Was America’s favorite redhead really a Red?
Lucille Ball was no stranger to pressure. For years, she had appeared on stage and in live radio broadcasts. She had performed hilarious stunts before movie and TV cameras alike with equal ease.
But nothing, nothing at all, was like the pressure facing her on Friday evening, September 11, 1953. Because everything (and I do mean everything) hinged on the response that would greet her when she walked out before 300 people in the television studio audience.
Lucy found herself in countless zany predicaments over the years. But this one beat them all. And here’s the true story of how she got in it.
Lucille Désirée Ball was riding high as America sailed into the 1950s.
She began life in upstate New York. Her father, a telephone lineman, died of typhoid fever when she was three. (The only thing she recalled from that day was a bird getting trapped in the house, leaving her with a lifelong fear of the animals.)
Dreams of making it big led her to the Big Apple at age 17. It was the typical story of an aspiring actress clawing her way to stardom: a little modeling, a few chorus roles on Broadway, then why not go west and try Hollywood?
Bit parts for Goldwyn and onstage scenery for RKO. A two reeler with the Three Stooges, another with The Marx Brothers, a brief appearance with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
The roles grew bigger because she worked at it. Hard. MGM eventually signed her. But still stardom eluded her. In 1940, she married dashing Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz.
Her break came in 1948, when CBS Radio picked her to play a wacky housewife on a sitcom called My Favorite Husband. The show was a hit. Her timing couldn’t have been better because TV was coming into its own just then; she was asked to develop the program for CBS Television. Sure, Lucy said, she’d do it … provided real-life husband Desi played her fictional husband. She saw it as a chance to save their already floundering marriage. The network agreed, and in 1950 the couple sank everything they owned into creating Desilu Productions, the company that actually produced and owned the show.
The gamble paid off. I Love Lucy debuted at 9:00 pm on Monday, October 15, 1951 (and never left that time slot the entire six years it was on the air). It’s terribly cliché, but here goes anyway: America quickly fell in love with Lucy. (There, I wrote it; report me to the Writer’s Guild.)
And then Congress came calling.
Specifically, the dreaded House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
This was the time of the Red Scare, you will remember, when McCarthyism was in full bloom and investigators were looking around every corner for hidden Communists.
When World War II ended just a few years earlier, the USSR, which had been our ally in defeating Hitler, replaced Nazi Germany as America’s archenemy. And Soviet dictator Josef Stalin gave Americans much to worry about. The Red Army didn’t give up the vast territory it had “liberated” during the war, and Stalin was working overtime to convince the Russian people that a showdown between eastern Communism and western capitalism was inevitable. The stakes rose dramatically when the Soviets finally got a big shiny one of their own: they exploded their first atomic bomb on August 29, 1949. Another global war, fought with atomic weapons this time, would surpass mankind’s worst nightmares.
While Soviet Communists were espousing world domination in Moscow, Americans suddenly remembered we had homegrown Communists right here in the U.S. of A.
I’m no apologist for Communism (far from it!). But it’s important to keep this in historical context. Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, a lot of social ideologies and movements were floating around, all designed to improve the world for the working man. Many were hopelessly Utopian, the stuff of well-intentioned dreamers. Marx-inspired Communism was one of them; its seed just happened to fall in fertile Russia, take root and grow. The problem was, the Utopian dream quickly turned into totalitarian terror.
But most Americans didn’t know that at the time. The Soviet Union was on the other side of the world, and its oppressive nature was kept hidden from view.
Some Americans joined the Communist Party out of a naïve desire to make things better for the little guy. But the threat facing America and the West in the 1950s was far from theoretical. We had just seen what dictators in Germany, Italy and Japan had unleashed on the world; now another one in Russia seemed poised to unleash more of the same.
Hollywood offered a treasure trove of suspects. Actors and actresses, writers, directors and producers alike were blacklisted and blackballed for the mere suspicion of being a Communist or Communist supporter. The same held true for people who refused to testify when called. The ‘scare’ in the Red Scare was very real.
Which brings us back to late summer 1953. Someone discovered that Lucy’s grandfather Fred Hunt had been a Communist 20 years earlier.
And somebody secretly let HUAC know what America’s favorite comedienne had done 17 years before.
At the very least, Lucy “had some ‘splainin’ to do.”
So one of the most famous women in America secretly sat down in a Hollywood hotel room on September 4 and testified under oath before a HUAC investigator.
She was 25 in 1936, Lucy began, and dearly loved her eccentric Grandpa Fred. He had doted on she and her brother after their father died, showering them with so much affection and attention they called him “Daddy.” He took them to vaudeville shows, whittled dolls and toys for them and, most important of all for little Lucille, he nurtured and encouraged her acting dreams.
After surviving two strokes, the old man got it in his craw in 1936 that getting his entire family to register to vote as Communists was a great idea.
Like many 20somethings, young Lucille didn’t give a hoot about politics one way or another. “It sounds a little weak and silly and corny now,” she explained, “but at the time it was very important because we knew we weren’t going to have Daddy with us very long. If it made him happy, it was important at the time. But I was always conscious of the fact I could go just so far to make him happy.” She never voted Communist, she said, nor had she ever intended to.
The Congressmen who read her testimony were satisfied. There was no “there” there, they decided.
And that could have been the end of it … until Walter Winchell breathlessly announced on his popular radio gossip show the following Sunday night that “a top television comedienne has been confronted with her membership in the Communist Party.” He repeated the claim in his widely syndicated newspaper column the next morning.
The future of I Love Lucy, Desilu Productions, and even the very careers of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were suddenly on the line.
Lucy was a tower of strength in the crisis. Desi was a bundle of nerves.
It all came down to Friday, September 11 when the very first episode of I Love Lucy’s third season would be filmed.
Throughout the week, Lucy and Desi finalized plans, eagerly awaiting the verdict from CBS, the show’s sole sponsor (who paid the bills) and the people whose opinion mattered most of all: the public.
Unknown to anyone, the top brass at MGM and CBS were quietly working the phones that week, placing lots of long distance calls from Manhattan and Hollywood to Capitol Hill. Their message was savagely simple: Lucy meant money to them. Big money. And Red Scare or not, they weren’t giving her up.
To borrow our generation’s terminology, Lucy had finally become a star who was too big to fail.
That was reinforced at 10:00 a.m. when sponsor Phillip Morris Tobacco told Desi that not only were they sticking with them, they would give Lucy the half hour of prime time they had bought the following Monday night for the show to tell her side of the story if she wanted it.
There remained one last group, and its approval was critical.
What did the public think?
If Desi had been nervous before, he was practically a basket case that night. Because the time had come to face the studio audience. Desi liked doing the warm up before filming began. Walking on stage a few minutes after 8:00, he immediately got down to business. It was time to clear the air, he said. Lucy wasn’t a Communist; both he and his wife hated everything Communism stood for. Desi’s eyes filled with tears. His wife’s testimony would be released the next day, he announced. Then folks could decide for themselves.
Applause burst like a thunderstorm. People were cheering, hooting, whistling their wild approval.
Desi smiled and introduced Frawley and Vance (Fred and Ethel Mertz), who bounded on stage.
“And now,” Desi said in a line I’ve always loved, “I want you to meet my favorite wife – my favorite redhead – in fact, that’s the only thing Red about her, and even that’s not legitimate – Lucille Ball!”
What happened next can only be described as a volcanic eruption of pure, molten affection. All the cheering before was nothing compared to this explosion of adoration as audience members sprang to their feet, trying to prove that they really did love … well, you know.
Lucy walked on stage, smiled, bowed, waved, and walked out the door. There was another standing ovation later when filming ended. This time, Lucy went to her dressing room and broke down in tears.
The next day, the couple hosted a news conference beside a pond at their Desilu Ranch. It was a beer and sandwiches affair with the transcript of Lucy’s testimony released to reporters as promised. Lucy gave the same answers she had given the government investigator. Ever the comic, she threw in one zinger: “In those days (registering Communist) was not a big, terrible thing to do. It was almost as terrible to be a Republican.” She had voted for Republican Dwight Eisenhower for president in 1952, she quickly added.
And so, as the old showbiz saying reminds us, the show went on. A TV legend was allowed to stay on the air. And she repaid America’s faith in her with moments we will never forget. Lucy dueling with Harpo Marx in a mirror that had no glass. Lucy stomping grapes in a winepress in Italy, descending into a grape-throwing match with a fellow stomper; even Lucy trying to learn how to drive a car – with predictable results.
More than 60 TV seasons have come and gone, and Lucy’s antics still make us laugh. And to think she had unknowingly risked it all back in the 30s by doing something for the old man whose support and encouragement had helped make it all possible.
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