We all love Lucy, but what about Bob?
By ADRIENNE SAMUELS
Published May 6, 2005
Who could forget that episode, the one when Lucy and Ethel get hired to wrap chocolates on an assembly line at Kramer's Kandy Kitchen?
It's classic I Love Lucy. No. 36: "Job Switching."
Still don't remember?
Sometime Floridian Bob Carroll Jr., who wrote the show, could 'splain.
Ricky Ricardo is exasperated with wife Lucy's inability to hold on to cash. So Lucy and her friend Ethel Mertz get a job at a chocolate factory while their men stay home to clean house.
Things would've ended fine if the boss hadn't sped up the tricky chocolate conveyor belt, leaving Lucy in a tizzy. Those chocolates had to go somewhere.
In a moment of quintessential slapstick, the bon-bons went into Lucy's mouth, her blouse, the floor . . .
And the nation laughed and laughed.
"The chocolate one was awfully good because Lucy was so good," said Carroll, one of the show's original writers. "The way she ate those candies, putting them in her blouse and her hat. She was so creative. She'd ad lib sometimes, but she always liked the material and liked to stick to it."
Carroll's place in TV history as a writer for a show that created the blueprint for future sitcoms is part of the reason he's returning to St. Petersburg today.
He has gotten plenty of awards along the way, including an Emmy, but never one from his junior college alma mater.
St. Petersburg College plans to change that at a fancy dinner where it will name Carroll its 2005 distinguished alum. In fact, SPC was indirectly involved when Carroll had a 1940 hip injury that led to his accidental foray into television.
At the time, Carroll studied French but stayed home to recover from surgery. He listened to now-defunct WSUN radio, which sponsored a script-writing contest. Carroll, then 21, penned a comedy about a man dealing with the good and evil sides of his conscience.
He won and collected his $10 prize while hobbling "dramatically" on crutches.
"A lucky little series of events"
Carroll wasn't born in Florida. He's a Pennsylvania baby whose parents moved to the Sunshine State for the 1920s land rush. At the time, Carroll was 3.
"My father was sort of but not really a con man, and he heard about real estate in Florida," Carroll said. "I don't think he was ever crooked, but he was crafty."
The family did well.
"You buy at 10 a.m. for $1,000 and sell for $2,000 at 2 in the afternoon," said Carroll.
They settled in St. Petersburg but left for California in 1928 in search of more cheap land. A few years later, they returned to St. Petersburg. By then, no one could tell Carroll anything about anything.
"There was a little ego thing there," he said. "When we moved back to Florida, I remember thinking, "You all don't know what a hotshot you've got here from California.' And I became a pretty good hotshot."
After winning the script contest, Carroll returned to California with his family. He thought he'd never work because of his continuing hip problems, but his brother-in-law came through with a CBS gig.
CBS made Carroll a front desk man. He got a kick out of requiring famous stars to sign in.
It was all, Carroll said, a "lucky little series of events."
He went from publicity to junior writing to senior writing, where he fleshed out scripts for a radio show called My Favorite Husband, starring then B-movie actor Lucille Ball.
He met his writing partner, Madelyn Davis, just before that show. When Ball went to TV, she took Carroll and Davis with her.
None of them knew they were making history.
"You never know when you're doing it that it's going anywhere," Carroll said. "It's a job. You have to be at work Monday if you want to be paid that week."
Episodes from everywhere
Davis, Carroll and producer-writer Jess Oppenheimer wrote a stunning 179 episodes of I Love Lucy in six seasons. This was so early in TV history that sweeps and reruns weren't part of network philosophy. A fresh show was needed every week.
"We worked a lot of weekends and a lot of nights," said Davis, who with Carroll's help is preparing for this fall's debut of the book Laughing With Lucy. "We didn't know any better. In radio you did 39 shows a season, so we wrote 39 shows for TV."
Carroll and Davis, who worked together for more than 50 years, got so hard up for material that they wrote bits of everyday life into the show. When Carroll and Davis went to a pizza parlor and saw a man twirling bread in the air, it became a script for Ball.
When they couldn't decide on which movie to see, that became a plot.
"We were always so desperate, we'd write down anything that happened to everybody at any given moment," said Carroll.
Things Carroll and Davis originally fretted over became nonissues as the show gained popularity. It seemed no one was bothered by a white housewife married to a Cuban bandleader. The public liked it when Lucy got pregnant. Most important, Ball never said no, and rewrites happened only if she really couldn't jump over that table.
"One of the great things about Lucy was, we'd say, "Do you mind working with an elephant?' and she'd say, "Well, is it funny?' " Davis said from her home in Los Angeles. "She didn't care messing up her hair and her clothes; for funny she'd do anything."
SPC has lots of alumni, including the guy who created the "Where's the beef" campaign for Wendy's, but none that can claim Carroll's place in TV history.
"We think he is probably one of our most distinguished alums," said Amelia Carey, executive director of SPC's Alumni Association. "He created a lot of joy and brought a lot of happiness to people everywhere through not only the I Love Lucy show, but for his other award-winning shows that he wrote or directed."
I Love Lucy broke ground because it was the first show of its kind when it premiered in October 1951.
"Since all that preceded for most viewers was radio, there was nothing like it," said Tim Brooks, vice president of research at Lifetime Television and author of a book about prime time TV.
Through it all, Carroll has received no royalties but has kept his sense of humor.
"Do you think I'd be sitting here if I'd had residuals?" Carroll asked. "I'd have flown you down to Cuba for this interview if I had."
-- Times researchers Kitty Bennett and Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
[Last modified May 5, 2005, 13:56:02]
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