Driving down Cahuenga Blvd. the other day,I passed the block where I used to work in the 1950′s as a publicist at Motion Picture Center, home of the “I Love Lucy” show. Now, memories start.
It is January, 1956, as I pull into the small parking lot, driving up to the fiesty,elderly man who ferociously guards his territory of parking spots. “Good Morning,” I call out. He grunts in reply and points to my parking space in case I have forgotten. Not the friendliest way to start the day, but inside the studio it is a different atmosphere.
Motion Picture Center is small by studio standards, containing nine sound stages, several offices, and a commissary.
I start my day reporting to my boss,Kenny Morgan, in our small office. There are just the two of us doing publicity for Desilu on the lot every day. On my way in, Desi stops me. “How’s ever little thin, honey? Get me some coffee?” I head for the commmissary and run into Ken Tobey from “The Whirlybirds” and Hugh O’Brian from “Wyatt Earp.” “Who was that girl you were with yesterday?” O’Brian asks. Tobey’s request is, “Can you get me dinner reservations for tonight at _______restaurant?” I tell O’Brian the name of the girl and ask Tobey, “Who was your social secretary last year?” He laughs.
On the lot, the shows rehearsing and filming are “I Love Lucy, The Danny Thomas Show,Wyatt Earp,The Sheriff of Cochise,Guestward Ho, The Red Skelton Show,Those Whiting Girls, The Dick VanDyke Show, and The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse among others.
My job is to write and plant items about the shows and actors in the trades and newspapers. I interview guest stars. I write some presentations for pilots for possible acceptance by networks and sponsors. I accompany actors for publicity shots and invite, by phone, celebrities to attend special celebrations by Lucy and Desi. Every Christmas Eve,Killer Kane,a studio driver, and I, all dressed up, drive all over Beverly Hills and its surrounds to deliver the Christmas presents from Lucy and Desi to celebrities and columnists.
Every Tuesday evening, I attend the “December Bride” shooting to gather material for stories and arrange for a photographer to take publicity shots on the set after the filming of the cast: Spring Byington, Harry Morgan, Verna Felton, Frances Rafferty, and Dean Miller, all easy to work with. Spring,a bundle of energy, former stage and screen actress, knows exactly what is right for her. If she disagrees with the director or producer about a scene, she simply retires to he dressing room until they come around to her way of thinking. They call her “The Iron Butterfly.”
Spring and I, both science fiction aficionadas, get along very well. For a hobby, she makes colored eyelashes to match different outfits. One afternoon at her house, while we are looking over the eyelashes, she confides in me that she is dating Charles Coburn. “He comes for me in a limo,” she says, laughing like a young girl.<b
On Thursday afternoons, "I Love Lucy" is filmed with a live audience that crowds the entrance on Lillian Way. My job is to talk to them before they enter and, because we are always over-ticketed,explain to those who are turned away and give them tickets to our other shows. It is never pleasant. Kenny says, "You do it because they won't hit YOU." Really? I'm never sure. Thwarted "Lucy" fans are not happy people.
Kenny, who much prefers working with the young and the beautiful, is always amazed that I get along so well with Spring Byington and her family. When an older lady is a guest of the studio, I'm assigned to take her on a tour. Such is the case with Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel in 1926. She is charming,and I enjoy my time with her. Afterwards, Kenny says, "How come you always get along so well with the little old ladies?" "Because," I tell him,"someday I will be a little old lady, too."
I like visiting the sets. One day, Rory Calhoun is a guest star on the "Lucy" show, so I go down to interview him. He is charming, and tells me a dirty joke. I don't laugh, and he says, "You didn't like that, did you? I'm sorry." He is a gentleman as well as incredibly handsome. Another day, on the set before filming, Red Skelton puts one hand over one of his eyes. "This one," he says, pointing to the uncovered eye," is for those who love Lucy. And this one," pointing to the covered eye, "is for those who hate Desi." Years before, when I was married and pregnant,my parents and I had attended one of Red's parties. He took a flash picture of me, saying, "Your kid is going to come out like this……" He pantomimed a face with wide, wide open eyes. Later, he lost his son and his soul.
Orson Welles comes into the office, all aflow with hat and long scarf and deep voice and ready to direct “The Fountain of Youth,” a show for the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse.I can’t wait to visit that set. When I do, he is directing Joy Lansing, a young, gorgeous actress who is struggling with the part. Watching Orson Welles in action as he very patently guides her, step by step, over and over, until he has the performance he wants, is like looking at the magic act he once performed. Fascinating.
Lucy stops by the office. She takes my face between her hands and says, “You have gotten so pretty,”thinking back, I assume,from the days when she knew me as a teenager. I feel seventeen again.
When we move from Motion Picture Center to the old RKO Studio on Gower Street, we lose the ambiance of intimacy. RKO is huge and cold, and it takes longer to travel to see people we had formerly run into on a daily basis. George Murphy, former song and dance man,actor,and politician, is now a Vice-Pesident of Desilu, providing more panache. The only times I see him, he is either arriving or leaving in a limo.
It is also the time when the story about Desi’s indiscretions appears in “Confidential” magazine. Kenny panics. “We can’t let Lucy see this!” he says, tucking it under his desk blotter, where,he believes, it will remain hidden from her.
Later in the day, Lucy’s dresser stops by our office, telling us, “Lucy’s read the story.” Kenny is frantic. “Who showed it to her?”
“Nobody. She walked down the street to the drugstore and bought a copy.”
There is no need to protect Lucy. She already knows about his drunkenness and suspects his bad behavior with other women. There have been many times when the Beverly Hills police, out of courtesy to her, have deposited him on their front lawn rather than arrest him for drunk driving. It is the public humiliation that hurts and leads to a divorce.
The studio is busy with even more shows: “The Untouchables. Mission Impossible. Star Trek” among them. Lucy starts a workshop for young talent. One of them is Majel Hudec Barrett,whom I had known earlier when she first came to town. We went to Jazz Clubs together once in a while. She s a lovely, talented actress, who becomes a regular on “Star Trek” and eventually marries Gene Roddenberry.
They are wonderful years with Desilu, but after five years, I quit to work for a songwriter and a whole new way of life in show business. But, that is another story for another time.