I Love Lucy is an American television sitcom starring Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance, and William Frawley. The black-and-white series originally ran from October 15, 1951, to May 6, 1957, on CBS. After the series ended in 1957, however, a modified version continued for three more seasons with 13 one-hour specials, running from 1957 to 1960, known first as The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show and later in reruns as The Lucy–Desi Comedy Hour.
The show, which was the first scripted television program to be shot on 35 mm film in front of a studio audience, won five Emmy Awards and received numerous nominations. Another award that the show won was the coveted Peabody Award for “recognition of distinguished achievement in television.”
I Love Lucy is often regarded as one of the greatest and most influential sitcoms in history.
Originally set in an apartment building in New York City, I Love Lucy centers on Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) and her singer/bandleader husband Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnaz), along with their best friends and landlords Fred Mertz (William Frawley) and Ethel Mertz (Vivian Vance). During the second season, Lucy and Ricky have a son named Ricky Ricardo, Jr. (“Little Ricky”), whose birth was timed to coincide with Ball’s real-life delivery of her son Desi Arnaz Jr.
Lucy is naïve and ambitious, with an undeserved zeal for stardom and a knack for getting herself and her husband into trouble whenever Lucy yearns to make it in show business. The Ricardos’ best friends, Fred and Ethel, are former vaudevillians and this only strengthens Lucy’s resolve to prove herself as a performer. Unfortunately, she has few marketable performance skills. She does not seem to be able to carry a tune or play anything other than off-key renditions of songs such as “Glow Worm” or “Sweet Sue” on the saxophone, and many of her performances devolve into disaster. However, to say she is completely without talent would be untrue, as on occasion, she is shown to be a good dancer and a competent singer. She is also at least twice offered contracts by television or film companies—first in “The Audition” when she replaces an injured clown in Ricky’s act, and later in Hollywood when she dances for a studio benefit using a rubber Ricky dummy as her dancing partner.
The show provided Ball ample opportunity to display her considerable skill at clowning and physical comedy. Character development was not a major focus of early sitcoms, so little was offered about her life before the show. A few episodes mentioned that she was born in Jamestown, New York (Lucille Ball’s real-life home town), later corrected to West Jamestown, that she graduated from Jamestown High School, that her maiden name was “McGillicuddy” (indicating a Scottish or Irish ethnicity at least on her father’s side, though she once mentioned her grandmother was Swedish; there are sizable Irish and Swedish communities in Jamestown), and that she met Ricky on a boat cruise with her friend from an agency she once worked for. Her family was absent, other than occasional appearances by her bird-brained mother (Kathryn Card), who could never get Ricky’s name right. Lucy also exhibited many stereotypical female traits that were standard for comedy at the time, including being secretive about her age and true hair color, and being careless with money, along with being somewhat materialistic, insisting on buying new dresses and hats for every occasion and telling old friends that she and Ricky were wealthy. She was also depicted as a devoted housewife and attentive mother.
Lucy’s husband, Ricky Ricardo, is an up-and-coming Cuban American singer and bandleader with an excitable personality. His patience is frequently tested by his wife’s antics. When exasperated, he often reverts to speaking rapidly in Spanish. As with Lucy, not much is revealed about his past or family. Ricky’s mother (played by actress Mary Emery) appears in two episodes; in another Lucy mentions that he has five brothers. Ricky also mentions that he had been “practically raised” by his uncle Alberto (who was seen during a family visit to Cuba), and that he had attended the University of Havana.
An extended flashback segment in the 1957 episode “Lucy Takes a Cruise to Havana” of The Lucille Ball–Desi Arnaz Show filled in numerous details of how Lucy and Ricky met and how Ricky came to the United States. The story, at least insofar as related to newspaper columnist Hedda Hopper, is that the couple met in Havana when Lucy and the Mertzes vacationed there in 1940. Despite his being a university graduate and proficient in English, Ricky is portrayed as a driver of a horse-drawn cab who waits for fares at a pier where tourists arrive by ship. Ricky is hired to serve as one of Lucy’s tour guides and the two fall in love. Having coincidentally also met popular singer Rudy Vallée on the cruise ship, Lucy arranges an audition for Ricky who is hired to be in Vallée’s orchestra thus allowing him to immigrate to the United States on the very ship on which Lucy and the Mertzes were returning. Lucy later states Ricky played for Vallée only one night before being traded to Xavier Cugat‘s orchestra.
Lucy is usually found with her sidekick and best friend Ethel Mertz. A former model from Albuquerque, New Mexico, Ethel tries to relive her glory days in vaudeville. Ricky is more inclined to include Ethel in performances at his nightclub because, unlike Lucy, she can actually sing and dance rather well.
Ethel’s husband Fred served in World War I, and lived through the Great Depression. He is very stingy with money and an irascible no-nonsense type. However, he also shows that he can be a soft touch, especially when it comes to Little Ricky. Fred can also sing and dance and often performs duets with Ethel.
The Manhattan building they all lived in before their move to Westport, Connecticut, was addressed at a fictional 623 East 68th Street, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The addresses only go up to the 500s before the street terminates at the East River.
I Love Lucy