CBS Radio was trying to ignore the fact that it was dying. Television was a crazy fad that nobody cared about because it was too expensive to buy one, and all the programs were hyper-intellectual “New York plays” broadcast live. Radio, on the other hand, was a cultural institution. In 1948, there wasn’t a person in America who didn’t have fond memories of one radio program or another. Jack Benny was probably the most famous entertainer in the country, and Jack Benny was 100% radio – until he got a TV show.
Radio needed something. Anything.
Back in 1942, Ray Milland and Betty Field had starred in Are Husbands Necessary? a light comedy based on a series of novels by Isabel Scott Rorick. It concerned George and Mary Elizabeth Cugat, a happily married couple whose ship was generally steered by the “zany” Mary Elizabeth. Then, in 1943, the film was adapted for radio as an episode of Lux Radio Theater starring George Burns and Gracie Allen.
By 1948, it was decided that CBS would try the concept as a weekly series, with Ozzie and Harriet writers Frank Fox and Bill Davenport creating stories about affluent banker George’s daily struggles with his eccentric socialite wife, Liz. The audition episode (they didn’t call them pilots until TV) starred George Bowman – who would later run media training for the Nixon administration – and a B-movie redhead who’d been showing a surprising knack for comedy.
Lucy was just about the only thing destined to stick with the radio version of the show. Bowman dropped out after that first episode, and was replaced by Richard Denning. Ten episodes in, it was obvious that the wealth of the central couple was making it difficult for the audience to relate to them, and (frankly) the jokes weren’t funny enough. CBS shuffled some things around and moved a young writing duo by the names of Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll, Jr. onto My Favorite Husband to make some changes.
The Cugats became the Coopers, to avoid confusion with popular bandleader Xavier Cugat. They were now middle class suburbanites, whose best friends were a blustering couple called Rudolph and Iris Atterbury, and who lived next door to the Wood family. The Woods had eleven children, and the patriarch of the wild clan was a scene-stealing Hans Conried. Also thrown into the mix was Eleanor Audley as George’s aristocratic and impossible-to-please mother.
Under Pugh and Carroll, it became obvious that making the audience react to Liz was driving the show much more powerfully than having the audience sit through George’s reactions to Liz. So Lucy stepped forward, and Richard Denning didn’t have a problem with it. Denning was a nuts-and-bolts actor, he has a surprisingly large filmography of characters that hold up fictional worlds so that the stars can play in them. That was his strength, and Lucy’s strength was being the hurricane of a story. By the time she became a TV legend, that was obvious, but back in her radio days, everyone was discovering just how funny she could be.
The changes were brilliant. The reviews were glowing. And, most importantly, people were tuning in to listen.
In the ghost town days of radio, when there were no more hits, CBS had a major show on its hands.
Not too long before all of this, CBS had negotiated contracts with NBC’s top radio stars to bring them over to CBS television. The big one was the aforementioned Jack Benny, and there is no way to overstate what a huge deal Jack Benny was at this time. Courting him had cost literally all the Christmas bonuses at CBS. Nobody got Christmas bonuses, and nobody was mad because they knew that if they worked at the network with a star as big as that, it would be a hell of a lot cushier than working at the network that had to put something in the competing time slot. CBS was betting their future on television, and it was going extremely well.
So, no big surprise, they wanted to move My Favourite Husband to TV. By now, it was obvious that you couldn’t do that without Lucille Ball, and Lucille Ball wanted a change made. Instead of Richard Denning, she wanted her husband to be played by her real-life husband Desi Arnaz. It wasn’t because she had anything against Denning, she just saw the opportunity for Desi. (According to Denning, Lucy told him later that she thought giving Desi the part “would help her marriage.”)
Of course, CBS couldn’t really see Desi Arnaz and his Cuban accent as a manager in a mid-west bank, living in typical suburbia. But Lucy would not budge, and Denning had already altered his schedule. The Coopers were recast with Joan Caulfield and Barry Nelson, and they went back to the “rich people doing zany things in high society” format… which you might remember as “the format that didn’t really work.”
Unsurprisingly, the show didn’t last long, and that was the end of the Cooper-nee-Cugats.
But! Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll Jr. hadn’t been attached to the TV transfer, and they’d been mulling over how to get Lucy on TV, and how to make the audience “believe” Desi Arnaz. What if they were a couple who worked in entertainment? And Desi was a band leader? And they lived in a place with so many immigrants, you’d never have to tell a story about the husband being an immigrant?
They pitched the new concept as I Love Lucy.
Want to listen to My Favorite Husband? Check it out here.