HONR 269J The Beat Begins: America in the 1950s

I Love Lucy: Why America Loved Her and What She Meant to Us
© 1998, Lily Chang

We are all here for a spell, get all the good laughs you can. –- Will Rogers

Television’s rise in popularity throughout the fifties saw the emergence of the situation comedy, a style that captivated audiences by presenting a story with a beginning, a middle, and a happy end. One of the most popular of these shows, I Love Lucy, continues to appeal to both young and old some forty years later -- and counting. For most people, the answer to how I Love Lucy continually and effectively draws viewers to the screen is that "It’s funny." There is more to this funny show than meets the eye.

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 the 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.

The luck of having talent is not enough; one must also have a talent for luck. -- Hector Berlioz

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," so the critics predicted, didn’t stand a chance. (Andrews, 64.) 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:"

It’s the Mertzes’ eighteenth wedding anniversary, and Ethel wants to celebrate by going to the Copacabana, while Fred itches to attend the fights. An arguments ensues, culminating with Ethel and Lucy informing Fred and Ricky that they’ll go nightclubbing without them -- with dates! Admitting to themselves that perhaps they were to hasty, the men decide to sneak into the Copa with dates of their own, just to keep an eye on their wives. Ricky calls his friend Ginny Jones, a singer at the Starlight Roof, and asks her to arrange dates for Fred and himself, and Lucy, very soon thereafter, calls her to arrange dates for her and Ethel. When Ginny spills the boys’ plans to Lucy, Lucy decides that she and Ethel will impersonate their husbands’ blind dates. Dressed as country bumpkins, Lucy and Ethel arrive at the Ricardo apartment. After Ricky sings a chorus of "Guadalajara," some funny hillbilly schtick unfolds, until Lucy "gives herself away" by reaching for some cigarettes hidden in a desk drawer. All is forgiven, and the two couples kiss and make up. In the tag, the men prevail and it’s a night at the fights for an anniversary celebration. (Andrews, 231)

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 I Love 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 "Uncle Miltie" 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. Yet to the Arnazes, it was a way to save a struggling marriage. Desi explained the situation:

"We had been married ten years. Each successful in our respective fields, movies and music. Yet we were almost total strangers. Our work pulled us far apart, east coast and west. We had neither home nor children. So we quarreled and talked of divorce. But deep down I knew that I couldn’t live without Lucy, and she could not without me. We were on the edge of breakup when we hit upon a magnificent idea." (Morella, 94.)

The nail that sticks out gets hammered down. -- Japanese proverb

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!" (Andrews, 11.)

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 film comedienne wishes to continue, would make them one of the top vaudeville comedy teams." (Andrews, 14)

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.

The only thing that holds a marriage together is the husband being big enough to step back and see where the wife was wrong. -- Archie Bunker

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. The following episode illustrates this:

The Quiz Show, aired 11/12/51: "Lucy’s careless accounting habits force Ricky to cut off her allowance and charge accounts. When Ethel arrives with tickets for a radio quiz show that awards one-thousand-dollar cash prizes, Lucy jumps at the chance to attend. After her qualifying round on ‘Females Are Fabulous,’ ‘based on the theory that any woman is willing to make an idiot out of herself in order to win a prize,’ host Freddie Fillmore tells Lucy of her money-winning stunt. She will have to introduce Ricky to her ‘long-lost first husband.’ That night Lucy is a bundle of nerves as she awaits the arrival of the bogus spouse. Meanwhile, a tramp appears at the door and Lucy assumes he is the ‘long-lost husband.’ When she discovers her mistake and throws him out, a second ‘first’ husband arrives on the scene, whom Lucy introduces to Ricky as per the radio show requirement. Alas, she wins the thousand-dollar jackpot, but after paying all her overdue bills is left with only fifty cents." (Andrews, 233)

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.

Equal Rights, aired 10/26/53: "After a heated argument about equal rights, during which the girls insist they want to be treated exactly as if they were men, the Ricardos and Mertzes go off to an Italian restaurant for dinner. When Xavier, the waiter, on Ricky’s insistence, presents four separate checks, the girls discover they have no money. They are ordered by the management to wash dishes (so many that Lucy suggests, ‘I think he takes in dirty dishes from other restaurants’), and the girls decide to get back at the boys by phoning them from the bistro, informing them that they are being robbed and mugged. Ricky subsequently calls the police, then rushes down to the restaurant himself only to find Lucy and Ethel unharmed. To counter the subterfuge, Ricky and Fred disguise themselves as crooks, burst into the kitchen, and surprise the girls. Just then, the cops arrive and arrest Ricky and Fred. At the police station, Lucy and Ethel are uncertain about bailing them out. ‘Mean-looking, aren’t they?’ Lucy snarls, before relenting." (Andrews, 285)

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.

The Audition, aired 11/19/51: When Lucy learns that talent scouts from a television network are going to catch Ricky’s nightclub act, she hounds her husband for a chance to be in the show: "You need a pretty girl in your act to advertise the sponsor’s product. She eats it, or drinks it, or waxes the floor with it, or cuts potatoes with it, or drives off in it…or smokes it!" When this falls on Ricky’s deaf ears, Lucy parades around the apartment with a lampshade on her head, humming "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody" and imitating a Ziegfeld girl. When Buffo the Clown has a bike accident at rehearsal, Ricky sends him to the Ricardo apartment to rest up, and Lucy connives to take his place in the show. As network officials watch Ricky sing "Babalu," Lucy meanders onstage as "The Professor," wearing a broken-down tuxedo and carrying a "loaded" cello, looking for "Risky Riskadoo." She performs some funny bits with the instrument, then impersonates a seal by playing a motley group of horns. The TV bigwigs are so impressed, they offer her a contract. Later Lucy agrees to remain a wife and give up show business (this week.) (Andrews, 233-234)

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.

The thing about having a baby is that thereafter you have it. -- Jean Kerr

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. However, the steps leading to the portrayal of the pregnancy on television was long and tedious.

The news of Lucy’s impending motherhood at the end of this first season was met with dismay by the network and the sponsor, Philip Morris Company. It was pronounced that the predicament was a complete disaster for the show; CBS was adamant about rejecting the producers’ plans for showcasing and following Lucy’s pregnancy: "You cannot show a pregnant woman on television!" (Oppenheimer, 198.) Numerous arguments ensued, until finally Philip Morris offered a conditional compromise to allow only one or two episodes about the pregnancy. Neither Oppenheimer and Desi would accept the terms. Eventually an agreement came about, although CBS forbade the use of the word "pregnant" on the show. However, "with child" or "expecting" were acceptable. They were still afraid that some segment of the public would find something offensive in the pregnancy shows. Producer Oppenheimer brought in a priest, a minister, and a rabbi to approve the "baby show" scripts, and in effect, the shows were "blessed" before they were broadcast.

The world must be made safe for democracy. -– Wooodrow Wilson

The McCarthy era was in full swing, and even America’s favorite comedienne could not be protected from accusation. In late 1953, America again became witness to a crucial part of Lucille Ball’s personal life. She was put under investigation after it was discovered that years before, she had registered to vote for the Communist Party in 1936 to placate her aging grandfather. During her hearing, Lucille denied any connection with the Communist Party. Despite her situation, work continued when the first episode of the season was to be filmed. Lucille was filled with apprehension; she didn’t know if she could go through with filming, and she was concerned about receiving a negative reaction from the audience. Desi was worried the cigarette company would pull its sponsorship, as it had every right to do because of the bad publicity. He was willing to cover the thirty thousand dollars to shoot the episode if the contract was in fact pulled. However, the sponsor sent a message to Desi that if "all the facts are as they now are, we’re behind you 100 percent." (Andrews, 126.) Desi felt great relief as he went out to give his usual introductions to the audience before the shooting began. The crowd, familiar with the headlines that screamed Lucille Ball was charged as a Red, was unusually silent. Desi said, "Welcome to the first ‘I Love Lucy’ of the season…before we go on, I want to talk to you about something serious. You all know what it is. The papers have been full of it all day." He continued as his voice broke and his lip quivered, "Lucille is no Communist! Lucille has never been a Communist, not now and never will be. I was kicked out of Cuba because of Communism. We both despise the Communists and everything they stand for!" (Andrews, 127.) It was an emotional moment, but the crowd rose in support and approval of Lucy and Desi. Lucy received an ovation at the end of the show. She was, of course, released from any charges in association with the Communists. The Red Scare, despite the pain and trauma it incurred on so many, had little effect on the ratings of I Love Lucy.

Television? The word is half Latin and half Greek. No good can come of it. –- C.P. Scott

Lucille and Desi were fortunate enough and determined enough to seek the genius of Karl Freund, one of the masters of innovative filming and photographic techniques in Hollywood. They hired him as director of photography for the show, and challenged him with Desi’s "vision:" a technique that had never before been used. The invention of videotape was still years into the future, and Desi devised an original system for filming the sitcom in front of a live audience. Traditionally, shows of this genre were broadcast live, which posed problems for intricate backdrops, props, and special effects, as well as for major costume changes. Under Desi’s system, sets of bleachers were constructed inside an old Hollywood soundstage, as seating for a live studio audience. Stationary 35mm cameras on tripods were positioned at points around the stage. All the cameras would record the entire 22-minute episode. Afterwards the film was edited so that the best shots from each camera could be used to splice together a master for the final telecast. (Marc, 28) This technique would be used in classic sitcoms to come: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Happy Days, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and Laverne and Shirley. It was truly an achievement for television production quality, setting a new standard.

Another of the lesser-known, but by no means less spectacular contributions of the show left its mark on television history in the spring of 1952. The CBS network informed the producers that because of scheduling requirements, seven affiliates wanted to rebroadcast an episode of I Love Lucy called "The Diet," which had aired the previous October. At the time, most network programs were still broadcast live, and during the summer, alternate "summer replacement" programs would be run in place of the regularly scheduled sitcoms. Neither the rerun nor syndication markets had yet been invented. Because I Love Lucy was produced on film, the issue of rerunning the show was an uncomplicated task. All that needed to be obtained was legal clearance, provided by a letter signed by the producers (Desi Arnaz and Jess Oppenheimer), the writers and Lucille, which granted permission for CBS to rebroadcast. Soon thereafter, the world witnessed its very first television rerun, courtesy of I Love Lucy. (Oppenheimer, 202.)

To be somebody, you must last. -- Ruth Gordon

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 "the First Lady of Comedy" Ball has indefinitely left her mark as "LUCY FAN," "BABALU," "DESILU" and "I LV LCY" are emblazoned across car license plates, and numerous fan clubs are still going at full force. Lucy memorabilia is just as popular now as it was in her day, and shops and cafes with names such as "I Love Sushi," "I Love Ricky," and "I Love Juicy" keep the spirit alive as well. An excellent summation of I Love 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 Coney Island kind of mirror that distorts, exaggerates, and makes vastly amusing every little incident, foible, and idiosyncrasy of married life." (Andrews, xiii). Without a doubt, I Love Lucy was, is, and always will be a "funny" show.

Since we said, 'I do,' there are so many things we don't. –- Lucy Ricardo


Andrews, Bart and Watson, Thomas. LOVING LUCY: AN ILLUSTRATED TRIBUTE. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980.

Andrews, Bart. THE "I LOVE LUCY" BOOK. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1985.

Brady, Kathleen. THE LIFE OF LUCILLE BALL. New York: Hyperion Publishing, 1994.

Halberstam, David. THE FIFTIES. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1993.

Marc, David and Thomson, Robert. PRIME TIME, PRIME MOVERS. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1992.

Morella, Joe and Epstein, Edward. FOREVER LUCY. New Jersey: Lyle Stuart, Inc., 1986.

Oppenheimer, Jess. LAUGHS, LUCK...AND LUCY. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1996.

Sanders, Coyne Steven and Gilbert, Tom. DESILU: THE STORY OF LUCILLE BALL AND DESI ARNAZ. New York: William and Morrow Company, Inc., 1993.

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