Lucy, you got some ‘splainin’ to do!
And you can start by explaining how a television show that first premiered 65 years ago today is still more popular and beloved than 90% of all the other programs which have aired in the last six decades.
Who could have known that the crazy antics of a zany redhead and her heavily-accented Cuban husband was the perfect recipe for a comedy series? But here I sit, 65 years later, attempting to put into words how Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz broke the television mold so long ago. Far from fading into the land of lost shows, the series is still shining as brightly as it ever was.
On October 15, 1951, viewers tuned in to “I Love Lucy” for the first time. Lucy and Ricky Ricardo were actually Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz — a real-life husband and wife duo who were determined to make a go of their tumultuous marriage.
From 1948 to 1951, Lucy, alongside actor Richard Denning, played on a popular CBS radio program called “My Favorite Husband”. When CBS decided to transition it from radio to television, Lucy insisted that Desi be hired to play her on-screen husband. The network was reluctant, so the pair created a vaudeville act to prove their chemistry was believable. They performed at theatres across the country, endearing themselves to the public. When there was no denying their popularity, CBS caved. And so, I Love Lucy was born.
The series ran for six seasons, between 1951 and 1957, totaling an impressive 180 black and white, 30-minute episodes. For four of those seasons, it was No. 1 in the ratings. Season 1 brought us some memorable showings, like episode 4 “Lucy Thinks Ricky Is Trying to Murder Her”. This was actually the show’s pilot, but its airing was postponed in favour of E1 “The Girls Want To Go To a Nightclub” — an episode which introduces the audience to the Ricardo’s partners in crime, their neighbours, Fred and Ethel Mertz, played by William Frawley and Vivian Vance. Also in season 1 is “The Ballet”, “Pioneer Women”, and the classic “Lucy Does a TV Commercial”.
“Hello friends. I’m your Vitameatavegamin girl. Are you tired, run-down, listless? Do you poop out at parties? Are you unpopular? The answer to all your problems is in this little bottle. Vitameatavegamin. Vitameatavegamin contains Vitamins, Meat, Vegetables, and Minerals. Yes, with Vitameatavegamin, you can spoon your way to health. All you do is take a tablespoonful after every meal. It’s so tasty, too! It’s just like candy! So why don’t you join the thousands of happy peppy people and get a great big bottle of Vitameatavegamin tomorrow! That’s Vita-meata-vegamin!”
Season 2 kicks off with what is arguably the most famous episode, “Job Switching”. AKA, the one where Ethel and Lucy lose complete control of the chocolate candies running past them on a conveyor belt!
The second season is also famous for the heartwarming episodes “Lucy Is Enceinte” and “Lucy Goes to the Hospital”. Lucille Ball, pregnant in real life with her second child, Desi Jr., convinced the network to let her pregnancy be written into the show. At the time, being “in a family way” wasn’t considered appropriate for television, and pregnancies were usually hidden. But Lucy was a pioneer in more ways than one, and when Desi Jr. was born on January 19, 1953 — the same day that 44 million people tuned in to see Lucy Ricardo give birth to Little Ricky? Well, it couldn’t have been more perfect. Because the truth was, America loved Lucy. And this incredible crossover moment between her on-screen character and her real life just made audiences love their red-headed sweetheart even more.
Episode 23, “Lucy Hires a Maid”, is my personal favourite. Verna Felton stars as Mrs. Porter, an elderly, gruff, demanding maid-for-hire who actually makes more work for Lucy, who is desperately trying to juggle housework and a new baby. Nervous Lucy asked Ricky to do the hiring, but he insisted that she be tough and firm and do it herself. The result is that poor Lucy gets bullied into hiring the intimidating old biddy in what is, to me, one of the funniest scenes of the entire series.
*Lucy opens the door*
Mrs. Porter: “Good morning. I’m from the employment agency. Are you Mrs. Ricardo?”
*Mrs. Porter walks in, inspects the living room*
Lucy: “There are a few things that I think…” *Mrs. Porter gives Lucy the once over* … “First, there are some things that I think we should discuss.”
*Mrs. Porter interrupts*
Mrs. Porter: “That’s right. Now, I must have Wednesday afternoons off. And every weekend. I can’t possibly come before 9 in the morning, and I must leave before 7 at night. Of course you have an automatic dishwasher?”
Lucy: “No, we don’t.”
Mrs. Porter: “A dryer?”
Lucy: “No.” *Mrs. Porter becomes more exasperated* “But we have a garbage disposal and a washing machine!”
Mrs. Porter: “Well…..”
Lucy: “And a television set. 21″ screen!”
Mrs. Porter: “I’ll take the job.”
Lucy: “Oh, thank you! THANK YOU!”
Lucy then must help Mrs. Porter off with her coat and hat, and as the new maid goes to see what she’s “gotten herself into”, Lucy asks her to be careful not to wake the baby.
Mrs. Porter: “BABY!”
Lucy: “Well, he’s just a little one. He really isn’t very much trouble.”
Mrs. Porter: “Who takes care of HIM?”
Lucy: “… I do …?”
Mrs. Porter: “Including his laundry?”
Lucy: “Oh, yes, yes, I do everything for him. I take full charge of the baby always.”
Mrs. Porter: “Oh, well, that’s alright.”
Lucy: “Oh, I forgot, what’s your name?”
Mrs. Porter: “Mrs. Porter.”
Lucy: “And what do I call you?”
Mrs. Porter: “Mrs. Porter.”
Mrs. Porter eats everything in the house, won’t help with the baby and gets most of the time off. Lucy is too timid to fire her, so she and Ethel set out to make such a mess that the maid will quit. But in true I Love Lucy fashion, after turning the apartment topsy-turvy, she discovers that Ricky, feeling sorry for her, has already called up and fired the maid!
Fun Fact: Verna Felton was in another episode of I Love Lucy. In a bit of a role reversal, she played Mrs. Simpson in S2E17, “Sales Resistance” — a woman who Lucy tries to sell a vacuum cleaner to and in the process, makes a huge mess of her carpet with dirt!
In season 3, we get the girl-centric “Lucy and Ethel Buy the Same Dress”, “Baby Pictures”, “Lucy Tells the Truth”, “Redecorating the Mertzes’ Apartment” (a favourite), and “Lucy is Envious”.
Season 4 is best remembered for its “California, Here We Come!” story arc, where the Ricardos and Mertzes take a road trip to California after Ricky is cast in a movie. These episodes are filled with famous guest stars like columnist Hedda Hopper, Lucy’s ultimate crush, William Holden, Rock Hudson, Harpo Marx, and Cornel Wilde.
The characters’ stay in Hollywood spills over into the first few episodes of the 5th season, kicking off with Lucy’s ridiculously addictive two-part encounter with the Duke himself in “Lucy Visits Grauman’s” and “Lucy and John Wayne”. When Lucy hears that the concrete slab with John Wayne’s footprints at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre is loose, she convinces Ethel to help her steal it. But when they break it, Lucy hatches a scheme to fake a new one — not knowing that Ricky has already arranged for John Wayne to come to their hotel room and make a real one! But this is I Love Lucy and as is typical with show biz, this is going to require more than one ‘take’.
S5E9, “Nursery School”, is a sweet one I remember from when I was a kid. Lucy objects to Little Ricky starting nursery school, but Big Ricky insists. As if that separation wasn’t bad enough, Lucy faces her greatest test when Little Ricky gets sick and must spend the night in the hospital after a tonsillectomy. The nurse informs her that due to regulations, parents aren’t permitted to stay with their children over night. But Lucy has already promised Little Ricky that she’d come back and bring him his teddy bear, so a distraught Lucy must cook up a scheme to get back into the hospital. As is expected, the tenacious redhead sneaks out while Ricky is asleep, and by the time he arrives at the hospital looking for Lucy, she’s got the entire building in an uproar.
Ricky: “Nurse? I’m looking for my wife, Mrs. Ricardo, and I think she’s in Room 602 with our child.”
Nurse: “No, she couldn’t be there, it isn’t permitted.”
Ricky: “Well, I got a feeling that’s where she is.”
Nurse: (laughs) “You evidently don’t know our rules.”
Ricky: “Well, you evidently don’t know my wife. Look, if you would just take me to Room –“
Nurse: “Oh, I’m awfully sorry, but I just don’t have the time. The whole hospital’s in a turmoil trying to find some screw-ball, red-headed nurse that has gone berserk!”
Ricky: “Was she carrying a teddy bear?”
Nurse: “How did you know!?”
Ricky: “Well, let me put it this way: I am looking for my screw-ball, red-headed wife who has been berserk for 15 years. Now, if you will just take me to this room 602, I got a hunch that we’re gonna solve both our problems.”
Nurse: “Oh, very well. But I’m quite sure it won’t do a bit of good. It’s entirely against the rules.”
And of course…..
As the nurse and Ricky discover Lucy fast asleep in bed with the baby, that’s the end of any dialogue in this episode, because no further dialogue is needed. When Ricky goes to wake Lucy, the nurse gestures that it’s okay for her to stay, and leaves them alone. The episode ends with Ricky kissing her cheek and tucking Little Ricky in beside his mother, who is still clutching the teddy bear. I watched this scene three times while transcribing the exchange between Ricky and the nurse, and I choked up every single time. I can still remember happily describing this episode to my mom the first time I saw it. An underrated episode if there ever was one. ♥
The rest of season 5 is dedicated to the Ricardo/Mertz European vacation. They visit Scotland, Switzerland, Paris and Italy. In “Lucy Gets a Paris Gown”, Ricky tricks the girls into wearing feed bags and burlap sacks, which they think are ultra-expensive Jacques Marcel originals. And I’m sure everyone remembers Lucy’s famous grape-stomping escapade in “Lucy’s Italian Movie”.
The final season, airing from October 1, 1956 through May 6, 1957, saw a few more celebrity guest stars and a huge change of venue. Bob Hope, Orson Wells, and George Reeves (who makes an appearance as Superman in “Lucy and Superman”) get an episode each. And season 6 brings us the series’s Christmas special, “I Love Lucy Christmas Show” which aired on Christmas Eve — back when “mid-season hiatus” wasn’t even a thing.
And then in E17 “Lucy Misses the Mertzes”, we make a permanent move out of the Ricardo’s New York apartment and into their country house in Connecticut. This was a major change for the show as Lucy and Ricky had changed “home” sets only once before, moving from one NY apartment to another in S2E26, “The Ricardos Change Apartments”.
Season 6 is my least favourite, due in no small part to this move into the country. While Lucy and the gang can get up to all sorts of wild hi-jinx no matter where they are, Lucy raising chickens in the country or mowing down her neighbour’s prize flowers just didn’t have the same magic for me.
I wasn’t a big fan of the California/European story arcs either. I always preferred to see Lucy and Ethel keeping their shenanigans closer to home. Don’t ask me why, but the humour seemed more at home when they were, well, at home.
And frankly, Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance and William Frawley were all the star-power that this show needed. It was never any treat for me to see other “bigger” stars guesting because come on! Who’s a bigger star now than Lucille Ball? I understand that it was different in the ’50s when the show was first airing, but for Little Wendy watching in the early ’90s? The main cast of four were all the stars I needed.
The final episode of I Love Lucy was “The Ricardos Dedicate a Statue”, and sees Lucy accidentally destroying a military tribute sculpture … and then posing as it herself. But technically speaking, this was the end of the series in name alone.
After the flagship I Love Lucy ended in May of 1957, Lucy, Ricky, Ethel and Fred transitioned right over into what was essentially a continuation series, “The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour”. This was 13 hour-long episodes that were spread out over three “seasons”, in a two-year period. The season 1 episodes aired once a month starting on November 6, 1957 with “Lucy Takes A Cruise To Havana”. In season 2 (premiering October 6, 1958), they switched to bi-monthly. And the three episodes of season 3 were scattered to September, November and April.
For these hour-long episodes, the Ricardo’s and Mertz’s home base is the Connecticut house where they moved at the end of I Love Lucy‘s 6th season. But harkening back to season four’s California trip, The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour sees our comedic cast once again travelling the globe and rubbing elbows with all kinds of celebrities. In fact, all of the 13 episodes feature one, if not multiple celebrity guests. Hedda Hopper, Ann Sothern, Cesar Romero, and Rudy Vallee all appear in S1E1, “Lucy Takes A Cruise To Havana” — a cute “flashback” to when Lucy and Ricky first met.
Over the next two years, we also see Tallulah Bankhead, Fred MacMurray and wife June Haver, Betty Grable and husband Harry James, Fernando Lamas, Maurice Chevalier, Gale Gordon, the cast of The Danny Thomas Show, Red Skelton, Paul Douglas, Ida Lupino and husband Howard Duff, Milton Berle, Bob Cummings, and finally, Ernie Kovacs and his wife Edie Adams.
The final episode which aired April 1, 1960 is “Lucy Meets the Mustache”. Two months after the episode aired, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz filed for divorce, ending one of Hollywood’s most celebrated romances.
I Love Lucy was nominated for 20 Emmy Awards and won four times: Best Situation Comedy (1953), Vivian Vance won Best Series Supporting Actress (1954), Best Situation Comedy (1954), and finally, Lucille Ball won Best Actress – Continuing Performance (1956). William Frawley (Fred Mertz) received five nominations, meaning that poor Desi Arnaz is the only one who never received a formal nod from the Television Academy, which is honestly a travesty. Without Ricky’s hot-tempered Spanish rantings and the incredible comedic chemistry he had with Lucy, the show would have never been the tremendous success that it was. Not to mention all the work he did behind the scenes as well.
And I think that’s the real reason I Love Lucy has endured the way it has. Why it was such a hit 65 years ago and continues to top people’s list of favourite TV show. You can write the best scripts, you can build the best sets, you can hire the most accomplished people. But if your cast doesn’t have chemistry, doesn’t have some level of love and respect for each other, then all you’ve got is another generic, run-of-the-mill program which will quickly begin fading into obscurity even before the final credits roll.
The most endearing aspect of I Love Lucy was that crazy redhead and her pals. You could have had other comedians doing the exact same bits and it wouldn’t have been funny at all. It was Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance and William Frawley who brought the comedy. A script can only take you so far. Someone has to sell it.
And at the heart of I Love Lucy was the real love that Desi and Lucy had for each other. Their marriage wasn’t one of fairy tales, but maybe their love was. And everyone could see it — their love for one another. Whether the stage lights were on or off, that remained true.
On December 7, 1986, comedienne Lucille Ball and five others were recognized at the 9th annual Kennedy Center Honors, an event which celebrates the lifetime achievements and contributions of those in the performing arts. Speaking to the honorees was President Ronald Reagan, who beautifully summed up exactly what their invaluable contribution was: ”We gather in this old grand house to pay tribute to six men and women to whom we Americans and indeed millions around the world find ourselves deeply in debt. Others in the life of our nation have seen to our material needs. Still others have seen to the life of the mind. But these six are artists and as such they performed a different and singular task: To see to the deepest needs of the heart.”
After a video montage chronicling her life in the industry, Lucy received a standing ovation that left her open-mouthed and teary-eyed. Then actor Robert Stack (Unsolved Mysteries) took the stage to read a congratulatory note from Desi Arnaz, who had passed away only five days earlier on December 2, 1986. In fact, Lucy had flown to the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. after attending Desi’s funeral.
“I Love Lucy had just one mission: To make people laugh. Lucy gave it a rare quality. She can perform the wildest, even the messiest physical comedy without losing her feminine appeal. The New York Times asked me to divide the credit for its success between the writers, the directors and the cast. I told them ‘Give Lucy 90% of the credit and divide the other 10% among the rest of us.’ Lucy was the show. Viv, Fred and I were just props. Damn good props, but props nevertheless.
P.S. “I Love Lucy” was never just the title.”
Update: December 2017: Turns out a lot of people still love Lucy — and Desi too! Michaela over at Love Letters To Old Hollywood was nice enough to let me join this year’s Lucy & Desi Blogathon with this post from last year celebrating “I Love Lucy”‘s 65th anniversary. If you’re a fan of the Ricardos, click the above link and see what other classic TV-lovers have to say about this dynamic duo of comedy. The blogathon starts December 1, 2017!