In celebration of the 60th anniversary of the classic television show’s debut, as well as the centenary of Lucille Ball’s birth (Aug 6.), the Library of Congress presents “I Love Lucy: An American Legend.” The display explores the show’s history through the Ball and Arnaz family scrapbooks, photographs, scripts, printed and manuscript music, film clips and other documents from the Library’s collections. The exhibition opened Aug. 4 and runs through Jan. 28 in the Performing Arts Reading Room. It will then travel to the Library’s exhibition space at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, where it will be on display Feb. 25 through Aug. 18, 2012. A digital version of the exhibition is available on the Library website at www.loc.gov/exhibits/.
By ERIN ALLEN
On the evening of Oct. 15, 1951, viewers gathered around their newfangled television sets to catch the premiere of “I Love Lucy,” a sitcom starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, a showbiz-obsessed housewife and her bandleader husband determined to keep her off the stage. Throw in a couple of neighbors—Vivian Vance and William Frawley as Ethel and Fred Mertz—and the ensemble cast is complete.
Little did anyone imagine 60 years ago that the troupe would become four of the most famous fictional Americans of the 20th century.
The phenomenon that became “I Love Lucy” developed from a confluence of talent, on-screen chemistry, behind-the-scenes skill and, in the words of the show’s producer, Jess Oppenheimer, “unbelievably good luck.”
The sitcom was the most-watched
show in the United States and No. 1
in the Nielsen ratings in four of its six
seasons. In its first season, it was pronounced
“the season’s most popular
program” by TV Guide. The show
and its cast received 23 Emmy Award
nominations, winning five.
“The exhibition space is small but the subject matter is vast,” said Raymond White, the exhibition’s curator from the Music Division. “So, we’re focusing on the show, with a little background [on Ball and Arnaz] to set things up, and also taking a brief look at the show’s legacy.”
“I enjoyed reviewing the scrapbook pages, with all the articles and images, which allowed me to see a different perspective of the ‘I Love Lucy’ show,” added Carroll Johnson, exhibit curator in the Library’s Interpretive Programs Office. “It was hard making final selections of the pages, because of the limited space that we have in the Performing Arts Reading Room and our other exhibition space at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.”
Arnaz was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth—his father was in Cuban politics and his mother’s family had ties to the Bacardi Rum Co. empire. The family’s status declined sharply when they fled to Miami following Fulgencio Batista’s rise to power in 1933.
“Desi Arnaz did not have a big career as a musician before he came to the United States,” said White. “Gigs in Miami led to New York, where he got his first big break on Broadway in the show ‘Too Many Girls.’ ”
A year later, he headed to Hollywood to star in the film version of the show, where, as fate would have it, he met Lucille Ball.
“Lucille Ball’s origins were less patrician,” said White.
Born in Jamestown, N.Y., to a pianist mother and a telephone lineman father, she was “a ham” from the very beginning. Ball got her break when she was hired to appear as a Goldwyn Girl in the 1933 film “Roman Scandals.”
According to White, she was successful but never a top-drawer star. She was known as “Queen of the Bs” for her many roles in B films.
On Nov. 30, 1940, Lucy and Desi were married at the Byram River Beagle Club in Greenwich, Conn. They had two children, Lucie and Desi Jr.
“They had a famously tempestuous courtship and marriage,” said White.
In 1948, Ball was cast in the new CBS radio series “My Favorite Husband.”
“It was similar to ‘I Love Lucy’ in that it was a domestic comedy involving two couples,” said White.
“From the get-go, Lucy wanted Desi to co-star. She figured working together would cut down his orchestra’s touring schedule and would help them get along a little better.”
According to White, the show’s executives didn’t think Arnaz would fit the bill of the typical American husband. Two years later, when CBS executives suggested transferring the show to the then-new medium of television, Ball again wanted Arnaz to co-star but to no avail. So, the two took the show on the road.
“They created a song-and-dance vaudeville act and took it on tour,” said White. “People loved it.”
CBS executives relented and the rest, as they say, is history—not only in the success and enduring quality of “I Love Lucy” but in setting the standard of how shows were made.
“Most television shows were being produced in the East at that time,” said White. “They would be broadcast live in the East and then kinescope copies were shown for the Western time zones. It was like watching TV through a cheesecloth.”
Ball, Arnaz and Oppenheimer weren’t willing to leave Southern California, so they proposed to produce the show in Hollywood. In doing so, “I Love Lucy” really became the model for how situation comedies were made—using the three camera filming technique, a uniform lighting system for the entire set and permanent and realistic sets, on 35-mm film before a live audience.
In 1955, “I Love Lucy” achieved a significant television first—it became the first series to be broadcast as reruns, because it had been produced on film.
“By the fourth or fifth season, Ball and Arnaz’s real-life marriage was deteriorating, the two had children to contend with and the writers felt they had done everything,” White said of the show’s demise after six seasons.
After the final season in 1957, a series of 13 one-hour specials, “The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show,” ran for the next three years, as did the marriage. The couple divorced in 1960. Ball and Arnaz’s Desilu Productions went on to produce other series such as “Star Trek” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”
“The skill of the writers, actors, directors and everyone speaks to the show’s success,” White said. “They had very high standards for what they would do.”
“‘I Love Lucy’ truly set the standard for today’s family-oriented television shows,” Johnson said. “That’s why it’s still in rerun today. Almost everyone has a favorite episode.”
Erin Allen is a writer-editor in the Office of Communications.