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“I Love Lucy” at 60 Years Old

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The following is a guest post from Senior Music Specialist Ray White.

Portrait of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz from the Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Sixty years ago, on October 15, 1951, America met Lucy and Ricky Ricardo for the first time.  She was a housewife with dreams of a career in show business, and her bandleader husband was as determined to keep her out of show business as she was to make her way in.  They represented a kind of 1950s marital bliss, with exquisitely comedic troubles, but always with a happy ending.  The Ricardos lived in a New York brownstone apartment building owned by their neighbors and best friends, Ethel and Fred Mertz.

A runaway hit from the outset, I Love Lucy elevated actress Lucille Ball and bandleader Desi Arnaz from their solidly successful careers to something more akin to superstardom. And if Lucille Ball is regarded as I Love Lucy’s principal star, Desi Arnaz was surely its

principal genius.  Together, and with the indispensible assistance of Broadway veteran Vivian Vance, Hollywood character actor William Frawley, and a very gifted production team, they created a phenomenon that has become, by any reckoning, an American legend.  The Ricardos and the Mertzes are among the most famous fictional Americans of the twentieth century.

A number of the episodes have achieved almost legendary status: “Lucy Does a Television Commercial” (in which she promotes the “Vitameatavegamin” tonic); “Job Switching” (Lucy and Ethel get jobs working in a candy factory); “Lucy is ‘Enceinte’” (Lucy and Ricky learn that she is expecting a baby); “L.A. At Last!” (Lucy wears a putty-nose disguise which she sets on fire when lighting a cigarette); and “Lucy’s Italian Movie” (with its grape-stomping scene).

In all, 180 half-hour episodes were aired on Monday evenings at 9:00 p.m., setting many records for television viewership.  In 1952, its twenty-sixth episode became the first television broadcast seen in more than 10 million American households.  An astounding 44 million viewers watched the birth of “Little Ricky” in 1953.  I Love Lucy was Number 1 in the Nielsen ratings for four of its six seasons, and it was the first television series ever to finish its run at the top of the ratings.  The show and its cast received twenty- three Emmy nominations, winning five awards.  Even now, the episodes continue to be telecast around the world, reportedly in eighty countries, and dubbed in twenty-two languages. And the I Love Lucy theme song is still among the most famous music ever played on television.

The Library of Congress has developed a small exhibition entitled I Love Lucy: An American Legend which explores the show’s history through the Ball and Arnaz family scrapbooks as well as photographs, scripts, printed and manuscript music, and other documents from the Music Division’s Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz Collection.  It will be open in the lobby of the Performing Arts Reading Room Monday through Saturday 8:30am to 5:00pm, until January 28, 2012.

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