Saturday, April 20, 2013

What a Friend We Have in Ethel

Mrs. Trumbull (Elizabeth Patterson): (reading the lease) 'It is expressly understood that at no time will children be allowed to live in said building.'

Ethel (Vivian Vance): Little Ricky!

Lucy (Lucille Ball): He's a children!

In fact, the episode of I Love Lucy in which Little Ricky was born had been broadcast about three months before the episode "No Children Allowed" was first aired 60 years ago tonight.

If you have ever had children — or if you have merely known people who had children — you know how chaotic and just downright noisy the adjustment to an infant in the household can be.

And, in an apartment building, it is virtually impossible to keep such a development a secret.

I know that from firsthand experience. I have lived in apartments all my adult life, and I have always been aware when there were newborns in other apartments — even if those apartments were not next door to my own.

Consequently, it was just a little implausible that a fellow tenant would not have said something for three months — until Lucy had a particularly difficult night with Little Ricky.

It seemed the neighbor, Mrs. Trumbull (played by Elizabeth Patterson), had just discovered the child's presence. Mrs. Trumbull complained that Little Ricky's presence was a clear violation of the lease agreement. That always struck me as hard to accept. I mean, Mrs. Trumbull obviously was familiar with the terms of the lease. She knew what it said about children. And the audience was supposed to believe she raised no objection earlier? She didn't notice Lucy's belly swelling during her pregnancy? Come on!

Mrs. Trumbull threatened Ethel. If the Ricardos weren't evicted, she said, she and all the other tenants would leave. Even as a child, when I saw the episode for the first time, I was skeptical about that. I had neither seen nor heard anything that suggested Mrs. Trumbull had spoken to any of the other tenants, and I thought her threat was probably a lot of hot air.

Well, despite flaws in the story, "No Children Allowed" was a great character study, as the episodes in I Love Lucy often were. I'm sure they have inspired characters and story ideas for other TV shows.

There was the grumpy, sourpuss neighbor, of course — the antagonist. And there was the chagrined Lucy, who wanted only to care for her child and keep peace among the tenants.

And then there was Ethel (Vivian Vance).

Ethel was Lucy's friend as well as landlord, and she stood up to Mrs. Trumbull. She rushed to Lucy's defense, proclaiming that her friends meant more to her than any lease, and Lucy was suitably impressed. It was truly a noble moment.

The trouble was that Ethel wasn't content with that. She wanted everyone to know what she had done, and she began repeating the same story countless times.

And, as grateful as Lucy was for Ethel's support, the whole thing began to wear on her. When Ricky first heard Ethel's tale, he could not contain his gratitude and admiration for what she had done.

"Wasn't Ethel wonderful?" he asked Lucy — and was amazed when she showed no enthusiasm.

"You don't sound very appreciative," he said, and Lucy protested that she was.

"I'm up to here with appreciation," she replied, holding one hand just below her chin, and she recited for Ricky the many times Ethel had repeated the story. "Ethel acts as if she discovered penicillin!"

Lucy tried to keep her distaste to herself, but finally she could take it no more and began reciting the story with Ethel — who was, of course, offended.

"You don't care how many tenants I lose," Ethel retorted, "but you get awfully excited if I tell a couple of people about it!"

"A couple of people?" Lucy asked incredulously. "Ethel, that scene has had more performances than South Pacific."

Patterson made her first — but far from last — appearance as Mrs. Trumbull in that episode. When the Ricardos and Mertzes got into a fight over Ethel's good deed — prompting Mrs. Trumbull to come to the rescue of the distraught baby — a recurring character was born.

Patterson was nearly 80 when "No Children Allowed" was first shown, but it was her second appearance on I Love Lucy. During the first season of the series, she played the wife of the justice of the peace who re–married the Ricardos in what, I am sure, she regarded as a one–time–only thing.

Her appearance as Mrs. Trumbull started a three–year run for her on I Love Lucy. Admittedly, in those days, there were fewer choices on TV so ratings tended to be higher.

Still, for the entirety of its run, I Love Lucy ranked in the top three television shows.

Talk about a great career break.