A familiar TV trope is the plight of the hapless character who, having recently undergone some dental work or suffered a blow to the head, begins to pick up radio broadcasts via his teeth. Many Americans are familiar with this concept as the plot of a classic episode of the sitcom “Gilligan’s Island,” in which Gilligan becomes a walking radio receiver after the Skipper accidentally pushes a crate into his jaw:
What would you say if presented with a similar plot that involved a character whose reception of strange radio transmissions through her fillings led to the capture of Japanese spies in California 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,” maybe? In fact, 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 told the story, it took place in 1942, when she was filming the movie Du Barry Was a Lady with Red Skelton at MGM, This was 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 had appeared off the coast of Santa Barbara in February of that year). 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 claimed took place:
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.
Here is the comedienne relating this anecdote to talk show host Dick Cavett in 1974:
But is this story true? That assessment hinges on two elements: Did Lucille Ball really pick up some type of radio transmission through her dental fillings, and did that event lead to the discovery and capture of Japanese spies operating an underground radio station?
As for the first element, whether dental fillings can really serve as radio receivers remains a subject of debate, with many anecdotal reports asserting that the phenomenon has in fact occurred. Objectively determining whether this specifically happened to Lucille Ball in 1942 is not possible, but for expediency’s sake we’ll note that a letter published in the The American Journal of Psychiatry in 1981 documented a case of a patient who received AM radio signals through metal shrapnel that remained in his skull after he suffered a combat wound:
Mr. A, a 35-year-old veteran, had a 9-year history of recurrent depression and headaches. Twelve years ago he sustained shrapnel wounds in his skull and shoulder during combat. When Mr. A was admitted to our service, he complained of hearing voices and music. The auditory phenomena were characterized by a perception of radio-like music and voices that often changed in rhythm. These ceased only when Mr. A was supine on the concrete floor of his metal-walled garage.
Mr. A stated that he heard the music mainly with his left ear and that it had a definite radio-like quality. One of us tested him by asking him to match his perceptions with various stations on the AM broadcast band. He consistently identified the same station (560 kHz) while the radio was tuned to various stations on the band regardless of the time of day or type of programming. When only the examiner listened to this station with an earphone, Mr. A was able to hum the music he was hearing, correctly identify pauses and changes in the programming, and could precisely tap out the beat of songs being broadcast. We informed him that we felt that he was receiving radio signals through his shrapnel implants.
There have been a few reports in the literature concerning radio reception through dental work. We propose that a mechanism for Mr. A’s reception of radio broadcasts involves the metal implants’ provision of diode rectification of the signal. Thus detection and demodulation are accomplished by these metals implanted in bone (much the same way as a crystal radio set operates). The audio is then transmitted by bone conduction to the auditory apparatus. The perception of the received signals may not be perfectly clear, as was the case with Mr. A, who could not convey to the examiner the specific content of news broadcasts.
The second element is much more problematic. Although World War II is perhaps the most voluminously documented event in human history, one searches in vain for any confirmation that Japanese spies operating an underground radio station were arrested in southern California in 1942. And although the FBI maintained an extensive file on Lucille Ball that ran some 156 pages (because she was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953 for having registered to vote as a Communist in the 1930s), no mention of the alleged Japanese spy incident appears in that file.
What to make of this? One possible explanation is that Ball (or someone else) made the whole thing up for publicity reasons, but that seems a rather unlikely explanation — Ball’s real life was plenty interesting without the need for her to pass off fabrications about it for publicity’s sake, much less to continue to do so long after she had achieved stardom.
We might focus on some other factors to try to sort this take out. One factor is that according to Lucy in the Afternoon author Jim Brochu, Lucy contemporaneously mentioned her experience to Ethel Merman, and Merman had it worked into the Cole Porter musical she starred in several months later, 1943’s Something for the Boys. One of the characters in Something for the Boys was indeed a female defense plant worker who picked up radio signals via the fillings in her teeth, so that information appears to document that this tale is something Ball spoke about at the time she claimed it happened.
Additionally, although Ball referenced the FBI in her account, she didn’t say that the FBI contacted or interviewed her, and as noted above, no reference to this subject appears in her FBI file — she spoke of the FBI’s involvement in the matter and the supposed arrest of Japanese spies as aspects she only heard about incidentally after the fact. It seems rather unlikely that the FBI would have made use of Ball’s information without at least talking to her first to ascertain what she heard and where she heard it.
We might surmise that Ball experienced a phenomenon which she perceived (correctly or not) to be the receipt of some form of radio signal or transmission through her fillings, and she reported her experience to MGM security. But perhaps MGM never actually relayed that information to the FBI, or perhaps they did and the latter didn’t follow through. Then sometime later, Ball — or someone else — heard a rumor (true or not) that Japanese spies operating a secret radio installation had been arrested in the area and assumed that rumor was connected to Ball’s experience.
Whatever the case may be, the available evidence behind this tale appears to be purely anecdotal and not verifiable at this point.