Recently, I had the pleasure of watching Being the Ricardos, the movie about Lucy and Desi Arnaz’s almost two-decade marriage, set against their show, I Love Lucy. And I marveled that just two years before this show debuted in 1951, my own father and mother had created a similar sitcom.
As Dad put it in his memoir, Any Way I Can; 50 Years in Show Business, “Television was in its infancy. Mostly seven to twelve-inch black and white images, with no one knowing quite what to do with this new medium. Maybe I could create a light comedic show for us. Just the two of us. Newlyweds, as we soon would be. I wrote a ten-minute audition sketch and we performed it for advertising agencies, showing how we could include a commercial plug for one of their sponsors. One producer, Harvey Marlowe, showed some interest. He said that a new network, WOR-TV, would be going on the air in the fall and he’d try to get them to think about using us.”
In the meantime, Mom and Dad were married and went on their honeymoon. As soon as they returned, they were contacted.
“Harvey Marlowe, the man who saw our audition in New York, called to say WOR, Channel 9, had signed us to do a domestic comedy in the fall. They wanted a fifteen-minute show, five nights a week. ‘Who will write them?’ I asked.
“Fifteen minutes? Five nights a week? All we had was the ten-minute audition sketch. Impossible. And I’m not really a writer. I called Harvey Marlowe immediately.
‘We’re thrilled with the offer.’
“WOR-TV was using the facilities of the shuttered New Amsterdam Theater on 42nd Street, the old home of the Ziegfeld Follies, as a television studio. Apartment 3C would be the second show for the fledgling studio, airing October 11, 1949, with Harvey Marlowe as producer and director. With fingers crossed, we went on the air Monday night and, although we felt pretty good about it, the next morning brought only one review, The New York Times. Negative.
“Time to bow out? WOR still wanted us and why not? It hadn’t cost them anything but three dollars to make our contract legal.
“With our savings disappearing, however, it became obvious that we couldn’t go on for lack of life support. Informed of this, WOR magnanimously came through with an amount that allowed for three meals a day at the venerable nickel and dime emporium, Horn & Hardart.
“The nightly broadcast meant writing the script the night before, memorizing it the next morning, taking the subway to the theater and, with time and space limited, two run-throughs, a dress rehearsal and… Showtime! Five times a week with weekends off to rack the brain for new ideas and scripts.
“We were given a feature article, “Tea TV for Two” in a new magazine called Telecast. ‘Light, breezy and sometimes naively ribald, Barbara and John really don’t have to reach too far into the recesses of their minds to come up with authentic, straight from the feedbag material…it sure is a nice happy feeling to know that two youngsters can start on nothing and zoom to the top just by being themselves.’
“The fact is, however, that our fifteen-minute script, five times a week, became a formidable task. The domestic problems of a newly married couple with only two in the cast every night were getting repetitious. What to do about the heavy daily schedule? The old saying that dying is easy, comedy is tough proved all too true. What if we changed the format to mystery? What if we added three or four to the cast and made it a half-hour format? To our surprise, WOR was agreeable but only with three or four more. The schedule would be Friday nights fifty-two weeks a year. Life would take on a slightly more normal existence.”
And life did take on a more normal existence for my parents the next couple of years. Apartment 3C was no I Love Lucy, but it opened the door to Mr. and Mrs. Mystery, with my father still writing the scripts. And this show would lead him into a long career in television and movies. The early days of television were a time of golden opportunity, not just for Lucy and Desi, but for two unknown newlyweds whose dreams suddenly came true.