More than 60 years after the last episode of I Love Lucy aired in 1957, a treasure trove of new content is on offer for fans of the beloved sitcom. In October, TCM released the third season of its podcast The Plot Thickens about Lucille Ball’s life, from her days as a young model to her rise to become Hollywood’s first female studio head. On Feb. 8, Aaron Sorkin’s behind-the-scenes biopic Being the Ricardos picked up three Oscar nominations: best actress for Nicole Kidman (54), best actor for Javier Bardem (53) and best supporting actor for J.K. Simmons (67), who plays William Frawley. And joining that film on Amazon Prime on March 4 will be Lucy and Desi, a documentary directed by Amy Poehler (50) that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
While Lucy is one of the most memorable figures in American television history, there’s plenty you might not know about her and the show. Here, eight surprising facts about your favorite redheaded funny lady and the comedy empire she built:
You can thank Carole Lombard’s spirit for I Love Lucy.
Screwball comedy queen Carole Lombard died in a plane crash in 1942, but she had an outsize impact on her friend Lucille Ball’s career. Ball later told an interviewer that, as she was deciding whether to make the risky move to television, she had a dream about Lombard: “She was wearing a very smart suit (Carole always dressed very beautifully), and she said, ‘Take a chance, honey. Give it a whirl!’ After that, I knew for certain that we were doing the right thing.” Lombard’s mother had allegedly once told Lucy — who dabbled in numerology — that the letter combination “a-r” would be lucky for her. After changing their character names from the proposed Lucy and Larry Lopez to Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, she kept the ball rolling with the names of her subsequent sitcom characters: Lucille Carmichael on The Lucy Show, Lucy Carter on Here’s Lucy and Lucy Barker on Life With Lucy.
That giant loaf of bread was real.
In the Season 1 episode “Pioneer Women,” Lucy and Ethel compete against Ricky and Fred to see who can last longer without modern conveniences. In the most memorable scene, the gals try their hands at baking, and their toddler-size wad of dough explodes into an 8-foot-long loaf of bread that shoots across the kitchen and pins Lucy to the cabinets; she has to be saved by Ethel with a saw! Ball wanted the scene to look realistic, so instead of using a fake prop, the producers had L.A.’s Union Mode Bakery whip up a giant loaf of rye, and the cast and crew literally broke bread together with the audience after the taping.
Lucille Ball’s mother became a laugh-track fixture.
In many episodes, just as Lucy is about to get into a hairy situation, a member of the audience can be heard nervously saying “Uh-oh!” That’s Ball’s own mother, Dede, who attended every taping! Her distinctive laugh has reportedly been recycled throughout the years. During a May 1983 interview with David Letterman, Arnaz confirmed the rumor: “Some of our laughter I hear in some other shows … Sometimes you get the regulars and you can detect the same laughter. Well, Lucille’s mother, you couldn’t miss her laugh.”
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The cast smoked real cigarettes on air.
Philip Morris was a major sponsor of the show, re-upping their contract in 1953 for a then-whopping $8 million. Throughout the series’ run, that sponsorship included animated advertisements, in-character product placement and live-action commercials, in which Ball and Arnaz would tout the “benefits” of choosing Philip Morris (no cigarette hangover!). The only problem? Ball preferred Chesterfield cigarettes, so she would sneak them into scenes in a Philip Morris pack.
Spiritual leaders gave their blessing to the pregnancy plot.
A rabbi, a minister and a priest walked into a writer’s room … and that was the only way CBS, the Blow Advertising Agency and Philip Morris Cigarettes would agree to sign off on any baby-related scripts. They required the religious leaders to consult on plots to make sure audiences wouldn’t be offended; the show never used the word “pregnant,” opting instead for euphemisms like “with child” and “expecting.” Episode titles were a different story: The episode in which Lucy reveals her pregnancy is called “Lucy Is Enceinte,” swapping in the French translation, while the following week’s show went a little bolder with “Pregnant Women Are Unpredictable.”
Little Ricky and Desi Arnaz Jr. share a birthday.
Little Ricky came into this world during a much-publicized Jan. 19, 1953, episode called “Lucy Goes to the Hospital.” Also born on that date? Desi Arnaz Jr., who emerged via a planned caesarean delivery at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. Nearly 72 percent of American households were tuned in to the episode, the most watched in TV history up to that point, and according to Hollywood legend, water pressure dropped across the country when the show ended: People had been holding it in until Little Ricky was born, and when they all flushed at the same time after the episode ended, reservoir levels temporarily dipped. The birth episode also got higher ratings than President Eisenhower’s inauguration the next day and, according to Ball, Ike later joked about Arnaz Jr., “Is that the young man who knocked me off the front pages?”
Watch it: “Lucy Goes to the Hospital” on Paramount+
Lucy got her trademark hair color from henna.
A natural brunette, Ball first started dyeing her hair bombshell-blonde in the 1920s and ’30s, before making the switch to red. As her on-set hairstylist Irma Kusely explained, her hair was actually more of a “golden apricot” hue, achieved by first applying dye and then finishing with a henna rinse. According to an interview with Kusely conducted by the Archive of American Television, Ball met a wealthy sheik in Las Vegas, and he sent her a huge supply of henna, which she kept in a safe in Kusely’s garage. “The length of time I’ve been around never occurred to me until one day recently, I found out I was outliving my supply of henna,” Ball later joked. After Ball’s death in 1989, Kusely said, “There was a lot of it left when she left this world, but I had to give it to the estate. I don’t know what little Lucie did with it, maybe sold it for a million dollars. Just for a spoonful, can you imagine what I could’ve made with that?”
“Babalu” is about an Afro-Cuban god of disease.
The network was notoriously conservative (Lucy and Ricky slept in separate beds), but did they know that Ricky Ricardo’s signature song, “Babalú,” was essentially a prayer to a non-Christian god? Written in 1939 by Margarita Lecuona, the song is an ode to Babalú-Ayé, a deity from the Afro-Cuban religion of Santeria who focused on disease and healing. In the song, the narrator asks what to do with a statue of the god, suggesting that they should put 17 candles in the shape of a cross and offer him tobacco and cane liquor. In the book Latino Americans: The 500-Year Legacy That Shaped a Nation, musician Bobby Sanabria says, “When you hear the song, ‘Babalu Aye,’ mainstream America was probably laughing it up, going, ‘Babalu’! Little did they realize they were being exposed to this incredibly deep West African culture we inherited in the Caribbean.”
Nicholas DeRenzo is a contributing writer who covers entertainment and travel. Previously he was executive editor of United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Sunset and New York magazine.