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A Cello Helped Launch One of the Most Popular TV Shows of All Time

Ricky and Lucy point at the loaded cello. I Love Lucy cello.

Where? There! Screenshot from “The Audition,” season 1, episode 6 of I Love Lucy.

Without this “loaded” cello, the most popular TV show of all time might never have existed.

It was 1951 and due to prejudice in America at the time, it had taken 10 years for Lucille Ball to get a chance to co-star with her Cuban-American husband, Desi Arnaz. CBS gave them only one month to prepare a pilot to see if they could get a sponsor for their TV show. Since they were so short on time and Lucille was about four months pregnant, they decided to use an act they had put together for their vaudeville shows.

They turn to vaudeville – and a vaudeville cello – for inspiration.

Pepito the Clown

Pepito the Clown. Screenshot from the pilot episode of I Love Lucy.

Back in the spring of 1950, they decided to see how the public reacted to their acting together, so they put together a “Mr. and Mrs.” vaudeville act. Their friend Pepito Perez, a famous Spanish clown, taught Lucille his act using a cello. This wasn’t just any cello – Pepito had customized it to have special features.

Although not a cellist himself, the great actor Buster Keaton, who had experience working with a cello in his 1921 silent film, The Playhouse, also coached her on acting with the cello. He told her she had to treat the cello as if it were a Stradivarius and that:

“she must guard it more carefully than her pearls and entrust it to no one else, for on this equipment her entire performance hinged.”

Fortunately, the pilot went so well that Philip Morris agreed to sponsor it. This pilot was not used in the series and was thought lost until 1989. CBS finally aired the pilot on 30 April 1990, 39 years after it was filmed, as part of a special tribute to Lucille Ball.

“The Audition”

The premise of the skit is that Lucy desperately wants to be in Ricky’s show. When Ricky’s clown friend gets injured in rehearsal, Lucy takes his place to audition. Lucy barges into the end of Ricky’s show, carrying a cello.

Even though it was not part of the originally aired episodes of the show, the pilot went so well that Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball used much of its material later in the series, in an episode called, “The Audition” (episode 6 of the 1st season). If you have not seen this episode, here is the cello portion of “The Audition”:

Cello as Suitcase

As you can see, one of Pepito’s main alterations to the cello was to cut a large rectangular opening in its back, so that the cello could hold a stool, a plunger, and other items – like a suitcase.

"Photo

The back of the cello, with its rectangular hole. See the stretchy cord for the bow and arrow joke. From Carty, Melani. “Lucy Cello in Jamestown, NY (2005).” Pepito and Joanne, 7 Nov. 2005, www.cartychronicles.com/pepitoandjoanne/Blog/Entries/2005/11/7_Lucy_Cello_in_Jamestown%2C_NY_(2005).html.

Interior of cello from Pepito memorabilia in Profiles in History Auction page 137

Interior of the cello showing the stool, plunger, and other props inside it. Profiles in History auction catalog, 29 September 2005, p. 137. Catalog from Melani Carty.

Another detail you might have noticed is the handle attached to the bass-side C-bout of the instrument. Instead of carrying it in a case, Lucy carries the cello around by the handle on its side. How efficient! But can you imagine carrying your cello around with no case to protect it?

"Loaded" cello with a handle on the C-bout and its endpin out. I Love Lucy cello.

“Loaded” cello with a handle on the C-bout and its endpin out. Screenshot from “The Audition,” season 1, episode 6.

She also walks around with its endpin out. As she dashes up the risers and into the band, you see the musicians moving out of the way but notice how careful Lucy is with the instrument and her musical colleagues. Even with the endpin out, she doesn’t come close to hitting anyone. Clearly, she’s taken to heart Keaton’s advice about being careful with the cello.

En garde!

En garde! How I saw myself in elemetary school strings class.

Share if you know someone like this. When the teacher leaves the room for a moment, the bow/sword fighting begins!

When you were a kid, did you ever sword fight with your bow? We know some students who got in trouble for this in elementary school strings class. Pepito, the author of this skit, shows his familiarity with the ways of young cellists. After pulling her stool out of the back of the cello, Lucy pulls her bow out of the pocket of her coat. Instead of putting it down immediately, she brandishes it at Ricky first, and he moves back in surprise. In the pilot, she even gives it a little extra flourish.

En garde! Lucy brandishes her bow at Ricky. I Love Lucy cello.

En garde! Lucy brandishes her bow at Ricky. “The Audition,” season 1, episode 6.

 

En garde! Lucy brandishes her bow at Ricky. Pilot Version. I Love Lucy cello.

En garde! Lucy brandishes her bow at Ricky. Pilot version.

Precision Tuning!

When she tunes the instrument, it looks as if she’ll surely break the C-string – and she doesn’t ever even check the pitch.

Lucy tunes the C-string. The Audition. I Love Lucy cello.

Precision Tuning. Lucy tunes the C-string. “The Audition,” season 1, episode 6.

Notice on the C-string side of the pegbox, Pepito added the mechanism of the musical instrument called a ratchet, with the cogwheel set around the peg and the blade that clacks against it mounted on the side of the pegbox. When Lucy turns the C-string peg, she is not changing the C-string tension, but instead is turning the cogwheel around and creating the loud noise of the ratchet.

Detail of Lucy Tuning. I Love Lucy cello.

Detail of Lucy Tuning. “The Audition,” season 1, episode 6.

Here is a homemade ratchet to show you how this mechanism works:

Now you have seen how a ratchet works, here is another close-up in which the cogwheel is fairly clear.

C-string Ratchet Close-up 2

C-string Ratchet Close-Up. “The Audition,” season 1, episode 6.

She took the plunge: endpin problem solved.

Next Lucy has trouble with her endpin. Have you ever felt like this? We have, especially with some cellos beginning students bring to lessons. Pepito understood cellists and their woes when he created this act. Eventually, Lucy puts away the endpin, pulls a plunger out of the back of her cello, and fits it into an extra hole Pepito drilled in the bottom bout of the cello.

Lucy uses a plunger to solve her endpin woes.

Problem Solved! Lucy uses a plunger to solve her endpin woes. “The Audition,” season 1, episode 6.

Cello Bow as Arrow

Just when one might expect the cello gags to end, Lucy gets ready to play and leaves Ricky waiting. And waiting. And then she uses her bow as an arrow, firing it at Ricky’s backside. How did she do it? (One can almost hear the wheels turning in young students’ heads, as they try to figure out how to do this.) The “bow as arrow” gag represents another of Pepito’s alterations to the cello. If you look closely, you’ll see he put a hole above the foot of the bridge and below the top part of the f-hole on the treble side of the belly.

Bow launcher. "Bow as arrow" mechanism detail showing the hole in the belly and the stretchy band hanging from it.

Detail of the bottom bout of the cello showing the extra hole for the plunger. Screenshot from “The Audition,” season 1, episode 6.

He attached a long rubber band or piece of elastic inside the cello with a D-ring on the end and pulled it through this extra hole in the belly. A clothespin holds this in place until Lucy needs it. In the pilot episode, you can see her remove the clip and attach it to the brim of her hat.

Lucy removes the clothespin from the bridge that holds the bow-firing elastic mechanism in place.

From the bridge, Lucy removes the clip holding the bow-firing elastic mechanism in place. The pilot episode.

In “The Audition,” we get a glimpse of the clothespin during the rehearsal. Here you can see a profile view.

The clothespin on the I Love Lucy cello bridge in The Audition

The clothespin on the I Love Lucy cello bridge. Screenshot from “The Audition,” season 1, episode 6.

Lucy then hooks the end of her bow into the D-ring on the stretchy band, hair-side up, in a sort of col legno position. Although the live audience must have seen her do this, you can’t see this in the video footage as she does it out of the line of sight of the camera. If you look closely, you’ll see the hole and the elastic cord dangling on the front of the cello after she’s fired her shot.

Close up of the bow being launched at Ricky's backside.

Close up of the bow being launched. Note the band dangling from the cello after the bow has been fired. “The Audition,” season 1, episode 6.

The bow appears to be a specially made “stunt bow” with a rounded tip and a frog that is more grip than frog, with an end that will easily slip into the D-ring on the cord.

Cello from Pepito memorabilia in Profiles in History Auction page 136

Profiles in History auction catalog, 29 September 2005, p. 136. Catalog from Melani Carty.

The Success of the Cello Episode(s)

Actor Eddie Albert saw Pepito do this act in Spain, but he said Lucille Ball did it better. This skit was so popular that Mattel made dolls of Lucy as “The Professor” in “The Audition” episode, complete with the cello, bow – and plunger.

Lucy doll by Mattel, complete with bow and plunger.

Lucy doll by Mattel, complete with bow and plunger. Get one here or here. (Be sure to check individual listings for the condition of the doll and cello – it might not be the same as the one pictured here.)

There was also an original figurine made of Lucy in this costume with the cello.

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz with an original figurine of Lucy with the cello.

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz holding an original figurine of Lucy with the cello. From Papermoon Loves Lucy Tumblr. https://papermoonloveslucy.tumblr.com/post/124481416788/the-audition

Lucille Ball was featured in the “professor” costume with the cello in Collier’s magazine (18 October 1952).

1952-10-18 Lucy and Cello in Colliers Magazine

Lucille Ball was featured in her “professor” costume with the cello in Collier’s magazine (18 October 1952). Photo of magazine courtesy Melani Carty.

What happened to the I Love Lucy cello?

For many years, the whereabouts of the cello were unknown to the public. In 2005, after Pepito’s widow passed away, it was discovered in her attic and was auctioned off for over $35,000.

The cello as discovered in the attic (2004). Photo courtesy Melani Carty.

The cello as discovered in Joanne Perez’s attic (2004). Joanne Perez was Pepito Perez’s widow. Photo courtesy Melani Carty.

 

The cello after being discovered in the attic.

Another view of the cello after it was discovered in Joanne Perez’s attic (2004). Photo courtesy Melani Carty.

The Lucy-Desi Museum’s Acquisition Society purchased the cello, and it is now on display at the museum with Lucy’s costume from the scene, the stool, the plunger, and a telegram from Lucille and Desi to Pepito, thanking him.

I Love Lucy cello in the display at the Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum

I Love Lucy cello and other props from the skit in the display at the Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum. You can see some of the details of the cello more clearly in this image than in the screenshots and gifs from the episodes. Image from Tumblr. https://papermoonloveslucy.tumblr.com/post/124481416788/the-audition

This telegram, discovered inside the cello, confirmed its provenance as the I Love Lucy loaded cello.

Telegram from Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz to Pepito. Found inside the cello.

Telegram from Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz to Pepito found inside the cello. Photograph courtesy Melani Carty.

The Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum in Jamestown, New York has re-opened after its pandemic closure, and visitors can now view this famous cello, its case, and related materials.

“Look Professor, I’m sorry but I haven’t got any use for a cellist.”

At the end of the scene with the cello, Ricky tells Lucy he doesn’t need a cellist for his show. Even so, the stunt cello – and Lucy’s act with it – helped secure sponsorship from Philip Morris for I Love Lucy. Lucy firing the bow at Ricky was one of the first arrows cupid shot in I Love Lucy. Without the “loaded” cello, the world might not have fallen in love with I Love Lucy.

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Thank You

Thank you, Bill and Mary Rapaport, and Mike Latone, for your help in contacting the museum. Thank you, Melani Carty for all of your help, scholarly blog posts, and archival resources.

Sources

  1. “The Audition.” Papermoon Loves Lucy, 19 July 2015, papermoonloveslucy.tumblr.com/post/124481416788/the-audition.
  2.  
  3.  
  4. Carty, Melani. “Lucy Cello in Jamestown, NY (2005).” Pepito and Joanne, 7 Nov. 2005, www.cartychronicles.com/pepitoandjoanne/Blog/Entries/2005/11/7_Lucy_Cello_in_Jamestown%2C_NY_(2005).html.
  5. Sharbutt, Jay. “A 39-Year-Old ‘I Love Lucy’ Pilot Beats New Shows in Ratings.” AP NEWS, Associated Press, 2 May 1990, apnews.com/77fe671bbb6972961b7ee6fc952ae35f.
  6. Watson, Thomas. “Lucy Cello in Jamestown.” Still in Love with Lucy, 7 Nov. 2005, www.lucyfan.com/stillweek202.html.
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Comments(4)

  1. Reply
    Dr. Henry Fernandez says:

    Pepito was a true Artist in every way. He taught two people pantomime. Lucille Ball and me. Those that met him enjoyed every minute. Pepito performed 15,000 shows and everyone was as special as he.

    • Reply
      Curator, Brenda Neece says:

      Amazing! Dr. Fernandez, Did you do the sketch with the cello, too?

  2. Reply
    Melani Carty says:

    Wonderful post/article that combines many written sources with detailed screen grabs to tell the story of Lucille Ball and her “Loaded Cello” Routine. Excellent work, CelloMuseum.org!

    • Reply
      Curator, Brenda Neece says:

      Thank you so much for your kind words and for all of your help with this article, Melani Carty! Cello Museum visitors – interested in learning more about Pepito and Joanne? Be sure to check out Melani Carty’s informative and entertaining website: https://pepitoandjoanne.home.blog/.

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