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OUR 50-YEAR LOVE AFFAIR WITH LUCY MERCHANDISE BEARING SILLY REDHEAD'S FACE STILL POPULAR WITH NOSTALGIA BUFFS.

Byline: Brent Hopkins Staff Writer

Fifty years ago today, America fell in love with Lucy.

A half-century after iconic redhead Lucille Ball first graced the small screen, the Lucy name is still going strong. Reruns of ``I Love Lucy'' are ubiquitous, and anything bearing her likeness is a hot seller.

Bruce Bronn, who handles official licensing for Lucy and her gang through his firm, Unforgettable Enterprises, has seen the show's name attached to everything from license plates to Barbie dolls. Since Ball and Desi Arnaz's children began sanctioning merchandise through Unforgettable in 1995, the company has put more than 800 products on the market. And though he doesn't like to talk numbers, Bronn says Lucy's popularity is booming.

``It's huge,'' he said. ``With slot machines and candy and all that, it's definitely way into the seven figures a year in sales.''

Though Bronn limits the ways in which he licenses the show - he passed on proposals for ``I Love Lucy'' toilet paper and a bizarre duck sculpture featuring Lucy's head - the show, which aired on CBS from 1951 to 1957, offers thousands of marketing possibilities.

``She did so many crazy different episodes with themes,'' he said. ``You can keep using her for branding on so many different products, from vitamins to pizza.''

The personality that Ball and Arnaz, who had homes in Chatsworth and Encino, and co-stars William Frawley and Vivian Vance imbued into the program also makes it a hot commodity for marketers. According to Gregg Oppenheimer, historian and operator of LucyLibrary.com, the shows' distinctive moments are so ingrained within pop culture, they need no extra push to sell.

``If you have a doll of Lucy selling Vitameatavegemin, people see it and they smile,'' he said. ``Lucille Ball is one of the most well-known faces in history - even people who haven't seen the show know who she is. It's incredible power. All the good feeling she generated is mind-boggling, and that translates into today's merchandise.''

The franchise's unique character has made it successful in ways that other television franchises have been unable to attain. While there's no shortage of classic television merchandise, few have attained Lucy's ubiquity. Michael Taylor, who oversees the Lucy Tribute Museum as Universal Studios' general manager, attributes the series' marketability to Ball's own overpowering personality.

``It's all because of her,'' he said. ``She's got warmth, a personality we can all relate to and that impeccable timing. The general populace, regardless of generation, can completely relate to her more than any other character.''

Even in the '50s, the show was a marketing powerhouse. Its signature merchandise was everywhere, from baby accessories to furniture, and according to Oppenheimer, Arnaz restored the popularity of the smoking jacket. Though the show was sponsored by Philip Morris and found innovative ways to work its cigarettes into storylines, it was also successful at plugging Desilu merchandise.

``When she had the baby, they went crazy,'' said Oppenheimer, who grew up watching his father, Jess, write and produce the show. ``If you looked on the show, Little Ricky's crib has Lucy and Ricky stick figures on it. They always had accessories, and people went wild over her.''

Visitors to Universal Studios Hollywood's Lucy tribute museum said the show has never lost its freshness, a key to its continuing marketability.

Richard Brooks, a San Diego banker, has watched the show for virtually all of his 50 years.

``These shows have elements every generation understands,'' he said. ``There's no one who can come close to Lucille Ball. She was like Johnny Carson, with the intelligence and the pratfalls at the same time.''

The appeal spans both generation and geography alike.

``It was very American, but still very watchable for the English,'' said Neal Guthrie, a 40-something editor visiting the theme park museum from Coldchester, England. ``We occasionally have a sense of humor.''

The most common theme, offered by businessmen and fans alike, was the show's timeless innocence. What was good clean family fun in the '50s, Bronn said, still rings true today.

``Time stands still with Lucy,'' said Kim Dredge, an information systems trainer from Calgary. ``You're transported back with her, and it's comforting.''

CAPTION(S):

5 photos

Photo: (1 -- 4 -- color) This doll, far left, sold at the Lucy Shop at Universal Studios, depicts Lucy dressed as Brazilian bombshell Carmen Miranda. A continuously running video display at Universal Studios shows segments of various ``I Love Lucy'' episodes. From lunch boxes to license plate reproductions, above, America still loves Lucy - and Lucy merchandise.

(5) no caption (Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz)
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Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 15, 2001
Words:757
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