regg Oppenheimer was born six days after his father's pilot of
"I Love Lucy" aired. Creator, producer, and head writer
of the iconic show, Jess Oppenheimer's credits during the Golden
Age of Radio are legion and include co-producing "The Danny
Kaye Show" with Lucille Ball, "The United States
Steel Hour," "Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre,"
"The Debbie Reynolds Show," and "Get Smart."
Jess garnered industry recognition receiving two Emmy Awards
and five Emmy nominations, a Sylvania Award, and the Writers
Guild of America's Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award for Television Achievement.
In addition to being a successful writer and producer, he was an inventor
and held 18 patents, including the in-the-lens teleprompter used
for the first time by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in a 1953
television commercial for Philip Morris cigarettes.
Son of "I Love Lucy" Creator,
Remembers his Dad, Jess Oppenheimer
By Beverly Cohn
Gregg Oppenheimer in his study surrounded by vintage
Photo: Beverly Cohn
After his father's death in 1988, Gregg
spent several years doing research to complete his father's unfinished
memoirs "Laughs, Luck... and Lucy: How I Came to Create
the Most Popular Sitcom of All Time." He was the recipient
of two TV DVD awards for producing "I Love Lucy,"
DVDs for CBS, subsequently becoming Gregg, who
lives with his wife Debbie in Santa Monica, recently sat
down with your reporter for an exclusive, in-depth interview and the
following has been edited for content and continuity.
"My Favorite Husband" radio program, co-starring
Lucille Ball, paved
the way for groundbreaking television sitcom "I Love Lucy"
television series. Courtesy photo
What was the genesis of the original version of
your play "I Love Lucy: The Untold Story?"
Gregg: I had the notion of turning my book into a screenplay.
So, I started writing scenes based on things that happened in the book,
but I really didn't know how to make a movie out of it. Then, in 2011,
the 100th anniversary of Lucille Ball's birth, I was invited
to come to Jamestown, where she was born, and was asked to direct
a recreation of "My Favorite Husband," which was her
radio program. Since 1998, I've been directing recreations of
radio programs and decided this was a good time to force myself to do
something with all the scenes I had written. I told them I had a play,
and asked if I could do that too and they said sure. So then I had to
How is the old version different from the new
version, which will be staged on October 6th at the University Synagogue?
L-R: Lucy with her devoted neighbor Ethel played
by Vivian Vance. Courtesy photo
Gregg: The main difference is I've added a scene in
the booth the night they shot the pilot and there are also several scenes
involving how they found and cast Vivian Vance as Ethel Mertz.
What would you like to have happen after that
Gregg: I'd like to have it mounted somewhere. It's up
in the air and I'm taking it one day at a time.
What draws you to radio vs. television or film?
Gregg: I've been in love with radio as a dramatic medium
since I discovered some old transcription discs of my dad's that he
wrote in 1939 for "The Screen Guild Theater."
I thought they were fantastic so I started collecting old-time radio
shows, which, at first, were on reel-to-reel tapes and discs. Then,
in the late 90s, I started going to old-time radio conventions
and discovered that there was this whole group of people who loved it
as much as I do, including some of the old-time radio veterans who recreated
some of the shows. I decided to get involved in that and started directing.
What are some of the advantages of doing radio?
Gregg: You can do anything and the nice thing about
it, like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland you can put on
a show and you don't need a lot of money to mount it because you don't
have any sets or costumes and nobody has to memorize anything.
Desi Arnaz on the conga drum introduced live
music with his orchestra on the "I Love Lucy" television
series. Courtesy photo
Why do you think people are still fascinated with
"I Love Lucy" and continue to watch the reruns?
Gregg: It's timeless comedy. It was what people needed
at the time and was really well done in many respects. It wasn't topical,
it wasn't political, and it wasn't the culture of that time. It was
just something that everybody could identify with and it combined the
best of a whole lot of different things. It had aspects of a variety
show because it had music, and that's very unusual for television. There
are a couple of exceptions like "Treme," but other
than that, if you watch music on television, it's pre-recorded, but
what you saw on "I Love Lucy" was a live performance.
It also had vaudeville and dramatic aspects.
How did your dad get attached to the show?
Gregg: He came up with the premise for the show. In
1948, he was writing Fanny Brice's radio show "Baby
Snooks." Brice got into an argument with the network
over the lowering of her salary because they were decreasing radio budgets
and increasing television budgets. So they wanted her to take a slight
cut in her salary, which she wouldn't do so she walked off the show
and all of a sudden, my dad was out of a job. He wrote a couple of free-lance
things and then Harry Ackerman at CBS called him and said
we have this new show for Lucille Ball and asked if he would
write a script for them because "The Adventures Ozzie &
Harriet" writers were writing it but at the end of the summer,
they would have to go back to Ozzie and Harriet. He said sure
and wrote a script and changed Lucy's character from a socialite, bank
president's wife to a grown woman in a little girl's body. She basically
became Baby Snooks and I think that's part of the reason why
"I Love Lucy" stays so popular because a lot of people
discovered it when they were kids and a lot of kids can identify with
Lucy because she's basically playing a kid.
Lucille Ball with Gregg Oppenheimer and his sister
Photo Courtesy Gregg Oppenheimer
What was life like growing up with this incredibly
Gregg: Well, during the 50s, I was very young
but everything seemed normal to me. As a five-year-old, I wasn't hanging
around the set a lot but even if I did, I didn't appreciate how famous
he was. I was very excited to be allowed there at all. I couldn't read
but I knew the tickets to the show said "No children under 12 allowed."
My dad would have a show and then we'd have a viewing party and people
would come over to watch. It was a lot of fun reading my dad's name
in the paper and in the trades and I grew up reading the trades and
What kind of dad was he?
Gregg: He was a wonderful dad. He didn't go to Hollywood
parties and didn't pal around with movie stars. There were some actors
he was friendly with like Hans Conried and his family and Carl
Reiner and his family. They were close friends but, for the most
part, our friends were people who lived in our neighborhood and not
people in the industry.
Gregg Oppenheimer worked on "The Debbie
Reynolds Show" before heading back to college. Courtesy
What drew you back to your dad's world?
Gregg: I was always drawn to it. I loved hanging around
my dad at the studio or watching film and learning about it. When I
graduated from high school, my dad was doing "The Debbie Reynolds
Show" at MGM. I had six months before I headed off to
college so I asked my dad if I could get a job at MGM and he
said no. He didn't believe in nepotism, but said I could hang out there.
Now Sony had just come out with the first home videotape machine,
which cost several thousand dollars and Pali High (Palisades)
had bought one to tape all the sporting events and since I was the manager
of the gymnastics team, I learned how to use it. They had decided to
videotape the rehearsals of Debbie's show and the guy, who was
supposed to do it, didn't show up the first day, so I did it. At the
end of the day, the production manager asked me if I wanted a job and
I said you have to ask my dad and it was ok with him because he had
nothing to do with me getting the job. So, I worked on the "The
Debbie Reynolds Show" and loved hearing stories from actors
waiting for their scenes such as Tom Bosley, Al Molinaro,
and Debbie Reynolds, all of whom had great stories.
Young Jess participated
in a gifted child program the results of which said he had
no visible sense of humor. Courtesy photo
Beside his extraordinary success, what did you
admire about your dad?
Gregg: It had to do with his success. He was a really
an intelligent guy and was always learning about lots of things. I was
very close to him. We use to finish each other's sentences. I really
admire people who can make people laugh. It's something people need
and he liked nothing more than to tell someone a funny story and he
was a very good storyteller.
Was he born with his wonderful gift?
Gregg: I don't know because he was not a popular kid
and had a very unhappy childhood. He didn't do all that well in school
because he had an eye problem he saw double and didn't realize
that he saw double. So, he had problems with concentration, reading,
and attention span, which wasn't diagnosed until he was in the service
during World War II. The ironic thing was that it wasn't until
I was a sophomore at MIT that I realized I had the same problem.
I was seeing double and thought that was normal. So I got glasses and
became a Visual Studies major in the School of Architecture.
Lucille Ball with Jess Oppenheimer who based her
Lucy character on "Baby Snooks," a teenager always getting
into some kind of mischief. Photo Courtesy Gregg Oppenheimer
What was his philosophy on comedy writing?
Gregg: He said in order to be a comedy writer, you had
to be seriously maladjusted as a child. (Laughs) He wasn't
raised Jewish but his mother said if anybody asks, tell them
you're Jewish and proud of it. That got him beat up a lot but
he learned that if he could make people laugh, they would accept him
and invite him places. I think that's how a lot of people got into the
comedy business. When he was in elementary school, he was selected for
a gifted child study and people who interviewed him noted that he seemed
to have no visible sense of humor so it must have come later.
Jess Oppenheimer, creator of the "I Love
Lucy" television series, with the Queen of Comedy, Lucille
Ball. Courtesy photo
What was the best advice he ever gave you?
Gregg: My dad really wasn't one to dispense a lot of
advice. Instead, I learned from him through his example his integrity
and the way he treated people with respect and kindness. He had a reputation
as one of the nicest guys in Hollywood. One thing we did talk
about, though, was his views on comedy writing, even if he didn't view
it at the time as "advice" because he never expected me to
go into the business. The best comedy-writing tip he gave me was never
to have a character do or say something just to be funny. Unless it's
true to the character something that the character would logically
and believably do or say in that situation you may get a laugh,
but it will destroy the reality of the situation and remind the viewer
that he's just watching actors perform, which is the last thing you
want to do. "Going for the laugh" at the expense of character
or story is something they never did on " I Love Lucy."
In Part 2, Gregg talks about keeping his father's
legacy alive as well as some of his own creative talents.