Only Elvis Presley surpassed Lucy’s ratings.
Long before there was an Adele, Sting, Prince, Bono, Pink or an Oprah, there was a Cher and a Twiggy. But a decade earlier, the first two American entertainers to be known instantly worldwide by just their first names were Elvis Presley and Lucille Ball.
Elvis, the King of Rock n’ Roll is arguably the greatest entertainer in history. The Queen of Television was the bumbling and hilarious lady pioneer of her own record breaking program, “I Love Lucy.”
When a CBS executive first approached Lucy about turning her popular radio show, “My Favorite Husband” into a TV series, she balked. She’d had success in film and radio, but television was relatively new. One night she had a dream about her old friend Carole Lombard, who had once reigned as the “Queen of Screwball Comedy.”
Lombard died tragically on a flight to Las Vegas when the plane crashed into a mountainside in 1942. In the dream, Lombard appeared, beautifully dressed in a suit. She said to Lucille, “Take a chance, honey. Give it a whirl!”
Lucy contacted the CBS executive and said she would do a TV show under the condition that her real-life husband Desi Arnaz was given the role of her on-screen spouse. Executives said there was no way the average American would believe she was married to a “foreign” man with an accent they couldn’t understand. At that point Lucy and Desi had already been married for more than 10 years.
During negotiations, Lucy and Desi demanded the show be filmed on 35mm film, which is expensive, and in Hollywood instead of New York City. The couple even took a cut in pay to make it happen. Along the way they acquired ownership of the series. Desilu Productions, formed by them, made about $40 million from this move, which equal to about $260 million in today’s economy.
I Love Lucy aired from October 15, 1951, to May 6, 1957 and was so popular that some aspects of American life would simply shut down while it was on. Telephone and water usage would dip dramatically for the program’s half-hour duration, and even department stores would shut their doors early due to lack of customers.
When the series ended in 1957, it went out still ranked #1 on television. Later The Andy Griffith Show in 1968 and Seinfeld in 1998 were able to achieve that honor. In 2012, it was given the titles of Best TV Comedy and Best TV Show of All-Time.
The series has only become a bigger part of the pop culture consciousness since. It’s still shown in syndication all over the world, with episodes watched by 40 million Americans a year alone. In addition, merchandise with Lucy’s iconic red hair continues to flourish.
Here are 12 things you may not know about I Love Lucy.
–It was the first scripted TV series filmed with 35 mm film in front of a live studio audience. It was also the first show to use the three-camera format.
–Richard Denning who was on Lucy’s “My Favorite Husband” radio program was originally slated to play her hubby on “I Love Lucy.” He starred in 1950s sci-fi films such as Creature from the Black Lagoon, Target Earth, and Creature with the Atom Brain. Lucy had tried to get James Gleason to play the role of Fred Mertz, but his price was too high. Veteran character actors Gale Gordon and Bea Benaderet were first choices for the Mertz couple but had other obligations.
–Lucille Ball was featured on the very first ever cover of TV Guide and would go on to be featured on 39 covers throughout her career. That’s more TV Guide appearances than any other celebrity. No other sitcom has come close.
–Desi Arnaz was to be named Larry Lopez when the show was first being put together. The name was only changed to Ricky Ricardo because producers thought Larry and Lucy sounded too redundant.
–William Frawley and Vivian Vance, who played Fred and Ethel Mertz, were 22 years apart in age in real life and that disparity caused some real friction on set. Reportedly, they didn’t get along and would constantly call one another names. It wasn’t until years after the show went off the air that their costars realized the tension they were around every day.
–Lucy chose the names of the Mertz’s from her own family and friends. Fred was the name of her brother and grandfather. Ethel was named after Broadway star and Ball’s friend Ethel Merman. Coincidentally, Ethel actress Vivian Vance was an understudy for Merman years earlier.
–Frawley had a reputation for drunken binges and crazy antics, which caused much hesitation on behalf of the others to work with him. Arnaz wanted Frawley, but gave him one stipulation: never be late and be sober. Frawley, in all the time on the show, never missed a day. Frawley was such a huge New York Yankees baseball fan that his contract stipulated that he could miss work if the Yankees were playing in a World Series game.
–When Lucy first began acting, she thought a name that sounded famous would help her take on new Broadway roles. She chose the name Diana Belmont, after the famous Belmont Stakes racetrack on Long Island, New York.
–Lucy’s iconic red hair didn’t exist until 1942. She dyed her hair for the movie DuBarry was a Lady. Her original hair color was brown. She only dyed it blonde when she first came to Hollywood. She would become known for her bright red hair, but that wasn’t what she looked like naturally.
–One tradition of the show that lasted until the very end was that every time an actor could get the audience to erupt into spontaneous applause, that person was given a silver dollar after the scene.
–Desi and Lucy’s children, Lucie and Desi, Jr. never appeared on an episode of I Love Lucy.
–The show was shot in front of a live audience that included 300 viewers. It was done from the first shoot until the last. Amazingly, there were a lot of “one take” scenes. Desi Arnaz later claimed that Lucy worked better if there were real people in front watching her performance. Lucy’s mother Dee Dee was an audience member of each show. She is often heard saying “Uh-Oh.”
“Lucy’s Last Birthday”
It’s the only episode to reveal the lyrics of the show’s theme song: “I love Lucy and she loves me. We’re as happy as two can be. Sometimes we quarrel but then. How we love making up again. Lucy kisses like no one can. She’s my missus and I’m her man. And life is heaven you see. ‘Cause I love Lucy, Yes I love Lucy and Lucy loves me.”
Lucy actually choked while filming the grape stomp scene. (I Love Lucy)
“Lucy’s Italian Movie”
While Lucy was grape stomping she actually began choking on a grape, but continued the scene while the cameras rolled. Once they were off, the crew realized she was actually choking and came to help.
In order to keep up the magical illusion for young watchers of the show, famous actor George Reeves appeared as the world’s most famous superhero. But instead of giving the actor credit, Lucy wanted his guest star name to be displayed only as “Superman” in the credits. Reeves agreed.
“Lucy Goes to the Hospital”
During 1952 filming, Lucy became pregnant and the regulations were put in place to use the word “expecting, not “pregnant.” So a minister, priest and rabbi had to review each episode to ensure no viewers were offended by the pregnancy. Lucy was the first pregnant woman to ever play a pregnant woman on TV.
The episode of Lucy giving birth was viewed by 71.7 percent of all U.S. households on Monday, January 19, 1953 and had higher ratings than the inauguration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Ironically, the storyline coincided with Lucy’s real-life pregnancy of Desi Arnaz, Jr.
The 71.7% reviewing audience is only surpassed by Elvis Presley’s first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, which aired September 9, 1956 with an 82.6% rating. The overall 67.3% rating for the 1952 season of the sitcom remains the highest average rating for any single season of a TV show.
After Lucille Ball gave birth to their son, Arnaz wanted to give his wife a chance to rest at home without having to film the next episode. So he somehow convinced the network to basically air previous episodes again. Henceforth, the TV rerun was born and has since been a staple in the industry.
“Lucy Does a Television Commercial”
Lucy gets a job in a TV commercial by telling the chosen actress that another girl’s been hired; at the studio, Lucy rehearses tasting spoonfuls of the product, “Vitameatavegamin,” but the contents of the product contains far too much alcohol. This is one of the most popular scenes of the series and perhaps in all TV history. As Lucille Ball pretended to become increasingly drunk on the special product, she was actually downing a bunch of Apple Pectin. Lucille Ball didn’t like filming the scene and it was only years later that she admitted it was actually a very funny moment on the series.