Claim: Television comedienne Lucille Ball claimed radio transmissions picked up on her fillings led to the capture of Japanese spies.
Origins: A familiar plot employed in numerous
television sitcom episodes is the plight of the hapless character who, having recently undergone some dental work (such as the installation of fillings or braces), begins to pick up radio broadcasts through his teeth. What would you say to a plot that involved a character whose reception of strange radio transmissions through her fillings led to the capture of a Japanese spy during World
War II, with the incident later being incorporated into a Broadway musical? Sounds too wacky even for an episode of Gilligan's Island? It's been reported as a true story, once which allegedly happened to one of the biggest stars in TV sitcom history: Lucille Ball.
As Lucy tells the story, the events took place in 1942, when she was filming Du Barry Was a Lady with Red Skelton at MGM, during the early days of American involvement in World War II, when residents along the Pacific coast of California lived in dread fear of an imminent attack by the Japanese (especially after a Japanese submarine appeared off the coast of Santa Barbara on February 23). Lucy had recently had several temporary lead fillings installed in her teeth, and when she drove home from MGM to the ranch she and Desi owned in the San Fernando Valley late one evening, this is what she reported:
One night I came into the Valley over Coldwater Canyon, and I heard music. I reached down to turn the radio off, and it wasn't on. The music kept getting louder and louder, and then I realized it was coming from my mouth. I even recognized the tune. My mouth was humming and thumping with the drumbeat, and I thought I was losing my mind. I thought, What the hell is this? Then it started to subside. I got home and went to bed, not sure if I should tell anybody what had happened because they would think I was crazy.
When she supposedly recounted the story to actor Buster Keaton at the studio the next day, he laughingly told her that she was picking up radio broadcasts through her fillings, and that the same thing had happened to a friend of his. Nothing more happened for about a week, until the evening Lucy took a different route home from MGM:
All of a sudden, my mouth started jumping. It wasn't music this time, it was Morse code. It started softly, and then de-de-de-de-de-de. As soon as it started fading, I stopped the car and then started backing up until it was coming in full strength. DE-DE-DE-DE-DE-DE DE-DE-DE-DE! I tell you, I got the hell out of there real quick. The next day I told the MGM Security Office about it, and they called the FBI or something, and sure enough, they found an underground Japanese radio station. It was somebody's gardener, but sure enough, they were spies.
It would be odd for Lucy to have invented a story about picking up radio signals via her fillings; she was too honest and had plenty of genuine anecdotes of her own to tell. Still, the tale is pretty implausible, and documentation about the discovery and arrest of Japanese
spies in California in 1942 is curiously lacking. (It's also unlikely that "Japanese spies" would have been transmitting in Morse code, that the signals would have been received through dental work, or that Lucy could have recognized whatever she was picking up on her fillings as such if they were.)
Did Lucy really invent and spread this legend? According to Lucy in the Afternoon author Jim Brochu, Lucy mentioned the story to Ethel Merman back in 1942, and Merman had it worked into the Cole Porter musical she starred in several months later, 1943's Something for the Boys. Lucy's relatives claimed that Brochu made up the tale to spice up his 1990 memoirs of afternoons spent in the company of the famous redhead, but the story had already been published a year earlier in the book Flappers, Bootleggers, 'Typhoid Mary' and the Bomb. Whether this account was an invention of Lucille Ball's or something attributed to her by someone else remains undetermined.
Last updated: 5 August 2007
Boardman, Barrington. Flappers, Bootleggers, 'Typhoid Mary' and the Bomb.
New York: Harper & Row, 1989.
Brochu, Jim. Lucy in the Afternoon.
New York: William Morrow, 1990. ISBN 0-688-08646-2 (pp. 89-91).