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I Love Lucy and Westport.

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By Marshall S. Berdan

Westport Magazine Dec 2006



By the late 1950s, the demographic tide flowing outward from New York City was in full flood, with Westport receiving its fair share of urban refugees. A middle-aged couple with a young son here and a childless older couple there hardly would have been noticed. But in January of 1957, two such immigrant families would not be overlooked. That is because they brought with them some 30 million weekly admirers. These were not typical families to be sure, and fortunately for Westport, neither were they real. They were the Ricardos and the Mertzes, the first two families of television comedy, and their relocation to bucolic Westport in the sixth and final season of the immensely popular I Love Lucy show consisted of nothing more than redesigning the sets at Desilu’s Hollywood studios.


According to the show’s story line, after spending a delightful weekend in Connecticut, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo (played by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz), decide to move out of their brownstone apartment on East 68th Street in order to provide a healthier environment for their five-year-old son, Little Ricky, played by Richard Keith, “the World’s Tiniest Professional Drummer.” In reality, Lucy and Desi had become exasperated with their cramped apartment set, while the show’s writers thought that having the Ricardos join the popular exodus to the suburbs would provide them with a whole new set of zany predicaments into which they could put their red-headed star.


Though Ball and Arnaz had in fact been married at the Byram River Beagle Club in Greenwich on November 30, 1940, Connecticut was selected primarily because Bob Weiskopf, one of the show’s four writers, had done exactly what the Ricardos were doing only six years earlier — vacating his tiny Greenwich Village apartment shortly after the birth of his first child. Weiskopf, a native of Chicago and a writer for Fred Allen’s radio show at the time, had settled into an 1850s Victorian on Canal Street in Wesport. Three years later, the Weiskopfs pulled up stakes and moved to California, where Bob and another veteran comedy writer, Bob Schiller, joined original I Love Lucy writers Madelyn Pugh Davis and Bob Carroll Jr. for the show’s fifth season (1955–56).


In need of some unifying glue for the second half (thirteen episodes) of the sixth season, someone proposed having the Ricardos and the Mertzes (played by William Frawley and Vivian Vance) move to the suburbs. It was Weiskopf, who died in 2001, who suggested Westport. To be sure that Westport could accommodate the Ricardos, senior writer Madelyn Pugh flew east in early December to give the town the once-over. As recorded in a February 7, 1957, front-page story in the Westport Town Crier & Herald — and confirmed by Madelyn herself in a telephone conversation last year — her reconnaissance mission lasted only one day and consisted primarily of drive-by sightings conducted by Weiskopf’s good friends Ralph and Betty Alswang of Weston. A highly credentialed Broadway set designer, Ralph knew exactly the kind of atmospheric settings Madelyn was looking for, showing her Compo Beach, the waterfront, Sconset Square, and the train station, before taking her to dinner at Cobb’s Mill Inn.


Back in Hollywood, Madelyn’s favorable report convinced the I Love Lucy brain trust that instead of using a fictional town name, as had been the original plan, they should go with the real and very charming Westport. In appreciation of their successful salesmanship, the Alswangs would have their Christian names awarded to the Ricardos’ new neighbors, with the surname coming from Weiskopf’s former neighbors on Canal Street, Alice and Charles Ramsey.


Once Westport got the nod, the writers were determined to make sure they got Westport right. Weiskopf contacted Ralph Alswang again, asking him to send some photos of particularly evocative Westport landmarks, especially old homes and the railroad station, which would be featured in the third episode. » (Scripts were typically written eight weeks before filming, which was done in front of a live studio audience.)


Among the photos eventually sent in were some of veteran stage actor Arthur Kennedy’s home on Old Hill Road. Though not very old by Westport standards — having been built in 1928 — the Kennedy house was the unanimous choice to serve as the model for the Ricardos’ residence. As rendered by art director, Ralph Berger, and set decorator, Claudio Guzman, the “quaint, old Early-American” stage house featured plank floors, wooden beams, a semicircular stairwell and a massive stone fireplace, whose wooden mantle was adorned with pewter tankards and candlesticks.


Visible through the windows were painted backdrops depicting iconic eighteenth-century clapboard, saltbox and gambrel-roofed farmhouses, barns, orchards and even a cornfield, the latter two of which “sprouted” leaves as the setting changed from winter to spring.


Though pleased to have their spacious new set, Desi and Lucy soon realized that size had its downside as well. As Davis recalls, that came primarily in the extra time that it took each character to physically arrive at center stage. A simple salutation couldn’t cover the move anymore, so additional dialogue had to be written. So cumbersome did this become that a second set of Dutch doors was installed so that at least the Mertzes, who would soon take up residence in the Ricardos’ guest house, could get on- or offstage quickly. While the madcap misadventures scripted for Lucy, the suburban housewife, didn’t vary significantly from those of the first five-and-a-half seasons, she was given a new set of foils in the form of Westport’s somewhat stiff, commuting corporate types and their patrician Yankee wives, the latter in collective form as the Westport Historical Society, the Westport Garden Club and an unnamed country club.


Though few local names were used — “that would have smacked of publicity,” Madelyn Pugh Davis explained to us — the writers made sure that they were accurate with their geography and landmarks. Whatever Weiskopf couldn’t remember, he called back to verify — facts such as the train fare from Grand Central ($3.08, round-trip), the location of the annual Yankee Doodle Fair (Jesup—misspelled as “Jessup”—Green), and the date of the Battle of Compo. “After all,” says Madelyn, “if you have a real town, you don’t want to make a real boner.”


Because Madelyn’s reconnoitering didn’t occur until early December, Westport isn’t mentioned by name until the third episode, “Lucy Misses the Mertzes,” filmed on December 20, with the initial reference, “Welcome to Westport,” uttered by the young man delivering a housewarming gift, a $10 basket of fruit, from the Mertzes. Not coincidentally, this was also the first episode to feature anything distinctly Westport, in this case the train station, where the Ricardos and the Mertzes — traveling in opposite directions in an attempt to surprise each other at their respective residences, manage instead to miss each other completely.


Three days after Westport’s official debut, the “Confidential” column of the Westport Town Crier & Herald gloated that “Lucy and Desi’s big move to Westport cost NBC men some hard cash Tuesday morning. The money men in the hallways at NBC spent last week giving 8-to-5 odds that their quiz show 21 would top the Lucy show in Trendex ratings for the first time Monday night. How much credit Westport can claim as Lucy’s new locale is debatable, but she kept her lead again, scoring in the 40 percent of all watchers while 21 totaled up only 37 percent.”


The fourth episode, “Lucy Gets Chummy with the Neighbors,” formally introduced the Ramseys, played by veteran character actors Frank Nelson and Mary Jane Croft, both of whom had appeared in the previous season’s episodes. Under the heading “Westport Has No Staying Power,” “Confidential” reported that 21 had edged out I Love Lucy that week, 44.1 to 43.3, adding ominously that “it was the first time that Lucy had ever been topped by a competing half-hour show.”


The next two episodes revolved around raising chickens, an ill-fated attempt by the Ricardos to defray their higher-than-anticipated expenses, including an $18.75 electric bill from Connecticut Light & Power, and based upon the Arnazes own experiences with livestock at their real home and farm in San Fernando Valley. Conveniently for the Ricardos, there just happened to be a hatchery in town.


In the sequel, “Lucy Does the Tango,” Lucy hid three dozen eggs in her blouse in an effort to stave off Ricky’s threatened liquidation of their nonproductive inventory only to have them smashed when Ricky insists that they practice their dance number for the PTA. As noted by Madelyn in her 2005 memoir, Laughing with Lucy, this was one of the very few stunts that Lucy didn’t practice beforehand because she wanted the look on her face to be completely fresh. It was, provoking the longest sustained laugh ever received in the show’s history — a whopping 65 seconds.


But the laughs were becoming fewer and less raucous for the show that had topped the ratings for four of its first five seasons. Five days after “Lucy Does the Tango” aired, Desi hosted the Los Angeles portion of the 1957 Emmy Awards. Lucille Ball, Vivian Vance and William Frawley all lost in their individual categories. The show itself hadn’t even received a nomination.


Westport is mentioned at least a dozen times in the next episode, “Ragtime Band,” in which Lucy volunteers Ricky’s band to perform for the Historical Society’s annual fundraising drive. In “Lucy Raises Tulips,” she ends up tearing down Main Street and then the Boston Post Road (all off-stage) when she loses control of the Ramseys’ power lawn mower, with the predictable results to Betty Ramsey’s prize-winning tulips on the eve of the garden club’s competition.


The most distinctly Westport episode of the series, however, is the last, “The Ricardos Dedicate a Statue,” in which Lucy accidentally smashes the Minuteman statute — clearly modeled after the town’s iconic 1910 monument — that Ricky is to unveil at that year’s Yankee Doodle Day celebration. The final scene, in which the Ricardos’ dog nuzzles the replacement statue (Lucy) to life while Ricky extols the bravery and heroism exhibited by the patriots at the Battle of Compo, also features a cameo appearance by Desi Arnaz Jr., the belated fulfillment of a promise made by his parents. Over 35 million viewers tuned in to watch the 179th, and final, episode of I Love Lucy.


Thanks to the hour-long replacement series, The Lucille Ball–Desi Arnaz Show, it wouldn’t be until 1960 that Westport finally bid farewell to the Ricardos and the Mertzes. Over the final three seasons, the fatuous foursome would have thirteen further misadventures, though only six of them would be set in Westport, with the very last, “Lucy Meets the Mustache,” co-starring Ernie Kovacs and his wife, Edie Adams, filmed on March 2, 1960. The next morning, Lucille Ball, now finished for good with the character of Lucy Ricardo, filed for divorce in Santa Monica Superior Court from her real-life husband of twenty years citing “extreme cruelty” and “grievous mental suffering.” Like their fictional move to Connecticut four years earlier, the Arnazes were once again following an emerging American trend. This time, however, their legions of fans would find nothing to laugh at.

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My dad said he thought the show jumped the shark with the Scotland episode. I think that the show had high and low points, but there never was an episode that set it on a downhill slope; it would always recover with another classic episode.

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