March 10, 2006

I wrote for Lucy

Former Marion resident Madelyn Pugh Davis recalls her years screenwriting - and testing stunts - for Lucille Ball in a new book.

Lucy's old boyfriend turns up - played by Frank Sinatra. Lucy raises chinchillas. Lucy visits her hometown of Jamestown, N.Y., and the audience discovers that all of her relatives look like her.

They may sound like I Love Lucy shows seen on television, but these plots never happened.

They come instead from the now-tattered spiral notebooks Madelyn Pugh Davis and writing partner Bob Carroll Jr. filled with ideas and observations from daily life that they could pass onto their bosses, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. From those notebooks came hundreds of episodes the pair wrote for I Love Lucy, The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, The Lucy Showand Here's Lucyduring the 1950s and 1960s.

An Indianapolis native and a former Marion resident, Davis worked with Carroll to create stories of Lucy's quests to make it in show business, her ill-fated stints at a pizza parlor and a candy factory, the birth of Little Ricky and other incidents in the fictional lives of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo.

"We tried to write shows people would identify with, that happened to them or to their brother-in-law," says Davis, speaking by phone from her home in Los Angeles. "We did a lot of shows about money and being afraid to tell your husband what you spent and thinking 'Well, I'll go into business for myself.'"

Now Davis has turned her memories from days with Lucy and Desi into a book, Laughing with Lucy: My Life with America's Leading Lady of Comedy. The book details exploits that, although lacking chinchillas and Sinatra, did include Davis rolling along the floor inside a rug, getting ready for bed wearing handcuffs and crushing eggs inside her blouse - all in the name of coming up with gags that would draw laughs on the show.

If the laughs were extra long and loud, however, it was usually thanks to Ball, Davis says.

"We wrote everything out, all the physical stuff, (Lucy) used to call it the 'black stuff,'" Davis says. "She would then add little touches. Like if we said, 'She takes her nose and puts it on a teacup,' instead she put it on so it looked like a bird. It was a marvelous little funny touch and sometimes I'd say, 'You did that, do that again,' and she'd say, 'What did I do?' She was just naturally funny."

Working with Lucy and Desi

After Davis graduated from Indiana University in 1942 with a journalism degree, she planned to become a news reporter. But she was turned down by all three of the Indianapolis newspapers and ultimately landed a job with a local radio station.

She moved to California a year later and eventually became the second woman staff writer hired by CBS. That's where she met Carroll. The pair met Ball when they wrote for one of her radio shows and were asked by the actress to write her first television show.

They shot the pilot for I Love Lucy in March 1951. In her book, Davis describes how Arnaz convinced network executives to let them tape the show in California and on film in front of a live audience, all of which were rarities in those days.

"He thought that there's got to be a way to do everything," Davis says. "He had great optimism. Sometimes we would go ask him, 'We've got this idea and we thought we would run it by you because we don't know if we can do it on stage.' He would say, 'Let me call the guys,' and he'd call the special effects guys and they'd say, 'Sure.'"

Arnaz also had a good sense about what would work for Ball as a performer, Davis says.

"She would listen to him," she says. "One time she didn't like something and was sort of upset about a script and he'd always say, 'Now, honey, if you try it out and if it doesn't work and you don't like it then they'll think of something else, but give it a try and see.' And then she tried it and almost all the time, it was OK."

Davis' friendship and working relationship with the couple lasted longer than their marriage did, but she said the two always remained affectionate toward each other.

"They were crazy about each other," she says. "I can tell you this, whenever I was meeting with him in the office, he didn't take any calls except hers. And when she called, I knew he was talking to her by the tone of his voice, and they were divorced."

Writing the Lucy show

Davis and Carroll wrote 39 scripts for the first season of I Love Lucy - almost double the 22 or 24 episodes a television program typically airs today.

"We didn't know any better," Davis says. "We didn't have room for shows to fall out because we started four or five weeks ahead and by the end of the season, we were almost handing it to them on the set because we'd get so close to the deadline."

That meant that gags written for the actors couldn't fall through at the last minute. So Davis and Carroll tried out the stunts they wrote for the programs, with Davis recreating a lot of Lucy's antics to make sure they wouldn't put Ball in an unsafe situation.

She and Carroll tried to get ready for bed while handcuffed together for an I Love Lucy gag in which Lucy accidentally traps Ricky and doesn't have the right key to unlock them. Davis wrapped herself in string and had Carroll simulate that string being caught in an elevator door for a stunt in which Lucy's dress unraveled.

Later, they tested an incident intended for The Lucy Show, in which Ball's character was to roll herself in a rug and roll out of a room.

"It sounds funny, but you don't roll frontways in a rug, you roll sideways," Davis says. "So you can't get through the door. That kind of thing, we wrote it and said, 'That's a scream,' and it didn't work at all."

The famous episode when Lucy and Ethel run amok in a candy factory came after Carroll, Davis and producer Jess Oppenheimer consulted the yellow pages and had an "Ah ha!" moment when coming to the "C" section. They would later recruit a candymaker from See's Candy factory so Ball could imitate, and ultimately find a funny way at bungling, her actions.

"I like the candy show a lot, everybody does," Davis says. "Then another one I like is where she was hiding the eggs in her blouse and they were going to do the tango and he was pulling her toward him. In the end, that was the longest laugh we ever had."

Life in Marion

Davis moved to Marion in 1964 after marrying Dr. Richard Davis, a Marion resident she first met while attending IU.

The two held their wedding at the Hostess House; in the book Davis describes Ball calling a Marion florist to order yellow tulips for a centerpiece at the reception luncheon.

"The florist almost had a nervous breakdown," Davis writes. "Lucille Ball had ordered tulips, and there were no tulips to be had for miles around. So they substituted yellow roses and I thanked Lucy for the yellow tulips."

They moved into the Frank Lloyd Wright house in the Shady Hills development, which made for frequent visitors wanting to take a look at the famous architect's work.

"The people were very, very friendly and nice," Davis says. "We were sort of oddities. People sometimes kind of drove by."

Carroll would come to Marion so the two could work on writing projects. One of those visits coincided with the Palm Sunday 1965 tornadoes, which seriously damaged parts of South Marion. The Davis' and Carroll had no electricity for two days and cooked the food left in the freezer in the fireplace.

"It was a beautiful house, but it was a little difficult to live there, the kitchen was very small. I don't think Mr. Wright was a cook," Davis says. "So it took a little getting used to. Workmen would come in the house and say, 'Wow.' In small towns like Marion, everybody knows everybody and they'd say, 'Did you really write the Lucy show?"

Although she moved away after only a few years here, a lot of Marion residents still remember Davis, says niece Tracy Lester, who remembers watching the candy episode in their living room.

"We were always very proud of the fact that she did this," Lester says. "Its even more amazing that she's come up with all these stories. She's very humble about it and very low key and never really sensationalized the whole idea of it. It was just what she did and those were the people that she was close with."

Lucy's legacy

Fans still stop Davis and tell her how much they loved the Lucy shows.

"People tell me they still look at the Lucyshow and love the look of it because it makes them laugh and it makes them feel better," she says. "I'm very thrilled when I hear that."

But she doesn't see a lot of I Love Lucy in today's television shows.

"It seemed to me in the earlier days, usually you had a star and you wrote for the comic," Davis says. "And now they seem to get an idea and just cast it, which is OK. When you have a comic you tend to write everything toward them and feature them."

Although comedies of today are moving from a focus on families toward programs set around businesses or groups of friends, Jerry Katzman, director of industry relations and professor of theater, film and television at the University of California-Los Angeles, says Lucyis still an influence.

"They did adult slapstick and each character had their good points and their foibles," Katzman said. "If you're young, you could identify with the Lucille Ball character, the clown. If you're older, you could identify with (Fred and Ethel Mertz) and their problems.

"Today's shows are really just replications of I Love Lucy in different forms."

Originally published February 26, 2006 in the Chronicle-Tribune by Rachel Kipp.

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