Gregg Oppenheimer --
Restoring the Legacy
Thomas Wolfe warns, "You can't go home again," but do not say that to Gregg Oppenheimer, who has found great satisfaction in recent years by returning to his roots. Gregg -- the son of I Love Lucy creator- writer- producer Jess Oppenheimer -- spends much of his time producing the new I Love Lucy DVD series from Columbia House. In 1995, Gregg finished his father's memoirs, "Laughs, Luck and Lucy" (published in 1996 by Syracuse University Press); in 1998, for our Loving Lucy Convention, he produced and directed a live recreation of two of his father's My Favorite Husband radio programs. A year later, he launched his www.lucylibrary.com web site.
Somehow, working on Lucy projects comes naturally to Oppenheimer, who was born March 8, 1951 -- six days (almost to the hour) after his father produced the pilot for I Love Lucy. The show and child thrived, but it was not until Thanksgiving Week in 1955 that by-then 4 year old Gregg actually met the redhead. Desilu was filming the "Staten Island Ferry" episode when Gregg visited backstage (photo, right). "Where did you get those big brown eyes?" Lucy asked the youngster. "They came with the face," he fired back without missing a beat. Lucy roared with laughter.
Although Jess left the Lucy series a few months later, he always considered the five years he devoted to the show to be his finest work.
In 1969, Gregg, fresh out of high school, spent a few weeks as a rehearsal cameraman on his father's Debbie Reynolds Show -- then headed east to M.I.T., from which he received a degree in Art and Design. He did his graduate work at the Boalt Hall School of Law at University of California - Berkeley, and later became a partner in the international law firm of O'Melveny & Myers.
Jess, meanwhile, semi-retired from show business and was beseiged by family and friends to write his memoires. He made a mountain of notes, and in 1985 started the manuscript that would become "Laughs, Luck and Lucy." Sadly, the man died in 1988, leaving the book unfinished. Armed with the half-written manuscript, his father's notes, and a three-hour audio tape of a very detailed interview his father had given in 1961, Gregg left his law practice and spent a year finishing the book. The experience proved very therapeutic.
"Writing the book allowed me to get past the grief of losing him," Gregg explains. "To write it correctly, I had to step into his shoes, and write it from his point of view. That may seem odd, but all the stories he had told me over the years, I heard them in his voice... I did the book for my family, especially for my daughter, Julie, who was only two when he died."
"Laughs, Luck...and Lucy" later appeared in an audio-cassette format, which won the "Best Pop Culture Audiobook" award from Publishers Weekly.
Gregg's 1998 recreation of My Favorite Husband, billed as "Lucy's First Sitcom: A 50th Anniversary Reunion," was another labor of love. "My dream has always been to go in a time machine back to the '40s and '50s because I just love that Hollywood era," admits Gregg. "So I did the next best thing. I gathered together all the surviving cast members of I Love Lucy and produced and directed this production." Veterans who participated included Doris Singleton, Shirley Mitchell, Janet Waldo, Peggy Rea, Larry Dobkin and Roz and Marilyn Borden. Suzanne LaRusch starred in Lucille Ball's role (Liz Cooper), and Dwayne Hickman (TV's Dobie Gillis) played husband George.
Rehearsal photos: (top left) Suzanne LaRusch and Dwayne Hickman recreate Liz and
George Cooper; (right) Gregg confers with Doris Singleton; Peggy Rae awaits her cue.
(Bottom left) Suzanne cavorts with the Borden Sisters; (right) Doris poses with copy of
show poster signed by entire cast.
Proceeds from most of Gregg's activites the past few years have gone to his favorite charity, the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. Very moved by Ms. Glaser's book, "In the Absence of Angels," Gregg and his wife Debbie started raising funds for the organization in the mid-1990s. In 1997 they donated a cast-signed I Love Lucy script to the auction at our Loving Lucy convention. It sold for over $6,000 -- all of which went to the Foundation. The 1998 radio recreations brought in over $40,000 more. All sales from www.lucylibrary.com result in a percentage of the sales price going to the Foundation.
Gregg's association with the Columbia House I Love Lucy DVD series started in 2000, when the mail-order firm first decided to issue the comedy series in the digital format. The first five "test discs" sold so well that Columbia House quickly committed to releasing the entire series on DVD. Each disc includes pristine new prints of each show -- struck from original 35mm negatives whenever possible -- plus interesting audio and video 'bonus' materials. Included in the latter are long-lost "flashback" scenes originally used to introduce repeats when the show was still in prime-time on CBS.
"Our goal," he says, "is to restore these shows to the way my dad and the other creative people at Desilu originally intended for them to be seen. Film does not last forever. Hopefully restoring and preserving as much as we can now on DVD will ensure that future generations will be able to enjoy I Love Lucy for years to come."
For more information about Gregg,
visit his web site at:
Source materials include "Loving Lucy,"
by Dann Dulin, A & U magazine, January, 2001.
Color photo top and b&w photo of Gregg at home,
by Tim Courtney for A&U.
Fan Clubs, Etc.
Original material © 2003 Lucyfan Enterprises.
I Love Lucy is copyrighted by and a registered trademark of CBS Worldwide, Inc.
Images of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz used by permission of Desilu, too, LLC.
Licensing by Unforgettable Licensing, Northbrook, Illinois.