Without a doubt, I Love Lucy is one of the most beloved sitcoms of all time. Thanks to the ingenuity of Desi Arnaz, the show was shot on film and as a result, the episodes look much better than other shows from that era. The only downside is that they were shot in black and white. Have you ever wished that you could see Lucy and Ricky in color? Did you know that, at one point, the TV show was going to be filmed in color?
For those who’ve been living without a television, I Love Lucy follows Lucy (Lucille Ball) and Ricky (Desi Arnaz) Ricardo, a middle-class couple who live in a New York City apartment. The building is owned by Fred (William Frawley) and Ethel Mertz (Vivian Vance), the Ricardos’ best friends. Ricky is a bandleader at a local nightclub and much to his chagrin, Lucy will do anything to get into show business, despite her lack of talent. Eventually, Lucy gave birth to a son, little Ricky (Richard Keith, now known as Keith Thibodeaux), who seemed destined to follow in his Daddy’s drum-beating footsteps. Of course, motherhood didn’t dissuade Lucy from trying her crazy schemes.
The series debuted on October 15, 1951 and ran for six seasons on CBS. Despite still being a top-rated show, married couple Arnaz and Ball grew tired of the weekly grind. All of the Lucy characters transitioned to The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show which ran for three seasons as hour-long specials.
In 1958, Arnaz offered to spin-off the Mertzes to their own show. Frawley was willing but Vance wasn’t interested. That only deepened the long-standing distaste the two performers had for one another and they rarely spoke off-camera.
On March 1, 1960, the cast and crew completed filming the last Lucy-Desi episode. The following day, on Arnaz’s birthday, Ball filed for divorce. Though the actors all continued working on other shows, they never played Lucy, Ricky, Fred, and Ethel together again.
In 1954, during the peak of the show’s popularity, CBS execs toyed with the idea of making the transition to color. The cost of producing color episodes was about double what the regular production cost would be but the network allocated funds to do some experimental installments. CBS recorded several sitcoms in color and actually aired 38 segments in 1954. At one point, the December 6th episode of Lucy (“Ricky’s Contract”) was slated to be broadcast in color and was listed as such in TV Guide. Unfortunately, likely due to the expense, the episode was shot in black and white.
Color eventually became the standard for TV shows. Over time, many television viewers began to shy away from watching shows that were shot in shades of gray, lessening the programs’ value in syndication. Colorization was first introduced in the early part of the 20th-century and became very popular in the 1980s. Unfortunately, the process was expensive and the results were not very good.
In 1990, CBS re-aired the I Love Lucy Christmas special. Originally aired in 1956, it was the one Lucy episode that wasn’t included in the syndication package. This was due to the fact that it was centered around the holiday, and consisted mainly of clips from past episodes. CBS colorized portions of the episode and the result wasn’t anything to write home about (see above).
The technology has improved dramatically over the past few years and, in 2007, Gregg Oppenheimer (son of the original show’s producer Jess Oppenheimer) okayed the colorization of another episode called “Lucy Goes to Scotland.” This particular 1956 episode was chosen because the costumes and sets were particularly colorful and there were color photographs to use for reference. Oppenheimer showed test footage to Ball’s daughter, Lucie Arnaz. It was the first show filming that she’d been allowed to attend as a child and she was amazed at the clip’s color accuracy. Here’s a sample of the footage which cleverly utilizes one scene for a comparison split-screen. The complete episode been included on the I Love Lucy: The Complete Series
As impressive as that is, this next piece is the real gem. On October 12, 1951, three days prior to the debut of I Love Lucy on CBS, the cast and crew filmed episode number six, titled “The Audition.” In this episode, Ricky is given the opportunity to audition for a TV show. Guest artist Boffo the Clown is hurt during the rehearsal and Lucy seizes the opportunity to step in. Dressed as “The Professor,” she performs a trick cello act and is a big success. As a result, she’s offered a TV contract instead of Ricky. (We never hear another word about it in the next episode so she must have messed it up somehow.)
This particular episode is notable for three reasons. The plot is very similar to that of the pilot presentation that was used to sell the show to CBS. Second of all, it’s the first time that Arnaz performed his trademark Babaloo song on the show. And thirdly, well, this is the best part…
It seems one member of the studio audience snuck a 16mm camera into the studio and filmed bits and pieces of the proceedings. It was recently found and, as a result, we can see small excerpts of the familiar episode in color for the first time. For the Complete Series DVD set, it’s been interspersed with footage and audio from the actual episode. Have you ever wondered what the Tropicana or the Ricardo’s living room looked like in color? How about the shade of Lucy’s hair? Now you have your chance…