Thursday, December 02, 2010

Remembering... Desi Arnaz

To call Desi Arnaz the father of the American sitcom would not be stretching the truth even one iota; America may have loved Lucy, but they wouldn't have had Lucy to love had it not been for the business acumen of one Desi Arnaz...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketAware that his wife Lucille Ball was pushing 40 by the time the show went on the air, Arnaz hired Karl Freund, an old hand around the Hollywood studios to give I Love Lucy a more cinematic look, paying close attention to lighting; shooting the episodes on film before converting them to video tape - or the dreaded kinescope - means that those old episodes look as clean today (thanks to their subsequent restoration and the magic of DVD) as they did they day they were recorded.

His innovations don't stop there, however; not only did he decide to shoot the show in Hollywood (when most shows were still being made in New York City) Arnaz just so happens to be the one who devised the three-camera system still routinely used in sitcoms which are shot in front of a studio audience today. Not only did he put microphones above the audience to capture their abundant laughter at Lucy's scripted antics, he recorded those laughs, and sold them to other, less funny shows, to use in their laugh track*. He also bought back earlier episodes of the show (which were owned by CBS) at a ridiculously low rate, on the hunch that people might want to watch the shows again and again in syndicated reruns. Once again he was right.

At one point in the 1960s, Desilu Studios was producing some of the biggest shows on TV, and had even added the old RKO lot (where he and Ball had met) to its holdings; because he realized early on that the only people who make money in Hollywood are producers, he quickly grabbed the reins of I Love Lucy and made himself (not to mention Lucy) a fortune by doing so. Long after their 1960 divorce, Ball was still crediting Arnaz with most of the success enjoyed by the show.

Born in March 1917 in Santiago de Cuba, Arnaz died on this day in 1986.

*CBS sound engineer Charles 'Charley' Douglass was the inventor of the laugh track, but Arnaz and therefore Desilu Productions were probably the first to profit from it financially.

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