On this day in 1951, a redhead named Lucy changed television forever. 62 years after “I Love Lucy” first premiered on CBS, the world still loves Lucy. The show has not gone off the air since it first began and the Hallmark Channel dedicates three hours of airtime to Lucy every weekday morning, allowing millions of young fans to laugh along to candy wrapping, grape stomping and Vitameatavegamin as they get ready for school, just like their parents and grandparents did before them.
But did you know Lucy Ricardo would have never come to be if not for the courage of Lucille Ball to stand her ground?
CBS asked Ball to take her popular radio show, “My Favorite Husband,” to television with radio co-star Richard Denning. She however, saw television as an opportunity to work with her always-travelling husband Desi, keeping them both in Hollywood and perhaps saving their shaky marriage. But when CBS executives, said ‘no’ (because Arnaz was Cuban and their interracial marriage thought not to be widely accepted by viewers), Lucy bravely and boldy replied with a ‘no’ herself, forfeiting an incredible opportunity to star in her own television show. Intent on proving CBS wrong, Lucy and Desi took to the road with a vaudeville act they produced. It was a hit and CBS relented, now convinced that the the Ball-Arnaz pairing would be a worthwhile venture. On October 15, 1951 the first episode aired and we’ve been laughing ever since.
Insisting that her real-life husband be her television husband was one of several wise decisions the Queen of Comedy would make to alter the course of television history. Another was insisting the show be produced on film, vs. kinescope, a low-quality but more affordable process used to record live shows in the early days of television. Because of the impending birth of their first child, Lucy and Desi wanted to stay in their current stat of California and do the show there vs. New York. It would require the show be recorded — and they wanted the higher quality, and more expensive, film used. CBS and the show’s sponsor balked again, but relented after Lucy and Desi agreed to take a $1,000 per week pay-cut in order to cover the additional expense — a significant reduction at the time. In exchange, they demanded, and were given, all rights to the films. (Legend has it that CBS felt this outcome favored them — after all, who would be interested in seeing an episode more than once?!) Of course they were hugely mistaken — Lucy and Desi blazed the trail for the ever-popular television rerun and syndication and fueled the popularity of Hollywood, California as the mecca for television studios.
They blazed trails behind the scene too, pioneering the use of three cameras for shows produced in front of a live audience and created Desilu Studios, which Ball would fully own and lead following their divorce, becoming the first woman to ever head a television studio. As a result, she became the most powerful woman in Hollywood at the time. Were it not for Lucille Ball, we might have never had other television classics, such as Star Trek, The Untouchables and The Andy Griffith Show. As Desilu’s head, it was Lucille Ball who gave the go ahead for these shows to air. Lucy would later sell Desilu to Gulf & Western who renamed the studio Paramount Pictures.
Lucille Ball, born and raised in the Jamestown, New York area, was selected into the National Women’s Hall of Fame as a tribute to the many ways she blazed trails for women in television and leadership. Decades after her death, and 62 years after she began the most popular show in television history, she still makes the world smile. Now the story behind those smiles inspires us to follow her example to become bold, brave, and unstoppable ourselves — all while leading with that signature heart.
Happy 62nd Birthday, I Love Lucy.