I don’t think a lot of people are aware of how difficult it was for Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, married in real life, to convince television executives that they should play husband and wife in the TV show I Love Lucy that debuted in 1951. The executives thought the American public wasn’t ready to see a white woman married to a Cuban man.
Arnaz and Ball took their act on the road, and it was soon apparent that audiences loved them. They went on to become one of the most influential couples in the television industry with their own production company, Desilu Productions.
Before I was old enough to go to school, Ma and I watched reruns of the show in the late 1950s and early 1960s every morning with our buttered English muffins on paper plates and our bone china cups of tea. I learned the dialog by heart, and I found something comforting in the couple that might have been too different for the American public to tolerate. Lucy and Ricky reminded me of Ma and Dad: a couple from different places, ethnicities, and cultures navigating life together. Their relationship normalized my bicultural family life, and tied up my complicated home life into a neat half hour package.
Ma had a sharp sense of humor, not slapstick like Lucille Ball, but lightening quick, intelligent, and keen as a razor. Her words were weapons of mass destruction. I know. I’d been the brunt of them many times.
Dad was no musician, but his artistic expression came from his hands: the way he tinkered under the hood of his car, grew grass on our sandy lot, or fixed one of our old, broken bikes or toys that had been passed from older to younger siblings.
Dad was forty-five when I was born, the fourth of the five Liuzzi children spread out over fourteen years by the time my youngest brother came along in 1961. Dad’s hair was salt and pepper for as long as I remembered, but I saw the photos of him taken in Australia where he and Ma began dating during World War II. His hair was thick and dark, rakish over his brow, just like Ricky’s, and his stance was cocky for such a short guy. He looked as if he could stand up to any big guy who threw a punch at him. I liked that about Dad. He never seemed afraid.
Dad was born on March 7, 1912, and Desi Arnaz was born on March 2, 1917. Even their birthdays were weirdly congruent.
“Lucy, you got some ‘splainin’ to do,” Ricky threatened in just about every episode.
“But Ricky,” Lucy implored each time while sobbing giant crocodile tears.
The fights between Ma and Dad were more evocative and not at all funny. They didn’t end with a big hug, a romantic kiss, and the soundtrack of I Love Lucy swelling in the background. Ma and Dad’s fights were raw, bubbling with profanity and accusations, and contested with both bark and bite.
Still, I clung to my fantasy that they were like Lucy and Ricky. Maybe Lucille and Desi’s real life marriage was more akin to my parents’ relationship. It was volatile, turbulent and rocked by Ball’s star power and Arnaz’s much more behind-the-scenes persona. Added to the mix was Arnaz’s alcoholism and his penchant for women. My family lived with alcoholism, too, but it was Ma who drank, not Dad, who I only saw drink a beer or a glass of wine just a few times in my memory. Unlike my parents, the Arnazes divorced. The divorce gave them the emotional freedom to continue working as business partners for several years and to remain close friends until Arnaz’s death in 1986 at age 69. Ball died just a few years later in 1989. Dad passed away in 1981, also at age 69, and Ma in 1983. My mind makes the connection that others might not see.
I loved listening to Arnaz sing his signature song Babalu, his hair flopping wildly over his eyes, and his hands moving rapidly on his conga drum. I liked the way his feet moved in rhythm to the music, his toes pointed slightly inward. My husband Ronald is a musician and percussionist. His African ancestry makes him the extreme of the dark and ethnic look I grew up loving. I can’t help but draw another connection.
The song I loved best from the show was the theme song I Love Lucy.
I Love Lucy, and she loves me,
We're as happy as two can be,
Sometimes we quarrel but then again
How we love making up again.
Lucy kisses like no one can,
She's my missus and I'm her man;
And life is heaven you see
Cause I Love Lucy
Yes I Love Lucy
And Lucy loves me.
The song may sound corny, but I always tear up when I hear it sung by Desi Arnaz. I remember the episode in which he sang it. Lucy thinks everyone has forgotten her birthday. She ends up on a park bench where she runs into the Friends of the Friendless, a ragtag missionary band. She brings them to the club to embarrass Ricky and discovers that he and the Mertzes had planned a surprise party for her. Ricky puts his arm around her and sings I Love Lucy. I witnessed the love in his eyes as I watched it on You Tube again while writing this post.
I look for that same look from Ronald, even after thirty-six years of being together, and I catch it there still.
Both Arnaz and Ball decided that “basic good taste” would guide the humor and the story lines in the show. They never used their ethnic differences as the brunt of jokes, except for Lucy occasionally imitating Ricky’s pronunciation of certain words. I believe that is why America could tolerate them as one of the most recognized couples of the era. They were just two people who loved one another and who were building their American dream, in their private life and in their TV life.
That’s what all couples wish for. Gay and straight, interracial and homogenous, old and young, we just want to live, love, quarrel, and make up again. What we don’t want is the rest of the world telling us they aren’t ready for us.
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz may not have realized how much they opened the minds of their audience. They just wanted to portray a couple just like them and felt strongly enough about it to go against the tide.
Now that fear has reared its ugliness and rage in America once again, this time as minority numbers grow and a minority person has taken the highest office in the land, I wish we had another TV show that American audiences might not feel ready for. It would be a show that uses “basic good taste” in writing its story lines and which stars a couple like Ricky and Lucy or even Ricky and Louis, who win the hearts of Americans and who prove that being different isn’t all that different after all.