When Fred Silverman announced he'd signed Lucille Ball to an NBC contract, it looked like a true show biz coup -- one staged, however, a mere quarter of a century too late.
And so the competition can stop shaking in its Guccis over Ball's first special, "Lucy Moves to NBC," at 8:30 tonight on Channel 4. Even as a barbarous exercise in arthritic pathos, the program is stupendously bereft of fun.
Like every appearance Ball has made in recent years -- including her starring role in the movie bomb "Mame" -- this one is presented as a testimonial hug-in for her, though it also resembles a tour of the Palm Springs wax museum.
"The first third of the program consists of paraded encomiums on Ball's behalf, which is a little embarrassing considering this is "A Lucille Ball Production" for which Ball served as executive producer and her husband, Gary Morton, executive in charge of the production.
Obligingly enough, writers Hal Kanter, Bob O'Brien and Paul Pumpian supply the guest stars and character actors with unwieldy palm leaves to be stretched out before "the first lady of television." If Lucille Ball is still the first lady of television, then there are crowds in Tehran shouting "Hail to the shah" and Checkers is alive.
"An actor playing Silverman -- not as a portly gray eminence but as a curiously perky young sprout, as if that's what the public thinks -- oozes such praises as "I'm satisfied just to be in the same room with you, Miss Ball," and this choice mouthful of daft malarky:
"There is nobody in the entire spectrum of entertainment who has provided more comedy to more people for more years than you . . . I'm here to coax you out of your self-imposed exile from the public and help you bring a smile to the faces of all those millions."
After that, stars like Johnny Carson, Gary Coleman, Jack Klugman and Bob Hope drop by Lucy's "office" in Burbank to express fealty and deference, with only Carson and Coleman escaping the scene of the accident unscathed. Hope has one nice moment which he stops before leaving the room to listen for more applause.
Then the program turns into the alleged situation comedy Ball has developed for NBC, with those two hot young stars Donald O'Connor and Gloria De Haven as proprietors of a music store, like the subplot that was thrown out of "Mork and Mindy" because it lacked possiblities.
Ball is shot through enough gauze to make a parachute and at a distance befitting royalty, which she clearly thinks herself to be. The program looks as though it was produced by people who hadn't seen television in 20 years, which might be advantageous except that they've merely aped an outdated mediocrity rather than a contemporary one.
"The public is fed up with computers deciding what they're going to see," Ball says at one point. "Lucy Moves to NBC" is the best friend those computers ever had.