To my amazement, I recently learned that “Vitameatavegamin” was written by a sister-writer from Indiana. I’m a writer who has lived my entire life in the Hoosier state, and I was weaned on I Love Lucy reruns. I know every episode starring Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo. I have dressed as Lucy for Halloween carrying a medicine bottle and spoon to recreate the episode where the legendary red head acted in a TV commercial for the mock health tonic Vitameatavegamin. I asked, “Do you poop out at parties?”
Yet it was just a short time ago that I learned of the clever, trailblazing woman from Indianapolis who co-wrote the scripts and slapstick details of every crazy tight spot Lucy connived: Lucy got her foot stuck in a bucket of cement, stomped grapes with her bare feet, stuffed freshly-dipped chocolates under her hat and set her colossal fake nose afire (a disguise gone awry). I tip my synthetic red wig to writer Madelyn Pugh Davis.
The road to Los Angeles where Davis met up with her co-writer Bob Carroll Jr. and formed a 50-year partnership in scripting TV comedy began at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis. Davis wrote of her journey in her memoir entitled Laughing with Lucy: My Life with America’s Leading Lady of Comedy published in 2005.
When Davis was twelve, she was asked by a friend’s mother what she wanted to be when she grew up. Davis announced that she was going to be a writer. She wrote poetry in elementary school and, at age 10, wrote her first play, Frenchy’s Weakness, performed in her living room. The friend’s mother said, “But don’t you want to be married?” Davis said, “Yes, I do.” “Well, which one is it going to be?” the mother replied. This was 1933, and women were expected to make a choice between career and marriage. Davis said, “I’m going to do both.” And she did.
When she was about to start high school, Davis’s mother bought her a second-hand typewriter and said, “Make something of yourself.”
Shortridge High School offered many writing opportunities. Davis was editor of The Echo, one of the first high-school daily newspapers in the country. Several notable people of letters graduated from Shortridge: Louise Wilde O’Flaherty, author of historical fiction and gothic novels; Beurt SerVaas, owner of The Saturday Evening Post; and Kurt Vonnegut, whom Davis said “became Kurt Vonnegut.”
Davis graduated with a degree in journalism from Indiana University in 1942. World War II began during her senior year, and she decided she wanted to be a foreign correspondent. Davis wrote, “Somebody pointed out that there were very few women foreign correspondents, but there were very few women anything, so it didn’t bother me.”
Actually, the war opened doors for Davis to be a writer. After attempting, unsuccessfully, to land a job as a journalist at a newspaper, she was hired as a writer for WIRE Radio in Indianapolis because the man who had held the position joined the Navy. Later, Davis was hired as a staff writer at CBS Hollywood to take the place of another male writer who had been drafted. Davis was a “Rosie the Riveter” of the writing world. Her official title was “Girl Writer.”
At WIRE, Davis wrote a little bit of everything: commercials and patter for disc jockeys. After a year at her job, Davis and her mother (Her father had died when she was a senior in college.) moved to Los Angeles to live near her sister. When she left WIRE, the station owner, Eugene Pullman (whose grandson turned out to be Vice President Dan Quayle) gave Davis letters of introduction to CBS, ABC and NBC. Being young and green, Davis thought everyone received such letters of introduction to West Coast executive vice presidents of all three radio networks.
Davis worked at NBC for six months, then walked down the street to CBS who had a large staff of writers. Davis was the second woman writer to be hired at CBS. The first was Kathleen Hite who later wrote hundreds of scripts for Gunsmoke, The Waltons and Falcon Crest. Regarding the shortage of male personnel during this time, Davis wrote, “No one actually wanted to hire women in 1944, but what else was there? … there was some theory going around that women were just filling in until all the men came home from the war and then things would go back like they used to be. Surprise!”
Three years later, Bob Carroll Jr. was also working at NBC, and he and Davis were put together to write a radio show called The Couple Next Door about some newlyweds. Next they were assigned to a Pacific Network show called It’s a Great Life starring a new young comic, Steve Allen. But the team of Davis (Pugh back then) and Carroll wanted to write for a network, big-time, coast-to-coast radio show. They set their sights on CBS’s My Favorite Husband, starring Lucille Ball.
And that is when the “Girl Writer” began writing comedy gold for America’s beloved Lucy.
Stay tuned! Angie Klink’s blog about Madelyn Pugh Davis will continue soon. In the interval, watch Lucy’s “Vitameatavegamin” episode on YouTube.
Pugh Davis, Madelyn, with Bob Carroll Jr., Laughing with Lucy: My Life with America’s Leading Lady of Comedy (Cincinnati: Emmis Books, 2005)
Gilbert, Tom, “The Woman Behind Lucy’s Laughs,” The New York Times, 5 Aug. 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/07/arts/television/madelyn-pugh-davis-the-woman-behind-lucys-laughs.html. Accessed 5 Jan. 2017.
Hievesi, Dennis, “Madelyn Pugh Davis, Writer for ‘I Love Lucy,’ Dies at 90,” The New York Times, 21 April 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/22/arts/television/madelyn-pugh-davis-writer-for-i-love-lucy-dies-at-90.html. Accessed 5 Jan. 2017.