I grew up watching I Love Lucy reruns on Nick-at-Nite with my Dad. We’d sit and laugh together late into the night during summers when I was a kid. When the Season 4 episodes centering around their road trip to California for and Hollywood came on, something struck a chord with my wanderlust bone and my love for old Hollywood that made me fall in love with that redhead and her hijinks. I love ‘Lucy’ so much so that my wife and I have made 2 trips to Lucille Ball’s hometown of Jamestown, New York to visit the Lucy-Desi Museum. There they have props and wardrobe from the show along with restorations of not just the set for their home in the Mertzes New York apartment building but the California hotel room set from the fictional Beverly Palms Hotel that I loved so much as a child.
Lucille Ball is not just a pioneer for women in leading roles but she’s also a true pioneer in television. If it weren’t for Lucy, television today would be nothing like it is. Lucille gets credit for being the first woman to run a major production studio (DesiLu Productions) and she also receives much of the credit for laying the groundwork for modern television syndication. She’s also responsible for starting the movement of filming most TV shows in Hollywood rather than in New York where radio and television had historically been made.
As a byproduct of moving television production to Hollywood, the shows would have to be shot on film and shipped rather than the use of the less expensive Kinescope that had been previously used. This also resulted in the change from the one camera to the familiar three camera setup that is still used on sitcoms today. Because of these extra costs, Lucy and Desi agreed to a reduced paycheck but instead retained full ownership rights of the show under their newly formed company DesiLu Productions. Since Lucy retained ownership of the episodes and the film that they were recorded on, DesiLu then shipped the episodes around the nation in what was effectively the original version of syndication.
Speaking of DesiLu, any fans of The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mission: Impossible or even Star Trek can thank Lucille Ball for their existence. She green lit those shows when nobody else would.
In what I think is the most important contribution to television history, Lucy also invented the re-run. It’s hard to imagine a world in 2019 when all 900 channels on TV are pretty much 95% reruns, but, back in television’s infancy everything was first-run. Younger readers might not even recall when television “turned off” at night and came back on for the morning news since there weren’t many television shows to even air. But when Lucy (the actress) was pregnant, rather than put the show on hiatus at the height of its popularity, she devised a way to film episodes in advance that could be shown at a later date. When that became too much during her pregnancy, the cast filmed some short scenes where they would reminisce and “recall” past events and then air segments from previously aired episodes.
One such episode aired on December 24, 1956 titled “The Christmas Episode.” The Ricardos and Mertzes had just returned from their trip to Florida and Cuba and the show needed a special episode to fulfill contractual obligations around the holidays. Since this was not a “regular” episode it was not included in the syndication package and wasn’t “discovered” by the public again until fairly recently.
In “The Christmas Episode,” Ricky and Lucy begin the show by telling Little Ricky all about Santa Claus. Little Ricky is quickly sent to bed and Fred and Ethel come in with the Christmas tree. Fred Mertz begins sawing off limbs under Lucy’s direction as the gang begins recalling the time Lucy announced to Ricky she was pregnant. As they reminisced, a segment of the landmark episode “Lucy is Enceinte” starts to play. They return to the present time and the cast is decorating the Christmas Tree while they share more memories with a scene from the episode “Lucy’s Show Business Swan Song.”
As the show returns again to the present, Fred has been sent out to buy another tree after removing too many branches but returns overjoyed that due to the late hour on Christmas Eve he was able to get the tree at half price. The Ricardos and Mertzes then recall the night Lucy announced the baby was on its way and the show replayed the scene from “Lucy Goes to the Hospital” where everyone rushes frantically to the hospital… but leave Lucy behind at home.
Soon Christmas morning arrives and Ricky, Lucy, Ethel, and Fred each arrive separately dressed as Santa Claus in hopes to surprise Little Ricky. Suddenly, a 5th Santa Claus arrives… but it’s actually Fred! After a cute beard-pulling gag, it’s revealed the 4th Santa was actually THE Santa Claus. After a hearty HO-HO-HO, the real Santa disappears as the four wish everyone a Merry Christmas.
In 2013 CBS started an annual tradition of airing a colorized version of “The Christmas Episode” in late December, pairing it with another classic episode that had been recently digitally colored. In that first year it was paired with the famous grape-smashing episode from season 5 titled “Lucy’s Italian Movie.” In 2014, CBS paired it with the famous chocolate factory episode “Job Switching” and aired it on Christmas Eve, exactly 58 years after the original airing. 2015 featured the Season One Vitameatavegemin hit “Lucy Does A TV Commercial” while 2016 was paired to “Lucy Gets In Pictures” from their trip out to Hollywood. For the Christmas of 2017, another Hollywood episode was selected in Season 4’s “The Fashion Show” while last year in 2018, the popular Season One episode featuring the giant loaf of bread “Pioneer Women” was colorized and aired alongside the Christmas Episode.
This year, new for 2019, CBS and Paramount have colorized a February 1956 episode from Season Five’s trip to Europe titled “Paris At Last.” In “Paris at Last”, the Ricardos and Mertzes arrive in France where Lucy finds a sidewalk artist who sells her an “original” oil painting. A con man offers her a better exchange rate on her American dollars than the bank and after attempting to order lunch in a Parisian outdoor cafe she finds herself paying with counterfeit bills. By the end of the episode, the whole gang ends up in jail!
This holiday season you can catch the Christmas Classic pairing of I Love Lucy’s “The Christmas Episode” and “Paris At Last” in full color on CBS on December 20th at 8PM Eastern.