Little Ricky: Grown up But still sharing the love
It's 9 p.m. on a Monday night in 1953.
The Marshall Fields department store in Chicago is locked early. Taxi drivers in New York disappear into bars to catch a glimpse of Lucy, Ricky, Ethel and Fred.
Telephone calls halt as families gather in front of their television sets for the latest episode of 'I Love Lucy.'
The CBS program - named by TV Guide as the most important television series of all time - changed the Monday-night habits of Americans. And to this day it is aired on TV somewhere in the world every moment of every day.
So why have the 181 episodes been viewed by more than a billion people?
'The simple answer is that it's funny,' said Joe Mayer, who played Ricky Ricardo, Jr. - 'Little Ricky' - along with his twin brother Mike Mayer in seasons three, four and five.
Now a computer analyst with Portland General Electric, Mayer resides near the Westlake neighborhood in Lake Oswego and talks fondly of the 'escapades' that Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz undertook with him and his brother at their sides.
Mayer often keeps photos of him and Ball in his front pocket and doesn't mind giving an autograph to people he meets on the bus, while visiting rest homes or while at his office at the World Trade Center in Portland.
'It's not about me. It's about a great show,' Mayer said, who has a blended family of 10 kids and 19, soon-to-be, 20 grandchildren.
Mayer smiles when talking about the zany redhead and her husband who took the small screen by storm.
But Mayer said the only preparation he and his brother needed for the show was to stop crying during takes and make sure their hair photographed dark - like Arnaz's Cuban locks.
The stint filming the show in California was nothing like training to become an Oscar-winning actor.
'This was the opposite. We didn't have to do anything. We didn't have any speaking parts. Lucy and Desi were probably more popular in their time than The Beatles when I was growing up,' Mayer said. 'Yes, we were probably the most-watched babies in the world but … now it's more of a trivial thing.'
Over the course of the show, Little Ricky was portrayed by five kids: Twins Richard and Ronald Lee Simmons as infants, then the Mayer twins as toddlers and later Keith Thibodeaux- known for his bongo drumming and the only one to have a speaking part.
When producers were looking for a new set of twins to portray Little Ricky growing up, they called upon the Mayer twins after seeing their picture in a local newspaper. Wearing 99-cent Seersucker sun suits, the 18-month-old Mayers beat out kids in tuxedos with agents.
'We just looked like kids,' Mayer said.
Ball and Arnaz portrayed Lucy and Ricky Ricardo on the television show, a married couple living in a New York apartment they rented from their landlords - and kooky best friends - Fred and Ethel Mertz, played by William Fawley and Vivian Vance. The show's run followed Ricky - a popular Cuban band leader - and his spotlight-hungry housewife who would go to great lengths to earn his attention.
When Ball became pregnant with her second child - Ricky Jr. - her baby bump had to be written into the script. But, a pregnant woman had never been showed on television before, said Patricia Brininger, the director of marketing at The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center in New York. And the word pregnant wasn't acceptable for TV so Ricky said, 'Lucy's expecting.'
'They decided to be proactive about it. Every one of those scripts was reviewed by a rabbi, a minister and a Catholic priest,' Brininger said.
Since Ball was delivering her second child via a planned cesarean, she timed the birth of her real-life son with the birth of his television counterpart. And on Jan. 19, 1953, 40 million Americans tuned in to 'I Love Lucy' to watch the addition of Little Ricky.
'More people watched the birth of Little Ricky than the Eisenhower inauguration the next night,' Mayer said.
Mayer appeared in the episode where Ricky tells him the Little Red Riding Hood story before bedtime - speaking in Spanish and English. When Mayer didn't cry they knew they got the take.
'My mom said the crew clapped and that I was standing in the crib smiling and thought they were clapping at me,' Mayer said.
Mike Mayer - now a special education teacher in North Hollywood, Calif. - said his scene alongside John Wayne getting his footprints cast in 'cement' led to bribery on set from Ball.
'My job was to crawl through the oatmeal,' Mike Mayer said of the fake cement substance. 'I had just gotten new red shoes and I didn't want to get them dirty so Lucy promised that she'd buy me a pair of new red shoes if I'd crawl through.'
Ball was always concerned about the kids on set, Mayer said. One time, she scolded the Mayer's mother, Eva June, for slipping the kids M and Ms to keep them quiet.
'(Lucy) wanted to know why we weren't comfortable,' Mayer said.
At 4-½ years old, the Mayers became regular kids again. If they signed a new contract to continue working on the show, they would have missed out on school and learned from a private tutor.
'My mom thought, 'eh, there haven't been that many happy child actors,'' Mayer said. 'Neither of us have gone to drug rehab.'
Preserving family legacies
Mayer said that although he was too young to remember the filmings, he is proud to be a part of a television show that still translates across borders. The comedy is timeless, Brininger and Mayer agreed, because it didn't tie in to political issues or popular culture.
And the show represents the advances in the television industry that Arnaz pioneered.
'Lucy and Desi were both very good business people,' Mayer said.
'I Love Lucy' was the first show to be filmed before a live audience with three cameras, show an interracial couple and reach 10 million homes.
Arnaz also can 'really be credited with creating re-runs,' said Brininger.
Because the show is still on TV, Mayer said people wonder if he gets residuals.
'No. There wasn't such a thing back then,' he said.
Thanks to Arnaz's efforts, 'I Love Lucy' was preserved for generations to watch. And Mayer's love of TV's Ricardo family often provides a nice interlude to remind people to track their own family history. Mayer is the president of the Jewish Genealogical Society, an organization dedicated to aiding research efforts.
'Video cameras are relatively inexpensive now. Get the relatives together and start asking them questions. That is probably the best thing you can do,' said Mayer who - along with his wife, Ruth - uses records at the Family History Center operated by volunteers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, located across from Lakeridge High School.
A trail of laughter
Nearly everybody he meets smiles upon hearing Lucille Ball's name.
When Mayer's son, David Mayer, 24, met his wife he noticed her 'I Love Lucy' fridge magnets.
'You never know who's a Lucy fan,' David Mayer said. 'It could be the girl you're dating or some biker that just passed you on his Harley.'
Once Mayer met a woman in a wheelchair who said that one of the things that helped her cope for years in hospitals was watching an 'I Love Lucy' re-run each day. The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center holds legacy of laughter seminars highlighting the positive mental and physical health benefits laughter provides.
'We all need a release from the stress and tension life brings us,' he said. 'If laughter and comedy is an antidote, certainly 'I Love Lucy' has had a beneficial health effect on the world.'
Although Mayer shared screen time as a famous toddler, he said Lucy is his favorite character on the show.
'Lucy makes her comedy look as effortless as Dr. Seuss did with his rhymes,' he said. 'Like the candy factory and big loaf of bread that comes out of the oven. It's still great.'
Visit Joseph and Michael Mayer's Web site at www.mayermoos.org/LUCYSHOW.html . Visit The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center Web site at www.lucy-desi.com/.