23 July 2011

More About Lucy and Desi

Back in September, I wrote a post here I called "Thoughts About Labor Unions."

Among the thoughts I shared at the time was one about the origin of "I Love Lucy," and a story indicating that those negotiations might be considered an example of collective bargaining in a microcosm.  I know more about that story now then I did in September, so I'd like to fill that in a bit.

I wrote in Septrember that when a certain CBS bigwig saw the pilot, his first reaction was: "Keep the redhead, but ditch the Cuban."

Actually, that line didn't come from any CBS exec, but from a consultant to whom CBS had turned.
Television was new in 1951, and nobody really understood what would work in this strange medium and what wouldn't.  The executives should be given credit for "knowing that they didn't know," the Socratic virtue.  They had all acquired their prominence within a radio-based corporation, after all.
Who was the consultant?  Turns out it was one-half of the phenomenal Broadway team that was re-making the whole idea of a musical at around this time:  it was lyricist Oscar Hammerstein.   I can imagine the thinkig of the network bigwigs as they called him in.  Oscar knows theatre.  Theatre is a visual medium.  This new box is visual, too.  Must be pretty much the same.  (It isn't, but I'll leave that aside for now.)
What I really want to set straight is this:  In September, when I didn't know who I was talking about, I wrote: Maybe the CBS exec was worried about the public acceptance of some televised "miscegenation," as they called such things back then.
Knowing that it was Oscar Hammerstein, the author to the lyrics to "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" and the other songs in "South Pacific," a musical with a mixed-race marriage at its heart, I have to apologize for that.  I was way wrong.  
Just to atone to his spirit, here are those lyrics:
You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!


Henry said...


You don't say whether Hammerstein was consulted for his commercial or for his aesthetic judgment. If the former, then it would not be inconsistent for him to worry about the public acceptance of televised miscegenation and also to be unbigoted himself. If the latter, then it would not be inconsistent for him to dislike "I Love Lucy" because he was a bigot and also, for the paycheck, to have written a song attacking bigotry.

Christopher said...


My understanding is that Hammerstein was concerned not about the miscegenation thing but about Desi's thick Cuban accent and the danger that middle America wouldn't understand him.

Rodgers and Hammerstein, after all, famously cast Yul Brynner as the King of Siam. (Brynner was terrific, but ...) That casting decision is emblematic -- Rodgers and Hammerstein knew their audience, and didn't want to push their audience out of its comfort zone. Politically, that comfort zone entailed at the least a New Deal liberalism and was accepting of inter-racial marriages -- or for that matter of the unspoken sexual tension across east/west lines in their take on Anna Leonowens' famous memoir. But their audiences' comfort level as they saw it WOULD be challenged by any overly exotic accents or musical styles. Thus, Siamese royalty, south Pacific islanders, Oklahoma cowboys, and Austrian nuns all end up sounding somewhat alike after the homogenizing R&H cuisinart.

Hammerstein was implicitly suggesting the use of the same cuisinart for television. The thing is, though: a lot of people are more tolerant of exotic accents in their living room than they would be at a night 'out.' It is like having a family friend who talks a little funny -- it becomes endearing. As the Desi/Ricky accent and fast-broken-Spanish at moments of excitement obviously did.

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.