If endurance and timelessness are the hallmarks of a true work of art, then “I Love Lucy” would have to be defined as television’s masterpiece.
Since its debut on CBS on Oct. 15, 1951, “I Love Lucy” has been part of the American social fabric, its cast like members of the family. But out of all the television series ever aired, why is it “I Love Lucy” that continues to appeal to audiences of all ages, generation after generation, even after repeated viewings? That’s a question that’s been asked often over the years, but seldom, if ever, has it been answered adequately, even by its creators and its stars.
For starters, “I Love Lucy” is a uniquely personal yet universally shared experience that unites people from the most disparate of backgrounds. The single word “Lucy” commands instant recognition the world over. To some, the word Lucy connotes several meanings at once: first, a groundbreaking and unparalleled television program that has been watched by more than 1 billion people and dubbed into dozens of languages; second, a fictional character, Lucy Ricardo, part lovable if naughty child, part hoyden, part feminine housewife and part ambitious schemer; and third, a person, the inimitable comic actress who at her peak possessed an infinite range of expression and uncanny timing-Lucille Ball.
But Lucy is not merely a charming, well-written 1950s domestic situation comedy that still elicits laughter in reruns. Nor is it just an unforgettable, and exceptionally well-defined, TV character. And Lucy is not solely the enigmatic redhead Lucille Ball, who, curiously, at this and only this one period in her 60-year career, elevated her craft to timeless art by tapping into a hidden genius through uncompromising discipline and determination.
The fact is, Lucy, far beyond just being a nostalgic blip on the global public consciousness, is an ongoing phenomenon, one that is rooted in love, laughter and the human condition.
The ever-potent magic of the Lucy phenomenon is instantly recognizable to each successive generation of children, and the comfort it generates stays with them as they mature into adults and beyond. The program from which it emanates carries with it a mirror that even a half-century later, in today’s often harsh and ever-more-sophisticated world, still reflects the childlike innocence in all of us-and it still resonates with genuine humor and emotional relevance. The sum of the Lucy phenomenon-the love of Lucy that endures and prevails-eclipses any single part of the show’s whole.
And just as the Lucy phenomenon transcends time, it transcends sexual politics. Below its surface and beyond the trappings and mores of 1950s America, Lucy is neither male nor female; rather, it is about wanting to belong, about being loved, about wrestling with our own selfish impulses-and our own egos-in order to peacefully co-exist with others. It is about familiarity and bringing out the best in ourselves and those we interact with, and in turn about seeing others’ weaknesses and protecting them. It is about support, friendship and understanding. It is about human nature.
It is almost impossible to think of the word Lucy without immediately conjuring the word love. At the heart of the Lucy phenomenon is the love between the stars of “I Love Lucy,” Lucille Ball and her husband and producing partner Desi Arnaz. It is a genuine romantic love that continues to be palpable on the screen long after their deaths. Its truth and its appeal can’t be denied, for as Desi Arnaz summed up in his autobiography, “I Love Lucy” was never just a title.
In that sense, “I Love Lucy” was the first-and the best kind of-reality television programming, and it is unique in that perhaps no other entertainment vehicle has so completely captured and conveyed the real-life love between two people. “I Love Lucy” is the standard by which all other sitcoms are measured. And the genuine affection and the good-natured give-and-take between its stars are the standards by which many viewers have measured their own love relationships.
For some, it is the only exposure to love they’ll ever experience; for others it sustains their hopes that such love exists. In that sense, it spreads love, and in so doing has engendered for its stars-particularly for Lucille Ball-an eternal affection and appreciation so haunting, so overwhelming that even Ball and Arnaz were never capable of fully understanding it.
Because the program intertwined fact with fiction-Ball and Arnaz were really married, and obviously truly in love; many of the dates, names and situations used in the shows were taken from their real lives; and their second child, Desi Arnaz Jr., was actually born on the same day as his TV counterpart, Little Ricky-a confusion arose in the public mind about what was reality and what wasn’t. In fact, Desi Arnaz Jr. will tell you that as recently as last month, he was still being confused with Little Ricky.
The longevity of the appeal of “I Love Lucy” was happenstance, never a goal. With love at its center, the unique phenomenon of Lucy is also the result of the coming together of many extraordinary talents: producer and head writer Jess Oppenheimer; writers Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll Jr. (later joined by Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf); supporting players Vivian Vance and William Frawley; cinematographer Karl Freund; directors Marc Daniels and Bill Asher; and film editor Dann Cahn, among many others. Outstanding contributions by a galaxy of people at this particular magical moment in time-combined with the inordinate dedication and numerous talents of Lucille Ball-made for high standards and high quality that resulted in timeless entertainment.
The circumstances surrounding the creation of “I Love Lucy” posed a number of technical challenges, the solutions to which changed the way TV shows were made. CBS wanted the show performed live in front of an audience, since its experience with Ball on the “My Favorite Husband” radio show convinced the brass that she needed one to be at her best. Ball and Arnaz wanted the series to originate from Hollywood, a condition that ran counter to the practice of the time, when most programs were broadcast live from New York to the Eastern time zone-the main population center of the United States-while kinescopes, or inferior recordings filmed off a television screen, were provided to stations in the West for broadcast there during prime time.
Since there was no transcontinental coaxial cable at that time, there was no way for the show to originate live from Hollywood and still provide a high-quality picture for the East Coast audience. The poor-quality kinescopes would have to be used, a situation that the sponsor did not find acceptable.
Arnaz suggested shooting the series on 35mm film using the live TV technique of three cameras simultaneously capturing different angles, a proposition CBS found to be too costly. Besides that, how could a TV series be shot on film in front of an audience? Hollywood soundstages did not accommodate audiences, and an entirely different set of rules surrounded film production. There were fire laws and unions, building and zoning codes to consider. A special facility would have to be constructed to accommodate such a production.
Arnaz and Ball agreed to a pay cut if the network and the sponsor would agree to shooting the series on film. Arnaz offered that in return he would solve the problem of logistics with the caveat that he and Ball would retain ownership of the series once it had aired on the network. The network agreed, and the couple’s Desilu Productions was formed to rent the studio space, buy the equipment, hire the crew and film the shows. A prescient move, as it turned out-because “I Love Lucy” was filmed, it effectively created the off-network syndication market, and Desilu sold the series back to CBS for that purpose five years later for $4.3 million. Desilu then used the proceeds to buy RKO Studios, becoming the largest independent TV production facility in Hollywood.
Not only was Desilu’s style of producing the program untried, the medium its
elf was new and mysterious, and on a weekly basis “I Love Lucy” brought into the home an unprecedented-and almost shocking-intimacy unfamiliar to 1950s mass audiences accustomed to the larger-than-life, impersonal public atmosphere of the movie theater.
Simple yet complex, the show also brought to America’s public consciousness such largely taboo issues as inter-ethnic marriage (Ball: “CBS didn’t think America would accept Desi as my husband on television-even though we had been married in real life for 10 years”), racism (Again, Ball: “He didn’t deserve being called a `bongo player’ and all those other terrible names. He built Desilu. It was all him.”) and highly charged sexual tension between a swarthy Latin lover-type and a sexually reserved WASP (TV producer Sheldon Leonard: “They were the first couple on TV who looked like they were sleeping together-and enjoying it).”
And, at the dawn of the 1960s, when myriad pressures led to the then-shocking breakup of Ball and Arnaz’s marriage, the Lucy phenomenon even significantly shattered the stigma of the “broken home” and divorce. As Ball once admitted, “I received 8,000 letters at the time of the divorce announcement and read most of them. They asked me not to get a divorce. I was painfully aware of the feeling the American public had for Lucy and their need for Lucy and Ricky as a happy family.”
A large part of the Lucy phenomenon consists of Desi Arnaz’s great-and largely unrecognized-achievements as an industry pioneer. As daughter Lucie Arnaz has noted, “He really had gained the respect that he felt he didn’t have-the problem was that he didn’t feel it inside.” Never nominated for an Emmy, Desi, the astute businessman and perceptive showman, once attempted to shrug off the slight by quipping with characteristic charm, “I’m waiting for them to put in a category of bongo drummer-and if they have one and don’t nominate me, then I’ll squawk.”
And, as one former Desilu executive noted in retrospect, “He felt Lucy was the star, and he couldn’t handle that. I thought he was a remarkable human being, but he had that hang-up. And yet all the way through, Lucy never gave up loving him. He may have loved her, but he couldn’t deal with it.” In the end, the legacy he helped to build was largely denied to him.
With the divorce behind her in the 1960s, Lucille Ball continued to challenge and surmount stereotypes when she assumed the position of Desilu Studios president from ex-husband Arnaz. She was the first-and remains the only-female in history to own and run a major studio. And she cannily sold the production empire, worth $5 million in 1962 when she took over as studio head, to Paramount five years later for $17 million. In retrospect, it was a good deal as well for Paramount, which via the sale gained the rights to the Desilu properties “Star Trek,” “The Untouchables” and “Mission: Impossible,” vehicles the studio has exploited to optimal results theatrically.
Today, all but forgotten are such woefully dated “I Love Lucy” contemporaries as “My Little Margie,” “I Married Joan,” “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” and “Our Miss Brooks.” Even the nostalgic appeal of “The Honeymooners” and “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show,” both of which enjoyed a brief resurgence of popularity in the 1980s, has largely faded away.
It is only “I Love Lucy” that endures.
Besides its nightly cable berth in the United States (“I Love Lucy” moves from Nick at Nite to TV Land on its 50th anniversary date, Oct. 15), the series remains a staple on many local TV station schedules and in addition is among the evergreen home video titles. The tchotchke market is burgeoning with Lucy merchandise. Further, the show’s endurance has spawned the Lucy-Desi Museum in Ball’s hometown of Jamestown, N.Y., as well as permanent Lucy tributes at the Universal Studios theme parks in Hollywood and Orlando, Fla. A Loving Lucy convention held in Burbank, Calif., draws thousands of fans each year, and an interactive exhibit observing the show’s golden anniversary is currently touring the country.
Not bad for a black-and-white sitcom that premiered when Truman was president. But is it art? Time will tell. Or maybe time has already told.