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In 1951 a red-haired comedienne kicked off arguably the most familiar of all sitcoms from the Golden Age of television, and probably the most re-run series of any in television history.
I Love Lucy starred Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz (real name Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III) and was a legitimate television original.
Lucy had been a Goldwyn Girl and was a veteran of several movies (she had a straight role in the Marx Brothers’ Room Service); Desi Arnaz was one of a plethora of second-string bandleaders (his speciality music – like his own background – was Cuban).
The husband and wife team had even made movies together, with moderate success, and had their own CBS radio comedy show, My Favorite Husband, upon which I Love Lucy was loosely based.
But these inauspicious origins, coupled with an unorthodox production arrangement that allowed the comedy team ownership of the series, and performances filmed before live studio audiences, all combined to fashion a classic whose appeal has diminished little through the years.
CBS president Bill Paley had believed there was absolutely no hope for a series about a dingbat redhead and her Cuban bandleader husband, and had cheerfully handed over all future rights for I Love Lucy to Lucy and Desi’s Desilu Productions.
After just 12 weeks on the air, I Love Lucy replaced Arthur Godfrey as the top-rated show in America – a position it held for four of the next five years. The only show to beat it in the annual ratings between 1952 and 1957 was The $64,000 Question in the 1955/1956 season.
In some cities I Love Lucy re-runs are shown four or five times a day!
The central appeal is naturally Lucy herself. She was physical at a time when television relied on visual antics to impress viewers. She was loud at a time when subtleties were lost over the unsophisticated new airwaves. Her character was a magnet that attracted situations and predicaments, forever identifying her with the sitcom genre.
But as her subsequent success in other Lucy shows through the years proved, she was more than the right comedienne at the right time in the right place. Her appeal was universal, and her comedic talents, as well as her instincts, were flawless.
The theme of I Love Lucy was as simple as that of Burns and Allen, and not dissimilar.
Ricky Ricardo (Arnaz) was a bandleader, and episodes revolved around domestic and professional misadventures. Ricky’s career was more central to episodes than Burns’s, and many stories concerned Lucy’s attempts to perform professionally despite Ricky’s opposition.
A small regular cast supported Lucy and Desi in their comic escapades: William Frawley and Vivian Vance played Fred and Ethel Mertz, landlords and friends in the Ricardo’s New York apartment building (Apartment 4A, 623 East 68th Street).
In reality, Vance and Frawley couldn’t stand each other: Vance couldn’t see why anyone would believe she was married to “that old man”, while Frawley often referred to Vance as “that sack of doorknobs”.
Lucy wanted Bea Benaderet to play Ethel Mertz but she had committed to the role of Blanche Morton in The Burns and Allen Show.
Images of Lucy doing outrageous slapstick turns are virtual icons but America’s love affair with Lucy was deeper than quick laughs: When her son Desi Jr was born (he would be ‘Little Ricky’ on the programme) it was a national event followed as closely as any big news story.
Desi Arnaz sold his share of Desilu to Lucy for $2,552,975 in 1962. She sold it for $17 million just five years later.
Lucy Ricardo’s middle name was ‘Esmerelda’. The Ricardo’s telephone numbers were MUrray Hill 5-9975, CIrcle 7-2099 and MUrray Hill 5-9099.
Little Ricky Ricardo
Jerry (the agent)
Mrs Mathilda Trumbull
Mary Jane Croft