Ralph Levy: Director Extraordinaire
Ralph Levy, TV pioneer and two-time Emmy winning director, is remembered by TV historians as the man who directed the original ‘I Love Lucy’ pilot in March, 1951 — which made his passing on the date of Lucy’s 50th Anniversary all the more poignant.
Born into a family of Philadelphia lawyers, Ralph was stage-struck from an early age. Bowing to family pressures, he earned a degree from Yale University, from which he was graduated just in time to serve in the Army during World War II.
Television was then in its embryonic development stage in New York City, and Levy landed a job of assistant director at CBS. Early assignments included covering sporting events such as boxing, basketball and professional football games. If nothing else, the apprenticeship allowed him to learn all about the cameras, lenses, lights and other new video technology. Ralph was never shy about his interest in musical comedy, and within a few months CBS gave him a chance to switch from sports to entertainment. They assigned him to work on the television edition of ‘Winner Take All’, a question-and-answer quiz program that had proven very popular on CBS Radio.
In early May of 1949, Ralph was asked to direct a variety show called The 54th Street Revue. Ralph managed to get the first of the shows on the air in only 4 days — an accomplishment that earned him both management’s attention and a reputation for working swiftly and efficiently.
That fall, CBS asked Levy to move to Los Angeles to direct a new variety series starring famed radio comedian Ed Wynn. If network TV in New York was just beginning, in Los Angeles it was virtually non-existent…
The Ed Wynn Show, Levy soon discovered, would be the first major network show on CBS to originate from Hollywood. It would be shown “live” on the West Coast every Thursday night at 9PM. A kinescope recording of the show would be made, sent to New York, and played for East Coast and Midwestern stations two weeks later. Such delays were necessary because the transcontinental cable was not yet in place that would allow for national live telecasts to originate on the West Coast.
The Ed Wynn Show premiered on October 6, 1949, and almost immediately ran into a talent booking problem. Big-name movie performers wanted nothing to do with the new video medium. Wynn started booking talent from the recording industry (Dinah Shore), old friends (Buster Keaton) and stars from network radio. In late December, Ed’s guests were Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.
“This was one of the first times I ever did anything on TV,” Lucy recalled later. “So frightening, but so wonderful. I’d never been in such a hurried, chaotic setting with these monstrous television cameras all over the stage and not enough rehearsal. But it was great fun.”
The script that night went out of its way to spotlight 32-year-old Desi, who appeared with Wynn and Ball in a comedy sketch, and even afforded him the opportunity to sing “Babalu.”
A few weeks later, CBS asked Lucy to consider transferring her radio series, ‘My Favorite Husband’, to TV. They wanted her — but did not know how her Latin husband would fit in.
Levy, meanwhile, had come to be the network’s fair-haired boy in Hollywood… In April, he expanded his duties to include directing the new Alan Young Show, a weekly half-hour comedy-variety skein starring the young Canadian who today is more remembered for his role ten years later in the sitcom Mr. Ed.
One of the most successful programs on CBS Radio that season was ‘You Bet Your Life’, starring the irrepressible Groucho Marx. The show’s sponsor, DeSoto-Plymouth Automobiles, was interested in adding a TV version — and both CBS and NBC wanted to carry it. Groucho later recalled, “You Bet Your Life shot up to Number 6 in the ratings. When both major networks — NBC and CBS — approached us about going on television, a bidding war started. Since we were already at CBS, it seemed likely we’d stay there. One of their star directors, Ralph Levy, helped us with the pilot show. When the dust settled, NBC was the high bidder. Levy stayed at CBS…”
The Ed Wynn Show ended its nine-month run on July 4, 1950, and Ralph headed to Mexico for a much-needed vacation. He had hardly unpacked when an emergency call came from Harry Ackerman, head of CBS’ Hollywood operations. “He asked me to come back the next day,” Ralph remembered later. “George Burns and Gracie Allen had agreed to go on television, and Harry wanted me at the first production meeting.” So much for Levy’s vacation…
A pilot was prepared and quickly sold to Carnation Milk Company, and ‘The George Burns – Gracie Allen Show’ was scheduled for a fall premiere. George was afraid to take on a weekly show all at once, particularly one that was to be done “live,” so CBS agreed to air it on an alternate-week basis. Complicating matters, especially for Ralph, was the fact that the network wanted to do the first 6 shows from New York. (The show could get better media coverage there, the network reasoned.) The cast and crew were sent to New York, and Ralph became bi-coastal for three months.
Making his life even more interesting was the fact that George Burns’ best friend, Jack Benny, was toying with the idea of getting into television himself. Naturally, he wanted Ralph to direct. But Benny was even more shy about TV than George and Gracie, and agreed to do only four half-hour specials that first 1950-51 season.
Lucy and Desi Arnaz, meanwhile, spent the summer of 1950 performing a comedy act in vaudeville theatres across the country, and by late fall had convinced CBS to let them try a new TV series together. Lucy’s radio writers — Jess Oppenheimer, Bob Carroll Jr., and Madelyn Pugh — went to work to create the format. Ralph Levy was asked to direct.
“I was anxious to direct Lucy’s pilot because I had worked with her on The Ed Wynn Show,” Levy recalled later. “I remember that the script called for Lucy to parade around the living room with a lamp shade on her head — trying to prove to Desi she could be a Ziegfeld Girl. I didn’t think she was walking the right way, so I showed her how it should be done — not knowing that she had been a showgirl for many years. Instead of telling me off, she simply played along with me. She was so professional and so good. She walked away with the whole show.”
The pilot was filmed on Friday evening, March 2, 1951 (Desi’s 34th birthday) in Studio A of CBS’ Columbia Square headquarters in Hollywood. It was the same stage used for the Wynn Show a year earlier. “There were only two sets,” Lucy recalled. “One was a living room and the other the nightclub where Desi worked. The show was shot live with a studio audience in attendance, as most TV shows were being done then. There was no tape yet. The images were recorded on film from a TV screen, providing us with the required kinescope.”
By the end of April the Lucy series, now titled ‘I Love Lucy’ had sold to CBS and Philip Morris — neither of which wanted the actual series to be done like the pilot (and the Wynn Show) via kinescope. The Arnazes balked at moving to the East to do the show live out of New York, so plans were set in motion to have the show filmed in Los Angeles using 35mm film. Levy, CBS’s first choice to direct, begged off: he knew he already had his hands full directing the Alan Young and Burns ‘n’ Allen series (plus the Jack Benny specials!). Levy also did several, live CBS ‘Playhouse 90’ presentations when his schedule allowed.
Interestingly, a year later, after ‘I Love Lucy’ proved a quality series could be done on film, Burns and Allen decided to do their shows on film, too (rather than “live”). Their company, McCadden Productions, moved onto the General Service Studio lot and became neighbors to Desilu and ‘I Love Lucy’. In 1953, Ralph retired from Burns ‘n’ Allen, and with The Alan Young Show ceasing production, he concentrated his energies on the now bi-weekly Jack Benny Program. He remained at Benny’s side another four seasons, then returned in 1959 to helm two hour long Benny specials. For these shows, he won his first Emmy Award.
Ralph won a second Emmy two years later for first Bob Newhart Show, a weekly half-hour of stand-up comedy and variety.
When filmed sitcoms became the order of the day, Levy adapted: he directed the pilots of ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ and ‘Green Acres’, and two seasons of ‘Petticoat Junction’, all for his friend Paul Henning, one of George Burns’ writers who had since become a successful producer. (Petticoat, reunited him with actress Bea Benederet, who had been a regular on the Burns show.) Ralph later attempted to do dramas, programs like ‘Hawaii Five-O’, and feature films, but somehow, his heart was not in these projects: he missed the live audiences that early television and the theater had provided. The thrill of “opening night” was missing.
Levy spent several years in England in the 1970s, working for BBC Television, and taught TV production classes at Cal State Northridge and Loyola Marymount University.
Reflecting back on the various stellar performers with which he had worked, Ralph once observed, Groucho really was grouchy, probably because he “suffered from an inferiority complex.” Wynn was cerebral; Allen was always prepared, funny and “a doll” to work with. Ball was a top-notch clown, hard worker and tough business-woman. Benny, he always said, was the best of all, “a marvelous man.”
As for the new breed of television comedies, he found many of the shows to be too loud and vulgar for his taste. Working on modern shows “was not the same as working with Ed Wynn, or George and Gracie, or Jack. These people were from another era of show business; one in which you took literally years to build your comedic character… It’s very different today. The Burns and Allen show and Jack’s show were essentially one-man operations. Nowadays there are literally dozens of people grouped around TV shows, and to get a comedy idea past them, you have to run a gauntlet. And in those days we were enjoying our work. It’s not fun anymore. One guy’s there saying, ‘You’re going overtime,’ another guy’s there saying, ‘You’re over budget,’ everybody’s tensed up and nervous. Oh, sure we had plenty of our own crises, but they were usually constructive ones, based on doing the best possible show we were capable of.”