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.
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 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here is a homemade ratchet to show you how this mechanism works:
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.
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.
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.
In “The Audition,” we get a glimpse of the clothespin during the rehearsal. Here you can see a profile view.
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.
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.
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.
There was also an original figurine made of Lucy in this costume with the cello.
Lucille Ball was featured in the “professor” costume with the cello in Collier’s magazine (18 October 1952).
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 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.
This telegram, discovered inside the cello, confirmed its provenance as the I Love Lucy loaded cello.
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, 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.
- “The Audition.” Papermoon Loves Lucy, 19 July 2015, papermoonloveslucy.tumblr.com/post/124481416788/the-audition.
- 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.
- 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.
- Watson, Thomas. “Lucy Cello in Jamestown.” Still in Love with Lucy, 7 Nov. 2005, www.lucyfan.com/stillweek202.html.