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I Love Lucy debuted on CBS in October 1951 and was an immediate sensation. It spent four of its six prime-time seasons as the highest-rated series on television and never finished lower than third place. Eisenhower's presidential inauguration in January 1953 drew twenty-nine million viewers, but when Lucy gave birth to Little Ricky in an episode broadcast the next day forty-four million viewers (72% of all U.S. homes with TV) tuned in to I Love Lucy. When it ceased production as a weekly series in 1957, I Love Lucy was still the number one series in the country. And its remarkable popularity has barely waned in the subsequent decades. Since passing into the electronic museum of reruns, I Love Lucy has become the Mona Lisa of television, a work of art whose fame transcends its origins and its medium.
Television in the 1950s was an insistently domestic medium, abundant with images of marriage and family. The story of I Love Lucy's humble origins suited the medium perfectly, because it told of how a television program rescued a rocky marriage, bringing forth an emotionally renewed and financially triumphant family. After a relatively successful career in Hollywood, Lucille Ball had spent three years with actor Richard Denning in a CBS radio sitcom, My Favorite Husband. When CBS asked her to move into television, she agreed--but only if her real husband, Desi Arnaz, were allowed to play her TV husband. Arnaz, a one-time contract performer at RKO Pictures, was a moderately successful musician and orchestra leader who specialized in Latin pop music. His touringschedule placed a tremendous strain on the marriage, and they wanted to be together in order to raise a family. The network and prospective sponsors balked at the casting of Arnaz, fearing that his Cuban accent--his ethnic identity--would alienate television viewers. To dispel doubts, Ball and Arnaz created a nightclub act and toured during the summer of 1950. When the show proved to be a huge success CBS agreed to finance a pilot starring husband and wife.In 1951 agent Don Sharpe negotiated a contract with CBS and sponsor Philip Morris cigarettes for Desilu, the couple's new production company, to produce I Love Lucy. CBS and the sponsor insisted that the program be broadcast live from New York, to take advantage of network production facilities in what was still predominately a live medium. For personal reasons Ball and Arnaz wanted to stay in Hollywood, but they also wanted to take advantage of movie industry production facilities and to ensure the long-term value of their series by capturing it on film. Syndication of reruns had not yet become standard procedure, but television's inevitable growth meant that the return on serious investment in a television series was incalculable. The network finally agreed to the couple's demands, but as a concession asked Ball and Arnaz to pay the additional cost of production and to accept a reduced fee for themselves. In exchange Desilu was given one-hundred percent ownership of the series--a provision that quickly turned Ball and Arnaz into the first millionaire television stars.I Love Lucy reflected the couple's own family life in the funhouse mirror of a sitcom premise. To this extent I Love Lucy resembled several other vaguely autobiographical showbiz family sitcoms of the 1950s, such as The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (1950-58), The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952-66), and The Danny Thomas Show (1953-64). Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz played Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, a young married couple living in a converted brownstone on the upper east side of Manhattan. Ricky is the orchestra leader for the Tropicana nightclub; Lucy is a frustrated housewife who longs to escape the confinement of her domestic role and participate in a larger public world, preferably to join Ricky in show business. They were joined by Vivian Vance and William Frawley, who played Ethel and Fred Mertz, former vaudeville performers who are the Ricardos' landlords.
"I Love Lucy" won 5 Emmy Awards during it's original run, with over twenty nominations. It was the number one show of the 1950's. It is now known as one of the most classic and successful shows in television history, and is still being shown today! Desi was becoming too busy with his position as president of Desilu studios to keep up with a weekly "I Love Lucy", so "I Love Lucy" was taken off the air at the end of the 1957 season and replaced by 13 hourly specials entitled "The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour", and continued until 1960 when business stress and personal problems grew fierce, Lucy and Desi divorced, this time for good.