For television viewers of the fifties, Lucy and Ricky could have been familiar neighbors from down the street. People could relate to this young couple, the Ricardos, who were experiencing the trials and tribulations of marriage as typical Americans were. They lived in a modest brownstone in Manhattan with common worries such as paying the rent and affording new household commodities. The humor came when ordinary situations were exaggerated as Lucy managed to get herself into trouble time and time again, and proceeded to untangle herself from the mess. Ricky, her husband, would often discover - and thwart - her numerous schemes, and their best friends, Fred and Ethel Mertz, somehow managed to get involved as well. The zany redhead and the thick-accented Cuban were an oddly-matched pair, not only as a comedy team but as a married couple too. The combination of these factors yielded a television show that portrayed situations that average Americans could identify with.
Undoubtedly, Lucille Ball carried the show with her impeccable comedic timing and physical comedic abilities. She was not without support, however, as Desi Arnaz proved to possess so much more talent in the show than he was often given credit for. It was fate and a bit of luck that cast William Frawley and Vivian Vance in the colorful supporting roles of Fred and Ethel Mertz. After they were cast, it was discovered that both had musical and dancing talent from vaudeville, which opened doors in script-writing to incorporate these talents. The four co-stars had an innate ability to evoke laughter; behind the set a bulletin board listed the names of cast and crew with a series of gold stars next to each name. These represented the number of times funny, off-camera ad-libs were made (William Frawley always won.)
On Monday, October 15, 1951, I Love Lucy made its debut on the CBS television network, which then consisted of a few big stations and seventy-four local affiliates. There was solid competition on NBC in the same 9 p.m. time-slot from "Lights Out," a top ten television version of the original radio classic. Lucy, the critics predicted, didn't stand a chance. The first episode to air, preceded by the first of many Philip Morris cigarette commercials, was titled "The Girls Want to Go to a Nightclub."
After watching the first episode, the critics changed their tunes. TV Guide defined I Love Lucy as "the season's most popular program - smooth, deft, solidly produced, and funny." By May, an estimated 11,055,000 American families were tuned in to Lucy every Monday night, an astounding number considering that there were only 15,000,000 television sets in operation that year. On Friday, April 18, 1952, the Nielsen ratings declared that Lucy was then the number one show on television in America, reaching a record twenty-three million people, in nine-and-a-half million homes.
It is quite a surprise to learn that despite the talent behind the show and the unprecedented success it eventually achieved, few people had faith in its promise of success. Because of conservative and ethnic attitudes of the time, one of the greatest attributes of the show (and later of the entire television industry) Desi Arnaz, was a factor in almost preventing the show from getting its big break. The concept of the show was actually rooted in work Lucille Ball was doing in a successful radio show, "My Favorite Husband." CBS had asked Lucy to consider converting their radio show to television. After the debut and popularity of Milton Berle on television, the big networks were in the process of moving highly-rated radio shows to a television medium. Television was looking to incorporate big names but many movie stars felt it was beneath their stature to appear on television. Lucille Ball had a fairly successful movie career under her belt after a brief modeling career in her younger days, so it was a prime opportunity for her to accept the offer. She did, however, have one provision, which was to have Desi working by her side on the show-this she was adamant about. People warned the two that they were committing career suicide by giving up well-paid movie and band opportunities to take the television risk in order to work together.
The CBS network executives and the advertising agency men liked the idea of the show with Lucille Ball, but not with Desi Arnaz as the husband. Although American women married Cuban men in real life, it just did not happen on television. They tried to convince Lucille Ball that audiences would not believe that she and Desi would make a logical married couple on television. She insisted, "What do you mean nobody'll believe it? We are married!"
In April of 1950, with no support for the show as they wanted it, Lucy and Desi formed Desilu Productions and went out on the road with a vaudeville act involving a movie star who tries to join her bandleader husband's act. It was called "Desi Arnaz & Band with Lucille Ball." A review in Variety commented that it was "one of the best bills to play house in recent months.it's a rare day in June when film stars hit this vaudeville stage with proper material and this is a rare day... Lucille Ball and hubby, Desi Arnaz, have come up with funny quips and terrific burlesque situations, which, if the film comedienne wishes to continue, would make them one of the top vaudeville comedy teams."
Given evidence that an audience would accept the pair as a couple, the rave reviews the act received, and competition from a rival NBC that was interested in taking on the show, CBS finally agreed to a pilot starring Lucy and Desi. Jess Oppenheimer, Bob Carroll, and Madelyn Pugh, Lucy's radio writers, went to work on I Love Lucy as soon as CBS gave the Arnazes the go-ahead. Lucy at this point was pregnant with first-born Lucie, which meant time was of the essence to come up with a pilot before Lucie's birth. For this first effort, Lucy and Desi portrayed themselves-a movie star and a successful orchestra leader. Oppenheimer later modified the characters to move away from unrealistic glamour. He wanted a working-class man who works very hard at the job and who looks forward to coming home and relaxing with his wife, who conversely does not like staying home and wants a career of her own. Desi played a musician since it was the most believable occupation for a Cuban to have on television, although not one as successful as he was in real life.
Rehearsals for every episode were thorough and grueling. Everyone had some input in the scripts, but Lucille Ball, the writers, Jess Oppenheimer the producer, and executive producer Desi Arnaz were the masterminds behind them. On-screen, the friendships were genuine, but off-screen, they could be strained at times. William Frawley and Desi got along great, especially when they discovered their mutual enjoyment of drinking. There are conflicting accounts of the relationship between Lucy and Vivian Vance. It is rumored that Vivian Vance couldn't stand Lucille Ball but was extremely compliant towards her; after all, the role she landed next to Lucy was in a show that was destined for greatness. Other accounts report that the two got along very well and were supportive of each other, although Lucille, upon learning that Vivian Vance was a year younger than her was not thrilled. The one true conflict that is agreed upon by most sources was the tension between William Frawley and Vivian Vance. He always called her a "sac of doorknobs," and she couldn't see how the audience believed she could be married to someone old enough to be her father.
In the fifties, as women were assuming household roles once again, the Ricardos followed the rules: Ricky was the breadwinner, Lucy always answered to Ricky, was allotted only so much spending money per month for groceries and other household necessities, and was reprimanded when she overindulged and bought a new dress or hat. Hilarious outcomes always followed Lucy's attempts to cover up the many occasions she did something that was sure to displease Ricky.
It is interesting to note that the attitudes Ricky displayed towards Lucy, as she seemed childish at times, would not be accepted in today's terms. Lucy was often portrayed as the stereotypical woman-in-distress, who always needed her husband, the man, to bail her out. She also was symbolic of the inept woman: the 'woman driver,' the "over-spender" who can't budget, and the basic downfall of man - during one episode, because of her antics, Ricky lost a potential job. To get what she wanted, she often whined, as per her "But Rickeeee..." trademark.
The I Love Lucy show continued the ever-popular and age-old 'battle between the sexes' scenarios. Ricky and Fred would try to 'teach' the girls a lesson now and then, and vice versa. In many ways the 'Ricky & Fred' team vs. The 'Lucy & Ethel' team put men and women on equal ground, as the two continually schemed against one another with similar rates of successful schemes and backfired ones. This was one way for Lucy to escape the submissive housewife image with some defiance of her own. There was a constant desire to outdo the other sex, which perhaps was a signal of the changing times and changing roles men and women would hold in the coming decades.
Even more representative of society's accepted roles between men and women were in Lucy's attempts to be a star. This was an ultimate dream for all Americans - to make it big. Audiences would delight in Lucy's antics, although she often did not succeed. Yet her TV life was still rich: a great husband, close friends, and eventually a son. Given this failed attempt at stardom, but with her equally satisfying life, everyday people could embrace Lucy even more; she was one of them. Ricky, however, seldom proved to be the supportive husband; he would often discourage her from auditioning at openings and other entertainment acts. Above all, what Ricky wanted was a wife who would be a wife, nothing more.
Interestingly enough, despite the typical husband-wife portrayals, Desi was the one in real life to get himself into trouble. He had a fiery temper, as did his television counterpart Ricky. Desi was a talented and hard worker, but he was also a hard partier. He was notorious for his heavy drinking, and it worried his peers when they realized how often he drank on the job. He spent grand sums of money, gambling more of it away. He was arrested several times for assault while under the influence. His Cuban heritage, less stringent in marriage commitments, swayed him to pursue other women. This was also a well-known fact. Years of discontent led to a divorce in the later days of Lucille Ball's television career. However, both parties agree that I Love Lucy, coupled with the births of their children, did help in prolonging their troubled marriage.
With their fame, the Arnazes became public property, as is the custom. One event they shared with American audiences - both on and off screen -- was the birth of their second child and first son, Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha IV. The baby was born on the same day the Ricardo birth would be aired on television -- yet another stroke of luck for the show.
There is something phenomenal about entities that stand the test of time. I Love Lucy is just such a thing. Aside from its comedic value, the show made strides in the fifties that made possible what we see in television today: in aesthetic, technical, and business aspects. Lucille Ball, the First Lady of Comedy, has indefinitely left her mark. An excellent summation of Lucy's simplest appeal was given by TV writer Jack Sher: "The captivating thing about Lucy and Ricky is the fact that they hold a mirror up to every married couple in America. Not a regular mirror that reflects the truth, nor a magic mirror that portrays fantasy, but a funhouse mirror that distorts, exaggerates, and makes vastly amusing every little incident, foible, and idiosyncrasy of married life." Without a doubt, I Love Lucy was, is, and always will be a funny show.