple celebrating their tenth wedding anniversary, with clueless George taking his wife to a party to see his old girlfriend, Myra Ponsonby. (The Ponsonby character had been played in Are Husbands Necessary? by TDOY fave Patricia Morison.) The response to this “audio pilot” was so positive that the network greenlighted the show to continue, under the supervision of producer-director Gordon Hughes and scripts courtesy of Frank Fox and Bill Davenport.
Lee Bowman, a dependable if unremarkable leading man who appeared in films like Cover Girl (1944) and Tonight and Every Night (1945), would have to bow out of the George Cugat role when the series returned on July 23 due to previous commitments…so Hughes replaced him with another solid B-picture actor in Richard Denning who, despite appearances in films like The Glass Key (1942) was probably best known for being married to Universal Studios’ former “scream queen,” Evelyn Ankers. Bowman would not be the only individual transitioning off of My Favorite Husband; scribes Fox and Davenport would depart by the fall season and go back to their regular gig on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (they were “on loan,” so to speak). So Ackerman assigned a pair of staff writers who had been working for the network since 1946—Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll, Jr.—to pick up the slack.
In the early weeks of My Favorite Husband, the show was a sporadically funny program that differed from the later broadcasts in the series’ run in that Liz and George Cugat were members of high society, and most of the stories revolved around the exclusive social circle in which they mingled. Heard on occasion were George’s old college compadre Cory Cartwright (originally played by Hal March before John Hiestand took over), who was Husband’s resident “wolf,” and George’s boss at the bank, Rudolph Atterbury—who would gain much more prominence in later episodes but in his early incarnation was played off and on by radio veterans Hans Conried and Joseph Kearns. (The Cugats also had a housekeeper named Katie, played by versatile character actress Ruth Perrott.)
The evolution of My Favorite Husband from amusing time filler to what OTR historian Jim Cox called in his book The Great Radio Sitcoms “a dress rehearsal for the main event” began with the hiring of veteran radio scribe Jess Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer’s career in the aural medium began in the 1930s when he landed a job at San Francisco’s KFRC…at exactly the same time that the station was being managed by another eager beaver, Sylvester L. “Pat” Weaver, who would later become a broadcast pioneer in creating radio’s Monitor and TV’s Today and The Tonight Show. After his stint at KFRC, the young Oppenheimer went to work for the L.A. branch of Young & Rubicam advertising agency, a plum position that allowed him to write for the likes of many radio stars including Jack Benny, Bergen & McCarthy, Al Jolson, Rudy Vallee, and Fanny Brice. It was on Brice’s The Baby Snooks Show that Oppenheimer was punching a time clock when he was dumped from the program in May 1948—the star had been asked by CBS to take a pay cut (due to the pressure of the looming advent of television) and Brice balked, so CBS axed her series (she would return to the airwaves in the fall of 1949, only this time on rival NBC). Out of work, Jess accepted an offer from CBS veep Ackerman to submit a script to Husband and when Harry was bowled over by Oppenheimer’s submission, he hired Oppenheimer to be the show’s head writer tuit suite.
Oppenheimer accepted the job despite deep reservations. Many of his friends had advised him to drop the invite like a bad habit, because Lucille Ball had a reputation as a “strong personality.” (Oppenheimer recalled attending a rehearsal of the show and seeing a line of prescription pill bottles lined up where producer-director Gordon Hughes was sitting.) But Jess was game enough to take a chance and he told Ackerman yes…and the following week, Harry also informed that Hughes was out as producer-director and Oppenheimer was in (offering him a little more jingle in his pocket for agreeing to take on the extra duties). Oppenheimer established good relations with the other two writers on the show’s team, Pugh and Carroll, and later described his experience thusly: “I had three, maybe four, idyllic weeks in my new position as producer-director-head-writer, and then the proverbial fan suffered a direct hit.”
Before Jess’ arrival, writers Madelyn and Bob were slowly being driven insane by the demands made by both CBS and star Ball…they would often have to supply up to five scripts a week (including rewrites) to satisfy Lucy and the network’s contentious demands. Oppenheimer was determined to fix all of that (firmly believing that comedy scripts can and should be written during the course of a normal workday and to hell with overnight or overtime) and one day he got his chance to ride herd after Ball exploded in anger because she didn’t like a line in an otherwise uproarious script. He waited until her tirade had subsided before he calmly told her that he, Pugh and Carroll would not be treated in such a disrespectful fashion…whereupon he then informed her that their association was over, shook her hand, and exited out onto the street. Half-a-block later, Lucy’s agent Don Sharpe caught up with Jess and explained to him that his client was contrite over the way she treated him and would apologize…Oppenheimer explained that he would accept her apology and return to the show under the proviso that she also apologize to Madelyn and Bob, which Lucy did. From that point on, everything went swimmingly between Oppenheimer and Ball because Jess observed that despite her tough-gal demeanor Lucy was really just a softie who was often insecure and unsure of herself and needed someone (apologies for putting the S&M image in your head, by the way) to “dominate” her.
Jess was inspired by this incident to slip a sequence into a script in which Denning’s George Cugat became so furious at his wife that he gave Liz a severe tongue-lashing—much to Lucy’s delight. “Write more scenes like this!” she told Oppenheimer excitedly. “Let him really tell me off.” In truth, Oppenheimer had already started to make changes to Lucy’s Liz Cugat in the very first script he submitted to the program; he toned down Liz’s sophistication and made her more childlike and impulsive—qualities that, coincidentally, were a major part of the character makeup of Brice’s Baby Snooks, Oppenheimer’s former employer. Jess also wanted to make the Cugats a little less “worldly” and a bit more down-to-earth, so he decided to change their last name to “Cooper” once My Favorite Husband acquired a sponsor in General Foods (it had previously been a sustained program on CBS). His decision to revamp the couple’s surname was in part his way of transforming them into an average middle-class married duo struggling to get by (though George was a vice president at the bank, it was sort of suggested that it was more a title than anything truly financially substantial) but it was also brought on by a lawsuit by bandleader Xavier Cugat and his actress wife Abbe Lane…who were not amused that the fictional couple of Husband appropriated the same moniker. (Why Mr. and Mrs. C didn’t object at the time Rorick’s book was published remains a mystery, but in January 1949, My Favorite Husband now featured Liz and George Cooper as the residents of 321 Bundy Drive in Sheridan Falls.)
Oppenheimer’s influence on his star comedienne even extended to her radio performances. He was convinced that Lucy could transcend her adopted fashion of emoting from the script—which consisted of simply reading a gag and waiting for the laughter to subside before continuing with the next one—by adopting the method of galvanizing audiences in the fashion of an accomplished performer like Jack Benny, for instance. Knowing that Benny could milk laughs often by raising fingers to cheek and staring forlornly at the audience (“Well!”), Jess scored a couple of free tickets to the next Benny broadcast and told Ball to “go to school.” After seeing Benny in action, Lucy excitedly began to imitate her future next-door neighbor, hamming it up and exaggerating her voice and gestures to audience approval—so much so that Oppenheimer remarked in his and his son Gregg’s book Laughs, Luck…and Lucy: How I Came to Create the Most Popular Sitcom of All Time: “[T]here were times I thought we’d have to catch her with a butterfly net to get her back to the microphone.” (Oppenheimer wasn’t as lucky in getting Lucy’s co-star Richard Denning to follow suit; Denning told his boss that once his eyes departed from the script he’d have one dickens of a time finding his place again.)
The final touches on My Favorite Husband’s reboot were instituted when Jess Oppenheimer got the inspiration to introduce a couple on the show that would not only offer a counterpoint to the young Coopers but provided the Liz character with a confidant-sidekick that would assist her in her increasingly zany plot shenanigans. The character of bank president Rudolph Atterbury had already been featured on the program, and on occasion Atterbury would refer to his wife, Iris. When character actor Gale Gordon guest starred on Husband as a trial judge Oppenheimer immediately noticed the first-rate chemistry between he and Ball and decided to write the actor in permanently as George’s stuffy and easily exasperated boss. Gordon was a true blue radio veteran, best known for his roles on Fibber McGee & Molly (on which he played Mayor La Trivia and weatherman “Foggy” Williams), The Great Gildersleeve (as the conceited neighbor Runsom Bullard), and Our Miss Brooks (perhaps his signature radio role as the dyspeptic principal of Madison High, Osgood Conklin).
To play Mrs. Atterbury, Oppenheimer decided to take advantage of the services of veteran character actress Bea Benaderet, whom he had befriended in his KFRC days. Benaderet was also no slouch when it came to radio, having had regular roles on Burns & Allen, Fibber McGee & Molly, The Great Gildersleeve, and The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet…she had even previously appeared on Husband in a variety of guest parts, including Leticia Cooper, George’s disapproving mother—who felt her son had married below his station. (The part of Leticia would later be essayed by another great character actress, Eleanor Audley.) Benaderet’s Iris played Liz’s confederate in her wacky housewife schemes, the two women were former schoolmates turned lifelong pals, with best bud Liz serving as her superior officer in the eternal battles of “husbands vs. Wives.”
If you’re starting to think that this is all sounding a little familiar—almost like a famous TV comedy about a bandleader and his starry-eyed redheaded wife—My Favorite Husband’s new focus on Liz Cooper’s obsession with bettering herself and her social position was pretty much the blueprint for the later classic I Love Lucy. Close to three dozen of My Favorite Husband’s scripts were revamped as Lucy episodes, and at times that’s the fun of listening to the series, with entire passages of dialogue virtually mimicking Lucy’s later televised escapades. The popularity of My Favorite Husband did not escape the notice of CBS executives, and they were determined to put a visual version of the series on the air. Lucille Ball was certainly willing, but this time she held firm on her original idea to cast real-life husband Desi as her televisual spouse…and she meant it: no Desi, no show. (That, of course, is a post for another day.)
In closing out his chapter on Husband in Sitcoms, Jim Cox writes: “My Favorite Husband was like a pilot for a television series that has never ceased. While the final production was better than its forerunner, every sitcom requires a rehearsal.” I’m not in complete agreement with that because I think both Husband and I Love Lucy were pretty much interchangeable (six of one, half a dozen of the other—both often uproariously funny) but if on the off chance you’re never had an opportunity to listen to the show I’ve taken the liberty of presenting a couple of examples here. Episode one is the very first My Favorite Husband I ever listened to, a September 16, 1949 broadcast in which Liz and Iris learn the game of baseball in order to play at the company picnic sponsored by the bank. The second is a little gem I found at YouTube; animator Wayne Wilson takes a December 16, 1949 broadcast and adds cartoon visuals of the show’s characters in a style that seems heavily influenced by John Kricfalusi (but is very entertaining nevertheless). It’s in three parts.
Part 1 – “George’s Christmas Present”
Part 2 – “George’s Christmas Present”
Part 3 – “George’s Christmas Present”