Everybody loved Lucy. This was the sitcom that defined the sitcom, a show so beloved it actually runs more frequently today than it did in the 1950’s. I Love Lucy ran for six years of original episodes (180 in all), but those 180 episodes are still winning new fans around the world to the wacky comedy of America’s favorite redhead, Lucille Ball.
The husband and wife team of Cuban-born Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball had only appeared in one film together (1940’s Too Many Girls) before the two decided they wanted to star in a television sitcom. Lucy had been very successful as the star of radio’s My Favorite Husband, but the idea for a TV show was nixed when sponsors decided audiences wouldn’t buy Lucy and Desi as a married couple. The two made a live tour to prove how well they worked together, filmed a pilot with their own funds, and soon sold CBS on I Love Lucy.
On the show, which premiered in the fall of 1951, Ball and Arnaz played Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, a married couple living in a small East 68th Street apartment in New York City. Ricky was a bandleader at the Tropicana Club, and Lucy had a bad case of the showbiz bug. Lucy’s attempts to sneak into Ricky’s act were a running gag, part of a pattern of schemes, bad ideas, and poor judgment calls on Lucy’s part that made the Ricardos’ life one unending adventure. Ricky’s Latin temper flared up on occasion (he even blacked Lucy’s eye with a thrown book), but a good pout and a good cry usually fixed things.
Living downstairs from the Ricardos were their best friends and landlords, Fred and Ethel Mertz. Ethel was Lucy’s partner-in-crime, sharing everything from a dress store opening to an infamously disastrous job on a candy factory assembly line. Occasional appearances by Ricky’s agent Jerry, neighbor Mrs. Trumbull, Lucy’s mother Mrs. MacGillicuddy and others were always good for a laugh, but Lucy was unquestionably the star of the show.
Before long, I Love Lucy was the #1 show on television, delivering episodes that would become all-time television classics. Lucy’s “Vitameatavegamin” TV commercial was a model of comic drunkenness, and the surprise 1952 announcement that Lucy was pregnant (delivered by Lucy’s requesting the song “We’re Having a Baby” at the Tropicana Club) started building momentum for what was then the biggest event in television: the birth of Little Ricky on January 19, 1953 (the same day Lucy and Desi’s second child was born).
Later seasons brought in famous guest stars, from Bob Hope to Harpo Marx to Superman (George Reeves). Little Ricky became a show regular, and the starring cast made trips to Hollywood (where Lucy and Ethel tried to steal John Wayne’s footprints from Grauman’s Chinese Theater), Europe (leading to Lucy’s Italian grape-stomping misadventure) and more. The Ricardos moved to Connecticut for a time, and Ricky even opened his own New York club in later seasons. But regardless of the location, Lucy’s penchant for disaster kept the laughs coming.
I Love Lucy stopped production in 1957, despite the fact that it was still the #1 show on American television (having never dipped lower than #3). But good fortune and good planning kept I Love Lucy fresh for decades after the show’s original run. Back in 1951, Lucy and Desi had refused to move to New York (where most live network TV taping was done at the time), and instead filmed the show’s episodes in front of a live audience in Hollywood, California, courtesy of Lucy and Desi’s Desilu Productions. Three separate cameras were used, allowing the show to be edited into its final form. Not only did this become the later standard for all sitcoms, it ensured that high-quality prints of I Love Lucy would be preserved for future generations.
Reruns aired in prime time for a few years after the show’s end, and the Ricardos and Mertzes reunited several times to film one-hour specials as part of The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show. These later episodes stayed in prime time through 1967 as The Luci-Desi Comedy Hour, but by this time, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz had divorced.
Lucy stayed on television as the star of The Lucy Show (from 1962-68) and the very similar Here’s Lucy (from 1968-74), both perpetual Top-20 favorites. The beloved redhead returned briefly to television in the mid-80’s as the star of Life With Lucy, but for most, she will always remain the crying, mugging, guffaw-inducing Lucy Ricardo. And with I Love Lucy translated into dozens of languages and airing in perpetual syndication, she just may be carrying on her black-and-white comic antics right now on a television set near you.
USA / CBS – Desilu / 180×25 minute episodes / broadcast 15 October 1951 – 24 June 1957
Creators: Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Pugh, Bob Carroll Jr / Executive Producer: Desi Arnaz
Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo
Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo
Vivian Vance as Ethel Mertz
William Frawley as Fred Mertz
Richard and Ronald Simmons as Little Ricky Ricardo (1953)
Michael and Joseph Mayer as Little Ricky Ricardo (1954-56)
Richard Keith as Little Ricky Ricardo (1956-57)
Jerry Hausner as Jerry the agent (1951-54)
Elizabeth Patterson as Mrs. Mathilda Trumbull (1953-56)
Doris Singleton as Caroline Appleby (1953-57)
Kathryn Card as Mrs. MacGillicuddy (1955-56)
Mary Jane Croft as Betty Ramsey (1957)
Frank Nelson as Ralph Ramsey (1957)