Starting with its first airing in 1951, the classic sitcom “I Love Lucy” has captured the hearts of generations all over the world.
Though the show only ran for six traditional seasons and three more modified seasons after the main series ended, the television comedy of Lucille Ball and her husband, Desi Arnaz, remains among the most iconic and remembered in all of American television history.
The show’s success even now can be attributed not just to the quality of the comedy, but also to the behind-the-scenes work of Ball, Arnaz, and the producers and crew who, while they never appeared in front of the camera, made this bit of television history possible.
Here are a few things you might not have known about the show:
1.) The show totally changed the paradigm for production and filming. In 1951, television didn’t broadcast as it does today. The coaxial networks on which the shows played didn’t stretch coast-to-coast, so filming a show on the west coast and broadcasting it in full resolution on the east coast proved to be a problem; only one native-resolution film print of the show existed.
This was a big problem for the sponsor of “I Love Lucy,” Philip Morris. Its largest market was on the east coast, but Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were settled in Los Angeles — and didn’t want to move. This was a sticking point until Arnaz came up with a somewhat novel idea: Record the show on three separate cameras, and make three prints for separate coaxial networks.
To offset the added expense of two extra cameras and the required crew, Arnaz and Ball offered to take pay cuts themselves. CBS bit. “Lucy” filmed on three 35mm reels, which, while not revolutionary by itself, was the first and the most successful application of the method at the time, according to the Los Angeles Times and other sources. It worked so well that for many years it was the default method of filming studio sitcoms.
There’s another kicker, too: In exchange for their lower pay, Arnaz and Ball asked to retain the rights to the original film prints. At a time that TV syndication was an afterthought and shows fizzled out after a few years, this was a no-brainer for CBS.
But as their high-quality reruns captured years’ worth of audiences, Arnaz and Ball raked in millions — while parlaying their rights into the successful Hollywood studio, Desilu Productions.
2.) Lucy Ricardo had her start well before 1951. Lucille Ball didn’t create her character in a vacuum. Actually, the Lucy of the show got her start on Ball’s radio program, “My Favorite Husband,” which ran for 124 episodes starting in 1948. Instead of Desi Arnaz, though, Richard Denning played the role of Ball’s husband.
The story goes even further back. Ball based her radio show on the novel “Mr. and Mrs. Cugat: The Record of a Happy Marriage,” written by Isabel Scott Rorick and published in 1940, and the 1945 follow-up, “Outside Eden.” Funny enough, the original surname Ball took from these novels was too often confused with Xavier Cugat, a famous Cuban bandleader of the time. This prompted the radio show’s producers to change the name to Cooper in following seasons — only to see Arnaz in the husband’s role for the sitcom. He himself, of course, was a famous Cuban bandleader.
3.) The show never used a laugh track, but gave rise to the use of such devices. Many people know that “I Love Lucy” was filmed in front of a live audience and that the audience reactions were genuine. The idea of the “laugh track” was still in its nascence in the ’50s, but it was the uproarious laughter on the set of this sitcom, along with select other shows, that allowed sound engineer Charley Douglass to refine his “laff box” and bring that laughter into the ’60s, ’70s and beyond.
If you listen closely, Arnaz’s own distinctive laugh can be heard in many other shows, as he often sat in the audience and contributed to the laughter when he wasn’t onscreen.
4.) CBS didn’t think audiences were ready for a Cuban-American marriage. Showing a marriage between two people of such different ethnic backgrounds as Ball and Arnaz was such a strange idea to CBS and Philip Morris that it almost didn’t happen. CBS just didn’t believe American audiences would buy a Cuban-American union, as a piece in NPR made clear.
However, Ball put her foot down and told the network she wouldn’t do the show unless Arnaz could play her husband. Logic won out — the two actually were married, after all — and if history has taught us anything, it’s that in the war between ideology and network programming, quality content always wins.
5.) Its ratings haven’t been matched 66 years later. “I Love Lucy” was a ratings powerhouse. Due probably in part to the nationwide high-quality broadcast and more to Ball’s own electric comedy, the show secured the most comprehensive viewership of the time.
To date, the third season of “Lucy” holds the record for highest annual ratings, at 67 percent. And it still rakes in viewers 60-odd years later: A 2015 showing of the 1956 Christmas special raked in 7.4 million viewers.
On Jan. 19, 1943, the episode in which we first saw the Ricardo baby (“Little Ricky,” to fans), “Lucy” was playing in a monumental 71.7 percent of American households, according to The Hollywood Reporter. That’s more than the inauguration of president Eisenhower the following day, which garnered only 47 percent viewership.
To date, the third season of “Lucy” holds the record for highest annual ratings, at 67 percent. And it still rakes in viewers 60-odd years later: A 2015 showing of the 1956 Christmas special raked in 7.4 million viewers, as USA Today reported.
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz may be gone today — but Mr. and Mrs. Ricardo remain alive as ever. Those of us who grew up with them will know them for a lifetime, and many of those not yet born will undoubtedly cherish the comedy Lucille Ball gave us all those years ago. There is line between shows that are merely good and those that become classics, and whatever may draw it — timeless comedy, relatability, humanity, or a mixture of these and more factors — “I Love Lucy” sits firmly on the latter side of this line.
Lucille Ball left behind a well-deserved legacy.