Even in mourning, there will be laughter. Lucille Ball is gone, but Lucy remains behind, still stomping grapes with her feet, gobbling candies off an assembly line, stealing John Wayne's footprints from the Chinese Theater, still setting her putty nose on fire and dipping it into a cup of coffee to extinguish it.
She's our Vitameatavegamin girl, spooning her way to health, taking repeated gulps of a high-alcohol tonic and getting progressively, giddily, and yet somehow charmingly, sloshed. She's Mrs. Ricky Ricardo, pregnant with her first child, walking into the living room to announce that "it's time" and then being left behind as her husband and two best friends rush hysterically off to the hospital without her.Lucille Ball deserves the title of Television's Biggest Star, its Chaplin. When she convinced CBS to air the "I Love Lucy" pilot she'd made with her Cuban-born husband Desi Arnaz in 1951, television had just gotten its foot into the American door. Now it would never leave: The number of TV homes quadrupled from 1951 to 1957, when "Lucy" ruled the airwaves. She sold uncountable millions of those sets herself.
Marital sitcoms preceded and followed "I Love Lucy"; none were as funny. They may have had an "I" and even a "Love," but they didn't have a Lucy. It helped of course that Lucy and Desi were married in real life. "Lucy Goes to the Hospital," the series' highest-rated episode, aired on the night Lucille Ball gave birth to the Arnazes' son, Desi Jr. Millions more people, it was often pointed out, watched the episode than saw Dwight Eisenhower's inauguration the same year.
"They liked Ike," Walter Matthau said at the 1986 Kennedy Center Honors, "but they loved Lucy." It was unanimous, universal, uncontested. It was common ground, an American passion to rival baseball and hot dogs and automobiles. They could practically have added it to the Pledge of Allegiance: "One nation, under God, loving Lucy . . . ."
The clips pulled out for tributes are usually the broad slapstick moments: Lucy dipped into a vat of starch, Lucy dressed up as Superman and trying to shoo bothersome pigeons off a window ledge, Lucy being pressed against a kitchen counter by a giant loaf of bread sliding menacingly out of the oven.
Lots of people were doing slapstick on television in the '50s; Milton Berle's, on NBC, was outrageous burlesque. What Lucy did was to domesticate slapstick, to make it plausible within a dramatic framework, to make it a logical extension of a patently and endearingly zany character.
She also was able to do physical comedy while remaining feminine, unlike some of her more raucous contemporaries. But slapstick was only one element of the show's, and the character's appeal. Lucy helped define the word irrepressible. She embodied vitality and pluck, and it's appropriate that in her Broadway hit "Wildcats" she sang a song called "I Ain't Down Yet."
As Arnaz said looking back years afterward, the other simple secret of the series' success was chemistry. Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel became as iconographic and cherishable a quartet as the four mythical wayfarers of "The Wizard of Oz" - Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman and the Cowardly Lion. Lucy Ricardo and her friend Ethel Mertz (played by Vivian Vance), drafted into conspiracies designed to foil repressive husbands, were the first and best example of female bonding in television.
They would argue bitterly over the presidency of the Wednesday Afternoon Fine Arts League, or quarrel when both showed up wearing the same new dress, but by the end of the show they were the best of friends again, on occasion sealing the friendship with a warm embrace. "I Love Lucy" could be riotously funny, but there was an underlying truth and tenderness to it as well.
And that is why it is warmly embraced by millions to this day - those who remember Monday nights built around it in the '50s, and those in succeeding generations who have seen the reruns so many times they can recite the dialogue before it is spoken. You do have to wonder if anybody will ever be this funny again.
Arnaz died a week before Lucy received her Kennedy Center Honor in 1986, but at the ceremony, Robert Stack read remarks Arnaz had planned to deliver. "Lucy was the show," he said. And, "`I Love Lucy' was never just a title."