Lucy and Lucille Showed Us Ourselves

`RICKKKKYYY!!!'' It was the screech we loved to hear for 23 years on television, yelled by a redheaded housewife named Lucy. And when husband Ricky yelled back, ``Looosssyyy!!'' this exchange was the domestic cusp of the national neighborhood, the Ricardo family who lived next door to everybody. Lucy, Ricky, and the kids, neighbors Fred and Ethel, all of them so lovably imperfect in their perfection that they were not television characters any more than Don Quixote is a book. ``I Love Lucy'' was not a show on television. It was us turned loose, us carried out on a stretcher because we couldn't stop laughing at us.

And at the center of the mayhem was Lucille Ball, who passed on last Thursday. She had a voice that was once described by a Monitor writer as ``a foghorn cross-pollinated with a temple bell.'' Not just red-haired, but bright, orange red-haired, this Lucy was blessed with such a sense of the ridiculous that when shared regularly it healed any sourpuss anywhere. She was Lucy. ``I hope to tell you,'' she said once, ``I am tied to the Lucy character, and I love it. I've been Lucy to so many people for so long that I certainly would miss it if I was anything else.''

She was probably the first public feminist, because she wanted out of the house. Week after week she connived in front of Ricky and behind his back to get out, to do something else, to sing or dance or get a job. ``Wait a minute,'' she told the Monitor in 1974, denying she was a feminist. ``I'm here to entertain and make you forget reality as much as possible. I mean, I deal in real-life situations, but not the unpleasant ones. I think you get enough of that in the news. The raw parts of life are so visible these days that a lot of people get the TV news mixed up with TV entertainment. I believe I am here on earth to entertain....''

Behind the brilliant farceuse, there was something steely in her look, a quiet feminist determination that later worked in business as well as on camera. Fans who remember her in more than 50 films were not at all surprised that later Lucy became the first woman to head a studio or that she and her then-husband, Desi Arnaz, virtually invented America's dominant entertainment format - the TV sitcom - using film to record the show.

It was an idea as crazy as any ``I Love Lucy'' story line. But it allowed the program - even in pre-videotape days - to be aired later. It also allowed studio audiences to watch and laugh, and for Lucy, this was creative oxygen. She had to hear those laughs to work at her incomparable best. Her comic gifts had a symbiotic relationship to the sound of guffaws.

By her own admission, what was behind her success was out in the open, because, she said, ``I do what I do with all my strength and my heart.''

She was the daughter of a pianist and a telephone lineman from Jamestown, N.Y. By 15 she was glued to the stage and by 22 she was in Hollywood immersed in two-reel comedies, including several with the Three Stooges.

Lucy made mugging into an art form. People could read their own feelings in those exaggerated takes that she was famous for: the wide-eyed shock, the face crumpling as she bawled like a baby.

When Lucy Ricardo gave birth to little Ricky on the night of Jan. 9, 1953, before an estimated audience of 44 million, Lucille Ball was giving birth the same night to her second child, Desi Arnaz Jr. The births became more than a national event; they were births in our own family. Not even her writers, to whom she gave major credit for her success over the years, could have imagined better timing. ``I don't know how to tell a joke,'' she said. ``I never tell jokes; I can tell stories that happened to me ... anecdotes. But never a joke.''

In later years, like many parents, she regretted some decisions in raising her children. ``The worst mistake I ever made,'' she said, ``was allowing Desi Jr.'s success as part of the Dino, Desi, and Billy rock group. The kids were practicing; somebody heard them. Dino Martin's kid, Desi Arnaz's kid; the names alone will sell a record! They couldn't play a guitar, they couldn't sing, they made a noise and it was a hit record.... At 13 years old, when I told Desi to go upstairs and do his homework, he would give me a look and wave his bankbook at me. I couldn't believe I had made such a mistake.''

Later she would say,``If you want to help anybody, you have to get your own house in order. I think charity begins at home. I don't have to take care of every waif in every foreign country - I've got some right around the corner that need looking after. I'm not at all interested in politics, but I do believe that if people want a better world, they must start in their own small community.''

The technological marvel is that Lucy Ricardo's family and neighborhood, mistakes and all, are still appearing around the world in television syndication in 479 episodes, still regaling families now and generations to come with that sense of love and fun, two measures of successful families anywhere.

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