On the evening of Oct. 15, 1951, viewers gathered around their new-fangled 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 whose bandleader husband is determined to keep her away from Hollywood. Throw in a couple of wacky neighbors – Vivian Vance and William Frawley as Ethel and Fred Mertz – to complete the ensemble cast. 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 four of its six seasons, including being pronounced “the season’s most popular program” in its first season by TV Guide. The show and its cast received 23 Emmy Award nominations, winning five awards.
In celebration of the 60th anniversary of the show’s debut, as well as the centenary of Lucille Ball’s birth (August 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, and other documents from the Library’s collections.
The idea for "I Love Lucy" originated when CBS considered transferring its successful radio program, "My Favorite Husband," starring Ball (1911–1989), to the then-new medium of television. Ball’s real-life husband, Arnaz (1917–1986), became her costar.
Featured items in the exhibition include a manuscript drum part for "Babalu" from the 1940s and early scrapbook photographs of the young Arnaz and Ball in Hollywood. Also on view are items from the Jess Oppenheimer Collection, including a copy of the original concept and receipt for copyright registration for "I Love Lucy" (1951). All scrapbook pages are from the Library’s Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz Collection.
Before Ball and Arnaz were television’s popular comedic duo, they took the show on the road, as it were, performing in touring vaudeville act that was quite successful. At the turn of the 20th century, the most common way to enjoy humor was to attend a vaudeville show, a variety show that might include comedians, dancers, singers, performing animals, acrobats and magicians. Vaudeville teams doing comic routines were also popular. Much of today's humor evolved from vaudeville, which began to decline in popularity after 1932. You can read more about the history of vaudeville in America’s Library in the humor section of the “See, Hear and Sing” chapter.