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Lottie Johnson: Why I love Lucille Ball (+ my 5 favorite scenes from 'I Love Lucy')

I’ve seen all 180 episodes of “I Love Lucy” more times than I dare to count. That’s an unusual feat for a 28-year-old, but such an achievement happens when you’re the only child of loving, older parents.

Lucille Ball, whose birthday we celebrate Aug. 6, has always been a part of my world. I was 3 when “I Love Lucy” began airing on Nick at Nite. As a kid I would sit on my living room floor, as close as I could get to the TV, and watch Lucy’s zany adventures unfold. My dad would record the episodes for me on VHS tapes, and then in his scrawling handwriting he’d use Post-it notes to label the tapes by season.

Those scribblings came in handy over the years. It made it easy for me to find the Europe episodes and show a friend from school the scene where Lucy is on an airplane and disguises a 25-pound block of cheese as a baby because she thinks babies can fly for free, or the classic scene from the early days where Lucy does a TV commercial for a health tonic called Vitameatavegamin, not knowing the medicine contains 23% alcohol.

From left to right: Ethel (Vivian Vance) and Lucy (Lucille Ball) try to deal with candies coming too fast on a conveyor belt in a classic episode from "I Love Lucy."
From left to right: Ethel (Vivian Vance) and Lucy (Lucille Ball) try to deal with candies coming too fast on a conveyor belt in a classic episode from "I Love Lucy."
CBS/Paramount

Eventually DVDs came out, and my dad bought all six “I Love Lucy” seasons for me. This was a game changer because I had my own portable DVD player and could now watch the show from the comfort of my room. But my laughter must’ve still reached the living room, because my mom would often walk down the hall, knock on my door and tease me, saying, “It’s not like you haven’t seen this before.”

Which was true. I’d seen them all. But with each episode, I’d always find something new to laugh about. Ball’s slapstick comedy that was so funny to me as a kid remains just as funny to me today, but getting older also made me appreciate subtleties like the clever script and Desi Arnaz’s undervalued role as straight man. It was also fun meeting celebrities like Bob Hope, John Wayne, Rock Hudson, Harpo Marx, Orson Welles and even Superman through Ball’s antics.

I took those DVDs with me to college — 2,000 miles from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to Provo. “I Love Lucy” was a dear friend, lifting my spirits during that first lonely Thanksgiving away from home. Lucy and Ethel’s wacky schemes buoyed me as I sought to find my Utah Ethel, a loyal sidekick who would stay with me through thick and thin. But unlike Lucy, I didn’t end up with one Ethel. I got a handful.

These days, I get to share my love of Lucy with my husband. But now the DVDs have given way to Amazon Prime. He didn’t grow up watching the show like I did, so seeing him smile while watching Lucy’s homemade loaf of bread shoot out of the oven and pin her against a kitchen cabinet made me feel like I was watching the scene for the very first time, even after all these years.

Lucille Ball in "I Love Lucy: The Movie."
Lucille Ball in "I Love Lucy: The Movie."
Deseret News archives

There’s a lot to love about Lucy. She was beautiful; even in black and white that was easy for me to see. While I admit that “I Love Lucy’s” portrayal of marriage isn’t exactly the ideal prototype for healthy relationships, I always viewed Lucy and Ricky as equal partners. In a media world of "Leave It to Beaver-"style wives, Lucy was bold, brash and stood her ground — when it mattered and sometimes when it didn't. In many ways, this black-and-white TV show from the '50s was groundbreaking, largely thanks to Ball's influence. Her character wasn’t afraid to go after what she wanted, even if it meant stomping around in a grape vat and getting stained from head to toe.

Offscreen Ball was just as dynamic. As the eventual sole head of Desilu Productions, Ball overruled her board of directors and took a chance on an unconventional sci-fi show called “Star Trek.” As a leading lady in Hollywood, she paved the way for future women in comedy and showed us just how powerful a funny, imperfect, messy, beautiful woman can be.

We lost Ball three decades ago on April 26, 1989. I hadn't even been born yet. But a few years later, as I began watching Lucy weasel her way into the wildest of scenarios, I started learning what so many before me had come to know, and what I hope so many after me will come to know: Lucille Ball was one of a kind.

“I Love Lucy” highlights

Today, Lucy is best known as the face of Vitameatavegamin and for stuffing an excessive amount of chocolates in her mouth. Here are five lesser-known moments from the show that have given me so much joy over the years.

1. “Lucy gets Ricky on the Radio,” season 1, episode 32

Lucy and Ricky go on a radio show, where they must answer a series of questions to receive prize money. Lucy sneaks onto the set and takes a peek at the questions in advance, but what she doesn’t know when she arrives for the broadcast is that the show’s producer has decided to change the questions at the last minute.

Which is why when asked, “What is the name of the animal that fastens itself to you and drains you of your blood?” Lucy responds with “collector of internal revenue.”

2. ”Lucy Hires an English Tutor,” season 2, episode 13

In this episode, Ricky reminds us that the English language is hard. For example, why would the words “bough,” “rough,” “through” and “cough” all be pronounced differently?

3. “Lucy Goes to the Hospital,” season 2, episode 16

With Lucy’s baby due any moment, Ricky, Fred and Ethel devise an efficient plan to get Lucy to the hospital. But, as you might expect, things don’t quite go according to plan. Fun fact: This episode aired the same day Ball’s son, Desi Arnaz, Jr. was born. It also drew more viewings than President Dwight Eisenhower's inauguration, which aired the next day.

4. “Paris at Last,” season 5, episode 18

Aside from teaching the important lesson to not exchange money with strange men on the street — the money was counterfeit, Lucy! — this episode also shows the power of knowing different languages. In this case, it gets Lucy out of jail. (This is the scene that won my husband over).

5. “Lucy Does the Tango,” season 6, episode 20

This scene contains the longest laugh in the show’s history — a total of 65 seconds. In fact, the laugh was so long that part of it had to be cut out. The scenario: Ricky wants to practice the tango with Lucy for a function at their son’s school. What he doesn’t know is that Lucy is hiding a bunch of eggs in her shirt. Let’s just say the end to the dance is a smashing success.