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Saturday, October 15, 2011

I Love Lucy: 60 Years of Love and Laughter.

On this day, 60 years ago, the very first episode of I Love Lucy aired on CBS.

The episode was "The Girls Want to Go To a Nightclub". The original first episode was supposed to be "Lucy Thinks Ricky is Going to Murder Her", but on the night of the premiere episode there was a glitch with that particular reel and luckily, their second episode was already there to fill in.

Stills from the historic first episode
America in the 1950's was a curious time, and a time of change. They had survived the tough years -  the Depression, the War Years - and now the new decade loomed before them clear and glittering. Filled with the patriotic pride, can-do spirit, and endurance that had followed them throughout the difficulties of the past 20 years, they charged forward with a new, hopeful spirit.

Now that the boys were back home, "The Baby Boom" era had launched and families were growing quicker and faster ever than before. The American suburbs were born: pretty, tidy, yet somewhat identical and stereotypical single family homes with big backyards in a wholesome neighborhood popping up all over the country.

America in the 1950's was commercial. They were willing to reward themselves with perhaps a shiny new dishwasher or refrigerator; the Retro Housewife was getting her share of presents. And the American Woman was a new person. Though she still sent the kids and the husband to school in the morning, cooked and cleaned and gossiped with her girlfriends throughout day, all in having the house spanking clean and the pot roast ready for dinner, she was somehow becoming more independent. The War Years had given women new opportunities, told them to take charge. They got jobs and held down the fort with their husbands away. Now their husbands were back and they fell back into their role as housewives but with a new air of confidence. They wore pants, for example, and demanded the new household appliances that went hand in hand with independence.

The 1950's was very much the hyperbola of the glory years: the decade when "things were better" and that glorified "The American Dream." A gorgeous new car would cost you $1,000 - a house perhaps $9,000, the milkman would drop off the bottles of milk in the back of the house for 92 cents, and a dozen eggs would spare you two dimes and then some. America was happy, rejuvenated, and excited by the prospect of the future. They had survived the rough times and now, they could sit back and thoroughly enjoy life.

This was the world that I Love Lucy walked into. 

Television was something new, but it was hot and Americans were excited about it. Still, in the year 1950 (just a couple years after it came on the market), only one in ten Americans owned a television set. Lucy would premiere the following year, give birth to the sitcom, and change television for good. For by the year 1955, more than half of Americans would own a television set and most of the time, their dials would be turned to CBS, to Lucy.

One of the most classic of all episodes - "Job Switching."
The next morning after Lucy's premiere, the critics excitedly declared the show a runaway hit ("full of good comedy, slick in comedic construction, preformed with a smart feeling!"). The Hollywood Reporter was so enthusiastic that they blurted, "The show should bounce to the top of the rating's heap in no time at all. If it doesn't, the entire structure of  the American entertainment business should be overhauled from top to bottom!"

The Hollywood Reporter needn't worry because Americans were able to take notice of this good thing when they had it. Lucy shot to number three for the first season of the show, but that was only the beginning.

Season Two started out with a bang. Since Lucy and Desi were pregnant, Ricky and Lucy were about to be, too. CBS shook in their boots: scandal, perhaps? The infant of television had never dared show a straight up, openly pregnant woman before on TV. Some moral guardians shook their head and clicked their tongues "no", one woman writing into a newspaper:
What must we tell our eight year old daughter when she fails to see why Lucy's inability to get out of a chair is a joke?
The newspaper, who supported the show, gave it write back to the woman.
Several mothers of young daughters in our neighborhood solved the problem by explaining exactly why Lucy has difficulty getting out of chairs.
Years later, Lucy would say, "We weren't even allowed to say the word 'pregnant', and today not only can you say the word you can show how they got that way!" (That was thirty years ago).

Most, however, were supportive of the nine consecutive episodes surrounding the pregnancy and the sweet moments that were provoked from it. One lady writer wrote, "Lucille Ball lends chic to maternity", while other writers agreed the pregnancy shows were one hundred percent appropriate for the family viewing and that the episodes were done with total taste, not to mention with the approval of a priest, minister, and rabbi (who never brought up an issue, instead wondered what was the problem and thought that showing motherhood on television was a beautiful thing).

When the Ricardos' son, Little Ricky, was born on January 19th, 1953 (that morning Lucille Ball had given birth to the Arnaz baby, Desi, Jr. in perfect timing), more than 70% of TV viewers tuned into watch the episode. Based on the number of people who owned television sets and then the over all percentage that tuned in, this spawned one of the most watched TV moments. The inauguration of President Eisenhower was the next morning and he famously failed to rake in only 68% of the viewers.

If Lucy wasn't a phenomenon before, that was the clincher. The first edition of TV Guide displayed "Lucy's $50,000,000 baby", Desi, Jr. It was announced on radio in Japan that the Ricardos had given birth to a baby boy, and up until then people had even been making bets on what the sex would be. Lucille Ball's hospital room was filled with flowers - so many that they spilled into the hallway and several floors down - and the Arnazes received hundreds and hundreds of cards (only twenty-three of them were negative.)

America adored Lucy.

An interesting article entitled "I Love Lucy Takes Nation by Storm" examined and showed just how strong the popularity of the show was in the country. The article tells us just a few of the habits of religious Lucy watchers. Like, for example -

  • In Dallas, Lucy viewing parties were all the rage despite the show broadcast on a Monday night, which was both a school and work night.
  • In Pennsylvania, a department store manager who used to keep his store open Monday nights was forced to move it to another night because he and all his help wanted to go home and watch Lucy with their families.
  • A telephone company in LA confirmed that telephone calls plummeted to a minimum during the Lucy half hour.
  • Parents began sending requests to Lucy and Desi if the 9:00 PM show could be move to earlier in the evening as their children were constantly begging for allowances in bedtime to stay up to watch the show - allowances which, indeed, the parents had to make.
  • The writer himself remembered one instance sitting in a dentist office on Monday night when the young lady across from him suddenly dropped her magazine and shot out of her chair, declaring, "I've got to get out of here! I forgot tonight is Lucy!"
One of the greatest conversations on a Tuesday whether it would be between girlfriends, at the office, or at the dinner table was Lucy. And it wasn't "Did you see I Love Lucy?". It was did you see the show. "The show" signified only one show in the world, everyone was watching it, and everyone knew it.

That was the 1950's, that was sixty years ago. The most intriguing thing about the show, however, is it's capability to remain popular today.

How is that so? Maybe that it is the hyperbola of the classic television, the hallmark of the Golden Age of TV; why, for most people if you were told "classic TV", the first thing that would come to mind would be Lucy. Even before I watched the show I had heard of it and in my mind it was just what you thought of when you thought of old TV or black and white TV.

To each avid Lucy viewer and fan, the show means something to him/her. Usually something individual. Oh, there all the underlying factors that just about everyone will agree with: it's hilarious, for one. But there are others that lie beneath the surface. 

Like for me, it cheers me up. If I have ever had a hard day or a long one, all I need to do is watch one episode and it helps me relax and smile again. It is a comfort. I have seen each episode so many times, so much so that I can say the lines in unison with the characters. I know exactly what Lucy's scheming do and when and why Ricky is going to blow. Yet I watch a few episodes nearly every day, and I never get tired of it. Never "oh, that old episode again." Each time I watch it the the lines can still be funny, still fresh and new, but familiar so I feel like it's a friend and a good one.

I have always felt that in my worst moments or my worse times, I can turn to this show and instantly feel better. And I think that is simply one of the things that gives this show it's an enduring popularity. It can never feel outdated (for antagonists of old things) because some things, whether it was sixty years ago or today, can never become old. Two of these big things are "love" and "laughter", and Lucy gives us both.

"Laughter", of course, is the most obvious of these two. One might have to stop for a moment and think about "love". Is it because of the title? The title, given by the show's producer, Jess Oppenheimer, actually has meaning. He wanted the show to be about this ditzy redhead and her bandleader husband. She's always botching up, doing these silly things, he loses his temper but at the end of the day he still loves her. The show is about unconditional love. (A bit of trivia: Lucille Ball agreed to the title because she felt that it gave Desi top billing, as the "I" in I Love Lucy was Desi and he came first. Up until then, they had been trying to do "The Lucille Ball Show" or "The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show", which always gave Desi second billing).

The show is warm and loving. And I know it must feel strange to have such a strong attachment to a television show; just black and white characters frolicking on our screens (tiny then, humongous now). But I know I'm not the only one. The show was a labor of love and a gift. To me, laughter is the greatest sound in the world and Lucy is one thing you can be sure of will always have it.

Some follow-ups to what I have written:

And if you want more, just check my "I Love Lucy" tag.

Of course, I have made a tribute for this particular day and this amazing show. Here it is:

And I'll leave you with a picture... and quote! 

"I'm happy that I have brought laughter because I have been shown by many the value of it in so many lives, in so many ways."


I guess there's nothing left to say, but: Thank you. Thanks, Lucy, for all the love and laughter and the good times you've given to generations of people, for sixty years. 


Brandie said...

What a wonderful (and wonderfully thorough) tribute to one of the best television shows of all time! I really enjoyed reading this.

Rianna said...

Thanks so much, Brandie! I wasn't entirely confident in this so I'm glad you liked it. :)

Carmen said...

One of the greatest tributes I've ever read! You really reflect your feelings for I Love Lucy here. As I told you, I am only beginning with the show, but I can tell you that after this, I will always watch it with more joy and gladness because you really transmit your enthusiasm. Thank you!

Rianna said...

Wow, thank you once again! That means a lot to me and I'm glad I could transmit my enthusiasm because I really do love this show. (But you can probably tell, can't you? :D). Thanks so much!! :)

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