I LOVE LUCY
I Love Lucy
has been a beloved sitcom for almost sixty years thanks in large part to Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, William Frawley and Vivian
How many of us know—or remember—the impact that this show had on American life though?
Maven is lucky enough to have the book Lucy & Ricky & Fred & Ethel: The Story of “I Love Lucy” by Bart Andrews* to explain:
Twenty-five years ago at a posh dinner party in New York’s elegant
gramercy Park district, a prominent public relations specialist was overheard to say, “We’ve just bought a little
think being made out on the Coast . . . a situation comedy with Lucille Ball and her husband—whatshizname. I don’t know if it will amount to anything.”
That “little thing” turned out to be the most popular, most watched, most talked about television program
of the 1950s: I love Lucy. And “whatsizname”—Desi Arnaz, of course—soon became TVs most successful entrepreneur
of mirth, the brains behind not only Miss Ball’s million-dollar laugh machine, but also fifty or sixty other prime-time
series like The Untouchables, Our Miss Brooks,
December Bride, etc., etc., etc,--enough film to stretch all the way from Hollywood to Nigeria, where, incidentally, I love Lucy is still running.
The Desilu empire, dissolved officially in 1967 when it was sold to the Golf & Western conglomerate, blossomed
from a tiny, inauspicious stripling of a situation comedy that, just prior to its debut in October 1951, TV Guide modestly described as a show “revolving around problems arising in a household where the wife is
stagestruck [sic] and the orchestra leader husband thinks she should stay home.”
Hardly something to rush right out and buy a new twelve-inch Motorola for.
But in a short six months, or twenty-six episodes later, I Love Lucy became
the first television program to be seen in ten million homes. In fact the April
7, 1952, broadcast was viewed in 10,600,000 households, according to the American Research Bureau (ARB), one of the five rating
services operating in the early 1950s. That figure might not seem overwhelming
by today’s mass media standards, but remember that at the start of 192 there were only fifteen million TV sets in operation
in the United States.
In New York, Lucy was the Number One Show after only four months, ranking
well ahead of Arthur Godfrey, Your Show of Shows, Milton Berle, and Fireside Theatre.
Writing about I Love Lucy in the New York Times,
the dean of TV critics Jack Gould observed: “The series has engendered
as much public interest as anything since the days when the world stood still every evening to hear Amos ’n’ Andy on the radio.”
For, indeed, if the world stood still for Amos ’n’ Andy, America came to a grinding halt every Monday night when I Love Lucy came on the air.
The Lucy mania was so widespread that the telephone company actually reported
a “substantial reduction” in calls during the half-hour period. Families
without TV sets crowded into neighbor’s living rooms to watch. If the nearest
set happened to be a taxi ride away, fans in New York City might have been out of luck:
Cabbies disappeared into bars to catch a glimpse of Lucy and Ricky and Fred and Ethel uncoiling their latest plot,
and didn’t turn on their ignition again until 9:31 P.M.
The mammoth Marshall field department store in Chicago switched
its evening shopping hours from Mondays to Thursdays when it became financially clear that the biggest clearance sale in the
store’s history was no match for I Love Lucy.
So that customers and employees could watch the show, the management put up a sign in the window on State Street declaring: “We love Lucy, too, so we’re closing on Monday nights.”
Likewise, doctors and dentists in many cities changed their Monday-evening
visiting hours to prevent cancellations of appointments by Lucy fans.
PTA leaders in Lyn, Massachusetts, picketed their local CBS affiliate,
demanding that I Love Lucy be broadcast at an earlier hour so schoolchildren could
get to bed at a reasonable hour.
Members of a Lion’s Club in Santa Barbara, California, chipped
in and bought a TV set, the installed it in their meeting room, declaring a half-hour recess so everybody could watch Lucy.
George J. Van Dorp, water commissioner of Toledo, Ohio, had his
own rating system in 1953. A glance at a chart form the main water pumping station,
a few seconds work with his slide rule, and he could tell that I Love Lucy was
Toledo’s favorite TV show. Van Dorp contended, “There’s an
amazing correlation between the degree of attention that people pay to a television show and the amount of water they use. While I Love Lucy is being shown, pressure
in the main is consistently high. As soon as the commercial comes on, the pressure
drops because people are using the bathroom or whatever. That lasts only one
minute: I don’t need a watch; all I do is look at the water-pressure gauge. When the show is over and people once again avail themselves of water services, the
pressure sometimes drops as much as thirt percent, enough to burst a twelve-inch main.”
Checking charts, Van Dorp was able to report, for instance, that on April 20, 1953, when Lucy and Desi went on the
air, use of water in Toledo dropped thirteen percent, and at the end of the episode (“No Children Allowed”), it
shot upward by twenty-one percent. Translating for us landlubbers, Mr. Van Dorp
decreed: “I Love Lucy is always
the leader under the Van Dorp system.”
Whatever rating system you subscribed to, I Love Lucy came out ahead. The series won more than two hundred awards, including five Emmys (it was nominated
twenty-three times) and the coveted George Foster Peabody Award for “Recognition
of distinguished achievement in television.”
One of the reactions to the show was its tremendous children’s following.
Awards poured in from sixth-grade classes at one school, from a seventh-grade class at another, Lucille Ball and Desi
Arnaz were constantly asked to judge high school contests of one kind or another.
Formal studies, such as one sponsored byt the Nuffield Foundation in England in 1956, proved that Lucy was the favorite of seventy three percent of all thirteenth-to-fourteen-years-old girls.
Boys loved Lucy, too. A junior
igh school teacher in Fort Madison, Iowa, recalled a particular fifteen-year-old student who arrived fifteen minutes late,
at 9:15, every morning. When he asked the boy why he was so consistently tardy,
the young man nonchalantly replied, “Because I Love Lucy isn’t over
’till nine o’clock.”
. . . Hedda Hopper, who was in the Capitol the night Little Ricky Ricardo was born (January 19, 1953), said, “I
remember that the 1953 inauguration party that Colonel Robert R. McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, gave came [sic] to a temporary halt while everybody had to watch I Love Lucy in silence. Bertie was wild
about the show and wanted to witness the birth.
Incidentally, this particular episode is listed in a United States history book as “one of the great emotional
events of the decade.”
LUCY & RICKY & Fred & ETHEL: The Story of
I Love Lucy; Bart Andrews; E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc.; New York, 1973; pages 1 to