Jeff Kallman's excellent The Easy Ace: A Journal of Classic Radio
is a wonderful place to spend hours on end, rediscovering the Golden Age of Radio
as it's meant to be discovered and celebrated. Article after article
is filled with a wonderful new vignette about Golden Age Radio History.
---The Digital Deli Online.

[I]n his matchless on-this-day approach to chronicling “yesteryear,”
he easily aces out a less organized mind like mine,
which promptly lapsed into a more idiosyncratic mode of relating the past.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Bob Carroll, Jr., RIP: Brain Children

"Mom always credited her gifted writers with the unprecedented success of I Love Lucy," said Lucie Arnaz to the Los Angeles Times, in a formal statement, after one of said gifted writers, Bob Carroll, Jr., died last Saturday at home in Los Angeles at 88. "She would tell anyone who'd listen that without the 'black stuff,' as she referred to the meticulously detailed and specific stage directions for some of their most classic episodes, that she could never have given birth to those laughs that have become legend.

"No one was more responsible for the joy I Love Lucy has brought to millions than Bob Carroll Jr. and Madelyn Davis [nee Pugh--JK], who first brought those classic ideas to the page. What a wonderful legacy to leave to the world."

Without challenging a grieving friend discharging a parent's debt, not quite always did Lucille Ball perform such faithful accreditation. (Neither did too many other comedians, it should be said in fairness.) At least one distinguished gentleman of comic letters was not amused. Especially when he picked up Newsweek one spring 1952 day and . . .

. . . found her quoted on the subject of the writers who each week prepare the script of I Love Lucy. They are the same writers, she admitted without mentioning their names, who wrote her radio show before she went into television. Then, she adds, with as healthy a show of articulate contempt as I've ever run across: "We never see them. We never discuss anything with them. After two readings we get on our feet and throw the scripts away.

Well, before I introduce Miss Ball to her three writers, Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Pugh, and Robert Carroll, and before we examine the inveterate antipathy for writers displayed by many entertainers---as though being gifted with the personality and the ability to read the lines were so small a talent that they must claim credit for the creation of those lines---let us throw away the script and ad lib briefly through the backgrounds of the star of this show and her partner, fondly referred to in Newsweek as the forty-year-old Lucille Ball and her graying Cuban bandleader-husband, Desi Arnaz.

Lucille, I find, appeared on the stage most recently in Dream Girl. (Miss Ball, may I present the writer, Elmer Rice?) She went to Hollywood and appeared in many pictures, which gave her many opportunities not to see and not to discuss anything with many other writers. Desi came to Broadway with a Cuban band some years ago, ad libbed a few babalus, and after a Broadway musical he also went to Hollywood. Not being occupied with seeing or discussing anything with writers, Lucille found time to meet Desi, and they were not only united in the holy bonds of matrimony but they sealed it legally by setting up a corporation to handle Desi's rhumba band dates and their appearances in vaudeville and night clubs.

. . . Not being acquainted with the writers of I Love Lucy, I don't know how they feel about this arrangement of Lucille's never seeing them or discussing anything with them. I can see where such an arrangement might be ideal---no complaints about the story line, no gripes about the dialogue, no having to explain the jokes. The only thing I feel let down about is the furtive dismissal of the writers in print, as if some of the credit for the success of the show may rub off on them---an attitude not uncommon in the business, the exceptions being the more secure and talented performers.

. . . This piece is not intended to detract from the attractive and ebullient Miss Ball, any more than I am suggesting that she change the name of the show to I Love Jess Oppenheimer. I simply hold that writing the lines for a performer to read is as much a craft as the performer's rendition of those lines on television. In the theater the writer is accorded the same dignity as the actor. In radio and television the caricatural conception that a writer is a necessary evil to have around a show has grown too popular . . . A good play, a good radio show, or a good television program is a marriage of the talents of performer and writer. But if the bride never sees the groom and the marriage is never consummated---well, you know what that makes the brain child.

---Goodman Ace, "The Invisible Men of TV," Saturday Review, March 1952; republished in The Book of Little Knowledge: More Than You Want to Know About Television. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1955.)

The invisible coupling behind Lucille Ball first joined professional hands in 1946, three years after Carroll joined CBS as a studio usher before working his way to a staff writing slot. Davis had begun writing at an NBC affiliate in Indiana before moving to Los Angeles and working at NBC and then CBS. While writing the radio show It's a Great Life for Steve Allen, the two decided to try for My Favourite Husband, radio's I Love Lucy prototype, starring Lucy and Richard Denning as otherwise loving Liz and George Cooper in near constant need of extraction from wife Liz's turns of tongue and twist. displays one piece of photographic evidence suggesting Lucy did discuss things with Carroll and partner Davis, not to mention director-script doctor Jess Oppenheimer, at least in the My Favourite Husband days. Lucy's decision not to see or discuss things with her writers must have been a television thing. Or, someone staged the earlier photo for one reason or another that is now as lost to time as Lucy's work isn't.

The site tells a story I hope is true. It bespeaks a display of chutzpah entirely appropriate to a Lucy teaming. Carroll and Davis are said to have paid Steve Allen to write his own show for a week so they could cobble together a script to submit to My Favourite Husband, for which Lucy sought permanent writers. They submitted, they were accepted, and they stayed with My Favourite Husband for the remaining years of its radio life.

They also stayed with Lucy for the rest of her performing career. Three television series (five, if you count the short-lived The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour and, much later, the sadly unlamented Life with Lucy) and the story for Yours, Mine, and Ours, the light but periodically engaging romantic comedy in which she brings four short of a dozen kids to her new marriage to Henry Fonda, who brings two short of a dozen kids of his own to the new household.

They even produced for people not named Lucy, including the lady who was once described with no false pretense as the thinking man's Lucy. Carroll, Davis, and Oppenheimer created The Mothers-in-Law for Eve (Our Miss Brooks) Arden and Kaye Ballard. (Desi Arnaz and another titan of classic radio, Elliott Lewis, produced it.) And there they were, first as a team brought in to tighten up the scripts, then as the executive producers and periodic writers, when the brilliant idea was hatched to make a television series out of the bristling film, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.

One thing I'm proud of is that Bob and I never had any arguments, which with teams is very rare. Neither one of us liked fussing and fighting . . . One time, we were reading a script at the table. I felt that a joke could be funnier if we added a certain word. I wrote it in the margin of my script, and I looked over and Bob had written the same word. So we thought alike and thought the same things were funny.

---Madelyn (Pugh) Davis, who has said she believed Carroll the better jokesmith of the two.

Madelyn always said she's more expendable than Lucy, but not for me she wasn't. So we'd wrap Madelyn in rugs and strap her into swivel chairs and hang her out of windows, and she came through nicely. So I said, 'If it works for Madelyn, it will work for Lucy'."

---Bob Carroll, Jr., whom we think is saying he believed Davis the better physical comic theoretician.

The physical comedy mattered less on radio, of course, but even in the aural My Favourite Husband can you glean the evolution of Lucille Ball into the full-blown character by whom she amused the world soon enough. Carroll and Davis made sure of that. And you may be able to count on a single hand how many days since have passed without even one exercise in their signature work airing somewhere, at some hour, giving laughs enough to even the most isolated souls.

Indeed it was a very powerful marriage between performer and writers, begging the question as to why on earth, really, Lucy insisted on telling Newsweek about the lack of contact and discourse. You'd have to presume that Goodman Ace wrote through anything but his chapeau, but you'd like to hope Lucy simply trusted her writers that much. Because the brain child wasn't exactly a juvenile delinquent.


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