For the Lucille Ball centennial, I thought I’d recount a biographical story about Lucille Ball that means more to me than any of her on-screen shenanigans. I heard it about ten years ago, so you can count on me to get details wrong.
The height of the redhead’s TV popularity was also the height of the Red Scare. Columnists like Walter Winchell wielded tremendous power by publicly announcing who’d ever been a Communist, and all hell broke loose when he besmirched Ball. She and husband Desi Arnaz smartly assessed that the public could turn on them quickly – after all, wasn’t he a Spanish-speaking immigrant, theirs a marriage of mixed ethnicities? – and hired a masterful publicist. Lucy met with the House Un-American Activities Committee and told a tale about her family life before she was married.
It was three generations sharing one household, and everybody loved and respected an old relative whose mind was withering away. One day, in a moment of madness, he said he was joining the Communist Party and insisted this was something they should all do, as a family. The Balls didn’t care about leftist politics; they only cared about keeping the old codger content. So, they all joined.
Lucy’s warm and loving account of doing something for a dear and daffy old forbear succeeded in charming the Committee and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. The potential publicity disaster was averted, and Desi told I Love Lucy’s in-studio audience and attending press, “The only thing red about Lucy is her hair, and even that’s not legitimate.”
Do you think, perhaps, that this charming tale might have been concocted by the publicist? Sounds too good to be true, no?
To me, what it really sounds like is the basis for a musical. McCarthyism destroyed lives, and it might be wonderfully cathartic to see a top TV comedienne win over the HUAC with the humor and charm she’d learned from years of performing.
Another well-known sitcom star of the era, Phillip Loeb, lost his livelihood due to blacklisting, and committed suicide. I can’t recall ever seeing a Loeb performance, but I began to wonder if the difference between him and Ball had to do with how she was extremely charming and he, not so much. What would happen if someone had insufficient charm to get a pass from the Committee?
I took elements of both as the basis for Such Good Friends, a musical comedy that starts by depicting the humorous backstage calamities that befall funny people doing live television in its early days. They’re so involved with getting a hit show on, they barely notice red paranoia creeping in. When called before the Committee, they have different strategies to give the scurrilous inquisitors a literal song and dance. With different results.
Yes, you read that right, I said musical comedy. The McCarthy era was tragic for everyone involved, but I feel that the best way to move an audience is to use ample heaps of humor. The characters, obviously, are funny people – going about the amusing endeavor of entertaining America on live television every week. And when unhappy circumstances find them unable to work, they’re able to amuse each other, keep their spirits up:
Lucille Ball explaining away her Communist Party membership was a point of departure for me. I let my imagine run wild, and created something that felt right, using a reprise of a first act song with some new lyrics in a different tempo and feel. (In my previous post about verisimilitude, I quoted the dialogue I ended up using in the draft that was performed at The New York Musical Theatre Festival.) Lucy’s basic situation, of charming the Committee in order to save her career, was there. But not the tale about the family appeasing the relative who’d lost his mind: these days, who is credulous enough to believe that?