Slapstick and salsa: A recipe for television history
VENTURA COUNTY STAR, October 15, 2008

What television show made its debut on this very date more than 50 years ago?

Here's a trio of helpful hints:

This black-and-white sitcom, which ran from Oct. 15, 1951, to May 6, 1957, brought home five Emmys.

While President Dwight D. Eisenhower's taking office Jan. 20, 1953, drew 29 million viewers, a single episode of this show airing the evening prior to that inauguration attracted a viewing audience of 45 million and garnered an unprecedented 71.7 percent Nielsen rating.

When this weekly 30-minute show ceased production in 1957, it was still the No. 1-ranked program in America the same superior status the show enjoyed during four of its six prime-time seasons.

The answer is simple, right? Don't we all love "I Love Lucy"?

When CBS began negotiations to move its hit radio show "My Favorite Husband," which ran from 1948 to 1951, to television, the female lead, Lucille Ball, dug in her heels.

She insisted on the following conditions:

1) Her real-life husband/musician, Desi Arnaz, whose touring schedule had placed an insurmountable strain on their marriage, would replace Richard Denning.

2) "I Love Lucy," unlike the majority of TV shows calling New York home, would be based in Southern California so the couple could raise a family.

3) While the two stars were willing to recompense the network for relocation and post-production expenses, they, not CBS, would be sole owners of the shows.

The episode that broke all existing ratings records was, of course, "Lucy Goes to the Hospital," the hilarious account of the amazing race to meet and greet Little Ricky. In real life, Lucille Ball gave birth to Desi Arnaz Jr. on precisely the same day the hospital episode aired. Nearly three out of four households witnessed the happy event, and only Elvis Presley's appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" three years later would reap a higher rating 82.6 percent.

Yet, back in 1951, when the first "I Love Lucy" program aired, Ball was likewise expecting firstborn Lucie Arnaz. The madcap mother-to-be, however, was forced to go "undercover" via a wardrobe of baggy costumes or by making sure large pieces of furniture insinuated themselves between her pregnant tummy and the camera. Her condition was never mentioned on air. The CBS Department of Standards and Practices held considerable censorship clout in those days.

When network executives and prospective sponsors balked at both an enceinte leading lady and a "mixed marriage" between the American Ball and the Cuban Arnaz, the dynamic duo launched a lucrative nightclub tour to show the suits that '50s-era America was more than ready for a relationship that was half slapstick and half salsa.

Arnaz and Ball weren't just talented artists; they shared a shrewd head for business as well. The average cost of a "Lucy" episode was an enviable $26,500. Live shows, which required a month of rehearsals by a cast on full salary, normally quadrupled that dollar amount. In addition, shooting on film enabled Arnaz and Ball to squirrel away 39 episodes in a mere 20 weeks.

You see, live shows were primarily preserved as substandard kinescopes, created by a 35mm or 16mm film camera recording the picture on a television monitor. Both blurry and brittle, kinescopes are the primary reason television's "Golden Age" remains little more than a memory. Exploiting three film cameras not only produced images that could be edited, but also generated a product of sufficient quality to allow for syndication. "I Love Lucy" would be earning more than $1 million a year in reruns as early as the mid-1950s.

Furthermore, responses to Lucy's antics by a live audience were far more authentic than the canned laughter used on such other filmed sitcoms as "Amos and Andy," "Trouble With Father" or "Life of Riley."

Finally, by owning 100 percent of the show, Ball and Arnaz were able to accrue so much booty through syndication that by 1957 they had procured 33 sound stages, four more than owned by MGM and 11 more than owned by Twentieth-Century Fox.

Desilu Studios produced, in addition to "I Love Lucy," such winsome winners as "December Bride," "The Danny Thomas Show," "Star Trek," "The Andy Griffith Show," "Mission Impossible," "The Untouchables," "Mannix," "I Spy," "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and "Hogan's Heroes."

Not only did "I Love Lucy" provide a gaggle of giggles for folks 50 years ago, it also changed employment demographics right here in Ventura County. Arnaz and Ball led the rest of the fledgling television industry out of inclement and pricey Manhattan to a promised land of tropical climes, family-friendly suburbs and, once syndicated, never-ending paychecks.

And this was the date it all got started. How could you think it was just another Wednesday?

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