Daddy, Play That Babalú

Lucille Ball’s on-air pregnancy changed television forever, but what if it hadn’t had a happy ending?

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Malden waits for Barry’s call with the Nielsen ratings, feet up, Lucky tucked in the corner of his scowl, skimming Variety’s breathless declarations of which mogul’s signed what deal. He doesn’t need the numbers; Lucy and Desi own Monday night, they own the CBS line-up — hell, broadcast is their oyster. How “Ricky Has Labor Pains” played in Dubuque is gravy, and Malden is happy to be a small morsel of the goose beneath, keeping the production trains running on time for Jess and, by extension, his stars.

The phone rings. Malden swivels feet to tile and snatches the receiver, still reading a bit about Lana Turner in principal photography on some new thing with Ricardo Montalbán. “Let me guess: 68.2.”

A voice that is not Barry’s answers, weight of an anchor. “It’s Jess. I’m at Cedars of Lebanon.”

“What’s wrong?”

Words come slowly. “Lucy lost the baby.”

All the moisture leaves Malden’s mouth. Lucy and Desi lobbied the network hard for her pregnancy to be written into the show. “Lucy Goes to the Hospital” has been in the can since early November, airs in thirteen days. Lucy’s scheduled for a C-section on January nineteenth, delivery timed to coincide with Lucy Ricardo’s blessed event on the airwaves, everything planned down to the punctuation. “How did it happen?”

“Doctor hasn’t said. She went to emergency at 2 a.m. — cramps and bleeding. It was all over before sun-up.”

“Jesus. What do you need here?”

“Send everyone home. Prepare them for — ” the worst almost barrels through everything like a freight train. “Prepare them to be shut down for the next few days. I’ll call you or the service as I learn things.” The only job Malden wants less than informing the Desilu staff is Jess’s position between grieving parent performers and executives on the other coast. “And if anyone asks, it was a boy.”

“Hell.” Desi wanted a boy so badly, the writers decided months ago the Ricardos were having a Little Ricky — a safety son in case Lucy had another girl.

Now Desi has neither boy.

 

The house, the studio, the hospital — mail arrives everywhere by the sack. The occasional jackass takes shots at Lucy and Desi’s mixed marriage or proclaims God’s punishment of the wicked, maybe a couple dozen bits of ignorance. They’re buried in support, love, kindness. More than a few write specific comforts to Lucy, narrow lines of penmanship from women who’ve lost children of their own and share her specific heartbreak.

The production circles the wagons, lips sealed against the press, colleagues on other shows, anyone with unchecked curiosity. Every question is met with silence, the occasional hostile stare when the point doesn’t land. They’re Lucy and Desi’s Hollywood family, and no one — from the postman all the way to up to Joe Schoenfeld, steering daily Variety — is getting so much as a polite smile that isn’t through channels.

The press is kept a mile away from the memorial service for Desi Jr., a small, private affair, mostly immediate family. Jess represents the entire production. The unborn son is laid to rest in an unspecified plot in Hollywood. Some tabloid ghoul will find and photograph it eventually.

 

In the blue haze of the writer’s room, the I Love Lucy production team receives a mandate from their stars: neither wants to end the series. Give them ideas for moving forward.

The network is like-minded. It’s easy to be when you don’t want to kill a golden goose. For his part, Arthur Godfrey willingly expands Talent Scouts to ninety minutes for a month to cover the baby-centric episodes that will never air. The network brass cook up specials to cover an additional two weeks. As it is, the show was only on the schedule five times from “Lucy Goes to the Hospital” until the end of March, using half-hours filmed ahead in August and September to cover Lucy’s maternity leave. The first, largest obstacle is how — or if — to address the absence of the pregnancy.

The discussion is heated, occasionally short-fused. Some insist the way forward is to skip the needle back, ignore the pregnancy ever happened, never speak of it. The audience outpouring demonstrates empathy. They loved Lucy before she was enceinte, will continue if no one makes an issue of it.

But the notes and cards are a powerful argument to hit the matter head-on. If Lucy puts voice to everyone’s feelings of loss, defies the notion people can’t speak of it, destroys the inherent stigma, proves Lucy Ricardo can overcome with laughter and love being rent in such emotional fashion? No woman, no family ever need suffer such a thing alone again.

Malden has no clue where shoes will drop. He can’t fathom CBS, a network terrified of using the word pregnant on-air, will entertain a comedy that somehow wants to utter the term miscarriage — never mind addressing the attendant concept. Jess sees the safety in returning to pre-pregnancy normalcy. Desi is a guarded optimist, leans toward Jess. But Lucy’s over the moon with the opportunity for such added dimension to Lucy Ricardo.

In the end, CBS lays down the law: no continuity, no mention of the baby, not even an allusion to that situation. “Opportunity,” one vice-president opines, “is what put us over this barrel in the first place.” The Ricardos can proceed as if the last few episodes never happened, or not at all.

The show goes on.

 

Three weeks after the tragedy, Lucy walks onto Stage 2 for the first day of pick-up shots.

The studio audience offers a six-minute ovation. Lucy’s tears cause a delay to touch up her makeup. It’s a short week, filming revised scenes to replace all mentions of Little Ricky in the maternity leave episodes from August. Matching continuity will take longer than actual filming, but two days on-set will salvage four episodes. One finished segment built around the Ricardos’ lease forbidding a baby in the apartment joins the two remaining pre-birth episodes in the “lost” category.

Jess camps behind the director and cameras with two CBS executives, in from New York to observe a return to form. Malden watches from the corner of the audience. The first hour goes according to Hoyle. Lucy hits every mark, earns every laugh. Desi seems more distracted than his wife.

During the second hour, wheels detach.

Lucy has a fairly simple line she cannot tame. It seems to jump her lips. She sputters, flubs it. She forgets it. The third time, she loses concentration in the middle of it, breaks the fourth wall, unleashes an angry scowl on the audience. “Who on earth brought a baby in here?”

The audience titter is nervous. Did they miss a joke? Lucy continues, an avalanche gaining mass and momentum. “I’m serious. Which one of you has a crying baby? Why would you do that? Who even let you in?” She puts the director in her sights. “I’m here to do a job. Is this someone’s idea of a joke? It’s not even in poor taste. It’s willfully cruel.”

The audience’s murmur builds to an insect buzz. Vivian steps to Lucy’s side, whispers in her ear. Lucy rebukes her with a sharp word, eyes settling on Jess and the network brass. Her voice grows thicker with mingled rage and sorrow. She begins to shake. “Did one of you set this up? Worm into my head, foul me up, maybe get you off the hook for the show? You’re sons of bitches! All of you! I lost a goddamned baby! It’s devastating enough without my nose being rubbed in it like some dog that soiled the rug!”

There’s more — pointing, shouting, response to her anger from the more easily insulted audience members — before Desi and Vivian half-lead, half-force the woman from the stage. The cameramen, stunned by the tableau, finally stop rolling. The house announcer grabs a microphone to settle the audience. Some already have, watching an animated back-and-forth between Jess and the executives like ringside fight fans.

Malden cuts through chaos with a glance at the sound engineer. Glen shakes his head. If there was a baby in the room — hell, as near as the next building — its lungs would have spiked in the cans on Glen’s ears. There’s no cry to be heard.

 

Two mornings later, before the press can catch her, a black Chevrolet sedan drives Lucy to Glendale and through the wrought iron gates of Rockhaven Sanitarium.

After breakfast, eleven reporters corral Desi on his way into Desilu, barking questions about his wife. Desi suggests they head out to Eaton Canyon with the other vultures.

The next morning, Variety lobs a front-page grenade into the middle of the works:

 

ASSOCIATE: BALL HAD THREE PREVIOUS MISCARRIAGES

 

Jess throws the paper. It lands beside Malden’s feet like a shotgunned duck. “Of course we knew. The network knew. All the players knew. We wouldn’t have written it in if we had a single doubt. She’d carried their daughter to term without issue, she was in fine fettle, kept her appointments. All of her checkups were in order. What do we get for our efforts? A hit job from Variety. A wire story in papers from Bakersfield to Boston quoting some has-been associate producer suggesting Lucy was overworked and the network pushed her too hard.” He loads files into his briefcase, grabs a pad and a couple of pens. “Now Knowland and Kuchel are both blubbering about Senate subcommittee hearings on working conditions in Hollywood, and Stanton wants me in New York to convince the network why they shouldn’t cancel us. For all I know, this is a hoop and Paley’s already told him to make us go away. Either way, I’m on the next plane.”

Malden assures Jess he’ll handle what little there is to do at the studio. It turns into more than he expected, a dozen calls from across the production — not so much about the schedule, the job, the future. The main concern on everyone’s lips is what can be done to help Lucy and Desi. It pains Malden his only answers are variations of “I’ll let you know.”

 

Two night later, 6:30 p.m. Two calls come in rapid succession as Malden prepares to head to dinner, his mind on scaloppini at the Villa Capri.

The first is Jess, with a terse declaration: Stanton is pulling the plug, official release to go out Monday morning. “Regrets and respect to Lucy and Desi, let them focus on their health and personal lives, typical network claptrap. I haven’t been able to reach Desi. He should know before he reads it in the paper.”

“I’ll swing past the house before dinner.”

“To add insult to injury, it’s snowing to beat the band here and everything is grounded at least into tomorrow, so I need to put you on the hook.” He tells Malden to marshal the troops at the now-defunct production in the morning. Everything is money in Hollywood. No show, no income. No income, no lease. Sets will need to be struck, offices cleaned out and closed up. Malden is neither injured nor insulted, but the hook digs deeply: Who wants responsibility for telling the family the house has burned down?

The second call is Walter at the gate. “Is Mister Arnaz with you?”

“Mister Arnaz is here?”

“Yes. He left his headlights on. In the lot. Thought he was coming right back out, but he hasn’t.”

“When?”

“About twenty minutes ago.”

He asks Walter to turn the headlights off.

 

Malden hears the conga drum before he opens the stage door.

In the middle of the Ricardo living room set, Desi wanders to and fro in the glow of the house lights, oblivious to the audience of one. His conga drum hangs on his body on a worn leather strap. The rhythm he plays borders on hypnotic. It echoes through the space, otherworldly without the orchestra. If Desi’s hands are animate, the rest is a zombie shamble, his face a scrub of stubble, rumpled shirt untucked from his chinos. His voice is an unintelligible lyric.

Malden makes his way to the stage, into the light. Instead of calling out, he waits for Desi to turn, see him. When Desi does, his hands stop as if puppet strings have been cut. It takes him a moment to focus. “Roger. Hello.” He stands there, studies the man with a strange uncertainty in his dark eyes.

“Evening, Desi. You’re here late.”

“I needed to play.”

“You must have a dozen better places to play.”

“No. I needed to play here.”

“How’s Lucy doing?”

He shrugs as if he doesn’t really know. “Barb Pepper went to see her today. Says she’s resting. She doesn’t hear the baby no more, so that’s something. Besides, the docs, they gave her something to relax her, and it sure does the trick. Knocks her on her ass.”

He returns to the drum. Malden has been around the show long enough to pick “Babalú” out of a jukebox, but Desi plays his signature song more slowly, a lament for conga and voice. He sings an unsteady verse and chorus before he stops, pins Malden with sleep-deprived eyes. “You know what ‘Babalú’ means, Roger?”

“I figured it was a Cuban folk song.”

Desi sits on the edge of the Ricardos’ sofa. “It’s a sort of prayer. Babalú Ayé is a spirit. You can trace him from the Caribbean all the way back to African religion. He takes away disease. I change up the lyric a little in English. References to candles and crosses, I think they’d confuse people.”

“I had no idea.”

Desi begins to sing again in Spanish in such a dreamy fashion, the final sharp hit on the drum startles Malden.

“I used to sing ‘Babalú’ for Lucy especial. More, once we decided to put the pregnancy into the show. I figured a prayer to ward off illness wasn’t bad insurance. I suppose some things go wrong with babies that aren’t considered illness by spirits.” He taps the drumhead. “Why are you here so late?”

“Call from Jess in New York. He was trying to get ahold of you. It can wait.”

Desi sighs. “Network’s putting us out with the trash, huh?”

Malden would need to reach up just to feel low. “They’re announcing the cancellation on Monday. It’ll go out on the wire in the morning, be everywhere by the evening editions.”

“Maybe it’s best. When are we telling the crew?”

“I’m calling them in tomorrow morning.”

“Do it gentle. They make us look good. Best team in Hollywood.” Desi begins to play again, talks over the beat like he’s narrating a newsreel. “You know, the real wacky Christians? They treat the miscarriage like a punishment.” He affects an old-lady accent that might be funny under wildly different circumstances. “‘You lost that child because you’re unholy, because you sinned.’ It’s a poorly kept secret how women who aren’t Lucy turn my head. And maybe we did a prideful thing, using a real baby as a gimmick. A prop. I kinda pushed Lucy to do it. Worked on her, you know? She was nervous. I told her it’d make us the biggest thing. Just keep growing Desilu, make it huge, everything will work out in the end.” He punctuates the thought with a rapid-fire string of beats on the drum, winces when the last strike is a little too close to the rim. “Kinda feels like my fault. Maybe I sensed it was going to go wrong, leaned into Babalú Ayé. Maybe a little too hard. Maybe that’s why the kid haunts this place.”

Malden feels the temperature drop in the space, knows it’s in his head, gets gooseflesh anyway. “You believe your baby is haunting the studio?”

Desi gapes as if Malden is growing a second head. “My baby is dead, Roger. Lucy hearing him crying? That’s in her head. You were here. She’s the only one that heard it.”

“You lost me. Who do you think haunts this place?”

“Ricky Ricardo’s son. Little Ricky.”

Malden blinks. “How long has it been since you slept?”

“No, no. Hear me out. See, Lucy got pregnant, and then we created Little Ricky Ricardo. Me, Lucy, Jess, you, the writers, the crew. All of us. We willed him into the world when we wrote in the pregnancy. We breathed life into him. We shot the episodes to grow him, birth him. We planned stories around him, we built a place for him in the world. Except the place closed up when Desi Jr. died. That’s who Lucy thinks she hears. She’s gonna be okay.” A small smile curls his lips. “But Little Ricky Ricardo is still here, and I hear him.”

Malden has never watched a mental breakdown before. In the industry, with all that goes on, he’s always felt lucky to have missed that step. Now he’s face to face with simple, certain madness and can only stare. “You believe the production is being haunted by the ghost of a character we created.”

Desi nods.

“And you hear him crying?”

“Crying? No. Little Ricky, he talks. Like he would have if he had lines. Tells me all the things he wishes he could have done — says we’d have taken a whole Hollywood trip, with Rock Hudson and one of the Marx Brothers, and he was gonna get a puppy, and learn to play the drums like his old man.” His smile is a lighthouse glow on a distant shore. “And he asks me to play. Says it so polite, so sweet. ‘Please, daddy, play that Babalú.’ Like it’s the only song I know. Maybe that’s why he’s stuck here. Maybe Babalú Ayé worked his mojo on the wrong kid.” He stands, hefts the drum again. “So I bring my skins here. ‘Daddy, play that Babalú.’ Don’t you think I owe him that much?” He begins the familiar rhythm again, an energetic beat that belies the sharpness in his tone that cuts Malden to the bone. “I do.”

Desi wanders aimlessly toward the back of the apartment set, beats careening once more around the empty soundstage, begins to croon again in Spanish. Malden might as well be set dressing.

It’s twenty minutes before Walter can summon a driver, another fifteen before Malden talks Desi into the back seat for the ride home. He doesn’t want Desi to drive himself.

The next morning, everyone below Malden’s pay grade is packed onto the set for the bad news. What isn’t tears is disbelief, shock, quiet denial. He admonishes everyone to go home, relax, and come prepared on Monday to shutter the studio.

 

On Monday morning, the wire busts like a cheap piñata with news of the cancellation. Lucy and Desi thank the rest of the cast, the crew, and their fans via their publicist and fall silent.

The Desilu staff becomes bees scuttling a broken hive. The first thing they do is unplug the endlessly ringing phones. By Wednesday afternoon, the rented space at General Studios is a ghost town of empty desks, bare sound stages, crates awaiting the careless embrace of movers.

 

Three months pass. The first rumors of a Lucy/Desi split pop up in the press. There’s no chance for them to be proven or dispelled. That evening, Desi chases them through his head with a single bullet from a .32 Colt Cobra with walnut grips. The room service attendant at the Millennium Biltmore who saw him last, six hours before someone called downstairs about a gunshot, brought Desi a club sandwich and the evening edition of the LA Times. Desi asked if he was in show business. When the attendant copped to film aspirations, Desi tipped him a folded C-note. “Run away from it,” he said. “This industry is a meat grinder that doesn’t even pop at the bones.”

To Malden, Desi’s suicide note — written on hotel stationery and laid atop his conga drum — means more than it ever will to the public: I HATE THAT GODDAMN SONG.

Malden attends Desi’s funeral with half of Hollywood on a bright spring morning. Jess carries Lucy’s proxy from Rockhaven. Tells Malden on the side, “True as the breakup rumors were, she’s heartbroken. She wanted to be apart from him, but not like this.” Most of the staff and crew turn up for the service, as much a funeral for I Love Lucy as one of its stars.

 

Six months on, Lucy is out of Rockhaven and into Ben Hecht’s first script for a TV version of The Front Page opposite Murray Hamilton. The show produces 21 episodes, gets several raves in the major papers, and the two stars prove to have marvelous comedic timing, but it’s a single-season bright light on the sinking DuMont ship.

She spends four years doing guest turns while creating a new vehicle for herself. ABC picks up her self-financed pilot That’s Lucy on their first viewing. Her comedy about a housewife inheriting her father’s supermarket business reunites her with Vivian Vance and catches lightning in a bottle a second time. Lucy goes from owning Mondays to owning Thursdays. Six seasons and two Emmy awards cement her return and her career.

The only public mention of the “miscarriage that changed television” is during an interview with Barbara Walters in 1977. “I felt worst for Desi,” Lucy tells Walters with uncustomary sadness. “He wanted a son so badly. We gambled, and he lost absolutely everything. The entire thing quite literally drove him mad.”

 

Hollywood. Spring of 1960. Malden is on a break from the morning’s work on a pilot he’s producing. Cop comedy. James MacArthur’s green rookie paired with Rod Taylor’s grizzled vet. If the talent is there, the will is lacking, the script chock-a-block with weak jokes and a decade’s worth of rehashed ideas.

In his office while the director works things out with the talent, Malden’s secretary pops in. “Courier delivered this while you were on set.” It’s a square parcel. It takes Malden a moment to conjure the sender’s name from the scrawled return address: Johnny Fuller. Malden hasn’t seen most of his old I Love Lucy family since Desi’s funeral.

Within the brown paper, a box; within the box, a reel of audio tape and a folded sheet of stationery.

Malden —

Enclosed you’ll find the safety audio reel for camera three from ‘that’ day on set. I swapped a blank for it when the rest of the material was taken to the incinerator. Don’t know why. Maybe for a souvenir, maybe because it was historical. It’s been in a closet all this time. There’s only this copy. I finally listened to it about a month ago, and I shouldn’t have; and I’d have burned it, but I got the sense it would make it worse. In any event, you’re the highest honcho I could find. I’m sorry to lay this at your feet. By the time you get this, I’ll be headed up the coast. If a hand-off doesn’t work, maybe distance will. Please don’t try to contact me. I can’t take anymore.

—Fuller

PS: No deposit, no return

Malden stares at the tape as if it’s tightly wound razor wire. He calls one of the sound engineers, asks the man to bring a deck to his office with a set of cans. Twenty minutes later, Malden flips the switch to PLAY. History grabs him by the neck as he hears Lucy’s tirade that fateful evening; but a soft voice speaks beneath, between, around the ruckus — a boy’s voice. It drags Malden into the middle of his last conversation with Desi.

“Daddy, play that Babalú!”

Malden reaches to stop and rewind the tape, doesn’t need to. The voice repeats itself. And again. A half-dozen times in all, barely audible in the confusion and impossible to not hear once discerned. Not a loop. Differences in cadence and inflection each time.

Malden realizes his secretary is standing in the doorway, trying to speak to him. He stops the tape, never so happy for an interruption.

“Mr. Ganzer would like a word on set.”

Malden’s hand shakes as he locks the tape in his desk.

 

Malden lunches at Schwab’s at Sunset and Crescent Heights, but winds up pushing food around the plate. Sleepwalks through a mundane afternoon wasting film on a show he knows will never air. Buys a fifth of Dewars around the corner from the shoot. He resists the urge to play the tape again. Considers calling in an engineer for a listen, to rule out a lub dub or an analog glitch his imagination has built into more, but he doesn’t want them in Lucy and Desi’s business. At some points, the voice rings so clear in his head Malden thinks he might turn around and see a face of mischief dart behind a shipping crate or camera.

Before he leaves for the day, he gets the listing for Johnny Fuller from directory assistance. For his trouble, Malden discovers Fuller’s line is disconnected. No return indeed.

On the way home, he drives past the old General Service Studio entrance on North Las Palmas, thinks of Stage 2 and the old Ricardo place, a haunted house long since razed. Ponders where the ghost of a child who never existed went when his fake home became boards in the county dump and props in a warehouse.

Near North Western Avenue, stopped at a light, he hears the voice for the first time, really hears it, not as memory of a recording or his mind’s reconstruction, but a voice, gliding below the sound of the car’s motor. Imploring. It might be coming from over his shoulder. Malden turns, knowing he’ll see nothing but an upholstered seat behind him. Instead, his gaze catches on a store window. He flips his signal and pulls into a vacant spot on the next block. Walks back. Stares through the window of the pawn shop at the cone of the conga drum: the head worn but clean, tuning lugs in need of a polish, the color scheme of red and white horizontal stripes the ghost of one of Desi’s instruments.

The voice is beside him, enthralled. Babalú!

What was it Desi said? They all did it together, bringing Little Ricky into the world?

Isn’t Malden as responsible as anyone else?

He hears the music as he grips the doorknob — sharp beats played by the deft hands of a desperate man, plea to Babalú Ayé still wet on his lips — and walks through the door, fishing in his pocket for his wallet. He leaves several minutes later and several bills lighter. He doesn’t have the time or inclination to learn the drum he carries back to the car, but he knows he will anyway. Must, even. The voice of Little Ricky Ricardo follows him, asking for what he wants with a very specific rhythm, and the kid —

Hell, the kid sounds so goddamned earnest.

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Comments

  1. Bob – Thanks for the comments. Writers often exist in this Schrödinger’s Cat type of box when a story sees print – one where the story is simultaneously both read/appreciated and ignored/forgotten, and you don’t know which it is until someone pops off the lid to comment. Based on your response and others I’ve received, it sounds like the story struck the chord I was aiming for, which is everything you hope for when you submit. I appreciate your feedback.

    I don’t know if Lucie or Desi, Jr. know about it. I suspect anything is possible. The writer in me holds both fascination and trepidation for how that correspondence would read – and I’m not in a hurry to write *that* what-if either way.

    Thanks again!

  2. G– damn, Doug!!! This may be THEE most shocking story I’ve ever read here of the Friday fiction series. Read it yesterday, and I can’t get it out of my head today. This is a story we all know so well, and how it all worked out so perfectly in real life and on the show, that anything else would never occur to anyone—except you—in a million years!

    For Lucy to have had a miscarriage with Desi Jr. and the resulting chaos and end of the show is unthinkable. You wrote it in such a realistic way that’s terrifying and very believable as a ‘what if’? I got so caught up emotionally reading it, I had to tell myself mentally that this never happened, even though intellectually I know it didn’t!

    I can picture so much in my mind, including Little Ricky. The story is haunting and touching, too. I’m a fan of Lucy, and any episode of the original series, “The Lucy Show’ and ‘Here’s Lucy’ is perfect anytime, but more so after a rough day. She and Desi were both behind sooo many great shows together (even after their ’60 divorce).

    In an awesome fluke, I got to attend an ‘I Love Lucy’ convention at the Bubank Marriott in 2007, when many of the principal producers of the show were still around, and got to meet them in addition to learning inside info about the show, like how the Hollywood and Europe episodes came about when the writers felt they were running out of ideas centering around the Ricardo apartment. How the move to the country house paved the way for the occasional 13 episode (hour long) ’57-’60 continuation series.

    My favorite part was getting to meet and talk awhile with Doris Singleton who played Carolyn Appleby. She wasn’t in that many episodes, but seemed like she was. Lovely, classy lady. The episode about her little Stevie and little Ricky rivalry with Lucy was her favorite one too, along with the bet Lucy couldn’t tell the truth for 24 hours, and the Harpo Marx. Still, I can’t imagine what they’d think of this story!! Shocked as I am, I guess!

    I have to ask if Lucie and Desi, Jr. know about this jaw-dropping story?! You know, this April will be the 70th anniversary of TV Guide, where he was on the first cover. “Lucy’s $50,000,000 Baby.” Ay-yi=yi-yi-yi!

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