I Love Lucy: A Real Life Love Story Watched in Front of the Nation

I Love Lucy debuted in 1951 and became the most watched show in the United States for four of its six seasons. The sitcom won five Emmy Awards and received numerous nominations and honors and voted the “Best TV Show of All Time.” In spring 1952, less than a year after its debut on CBS, I Love Lucy was the number one TV show in the country-and its stars, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, were the nation’s most-watched couple.

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It seems the perfect relationship played out in front of our eyes. We look back in time and see how Hollywood’s ideal couple lived out their love story in front of America and as a result, how America fell in love with the Hollywood couple. I Love Lucy gave the American public not only groundbreaking entertainment but one of the century’s most passionate love stories.

The Actress and Model

Lucille Ball was born in upstate New York; she began her career in 1929 when she landed work as a model. Shortly thereafter, she began her performing career on Broadway.

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She then moved to Hollywood so that she could pursue a career in films. As a young actress, she was happy to take any job she could get.

The Musician

Desi Arnaz was born in Cuba and grew up in a wealthy family. His father was a landowner who became caught up in a political uprising which led to their family fleeing to Miami. Desi was forced to flee his home country at the age of 16 following the 1933 revolution.

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He soon got a job with a hotel orchestra, which led to a stint with Latin Big Bands and later to a career fronting his own conga band. Arnaz embarked on what would become a massively successful music career, a move that would eventually bring him to the silver screen.

An Unlikely Match

Lucille Ball first laid eyes on the Cuban-born Desi Arnaz on the set of the movie Too Many Girls. Desi, who had starred in the Broadway musical the film was based on, was a bandleader; Lucy was one of the film’s stars.

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The match was unlikely from the start: She usually dated taller, older men and he was already engaged to someone else. However redheaded actress and a flirtatious Cuban musician found themselves undeniably attracted to each other.

How They Met

Ball first met her costar in the MGM commissary. The rest of the film crew felt indifference towards the young and inexperienced Arnaz, referring to the first-time actor as “that Cuban.”

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However, when Ball actually met Arnaz, she quickly changed her mind. A co-star remembered, “Lucille followed my eyes, and I could almost hear the bells ringing in her head. The first words Lucille uttered when seeing Desi for the first time were, ‘Oh, my God.’ It was love at first sight for her.” The 28-year-old Ball and 23-year-old Arnaz soon fell in love.

Instant Chemistry

The chemistry was irresistible. “You could tell the sparks were flying with Lucy,” says Eddie Bracken, a costar in the film. “It happened so fast it seemed it wouldn’t last. Everybody on the set made bets about how long it would last.” 

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While they were dating, Ball gave Arnaz as much attention as she could. One friend recalled, “I found it surprising because she was such a strong, independent lady, but when it came to Desi, she was very old-fashioned.”

Desi Created Lucy’s Namesake

Although she was called Lucille her whole life, she often used stage names in some of her early movies. Lucy was ultimately a nickname created by Desi.

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“I had started calling her Lucy shortly after we met; I didn’t like the name, Lucille. That’s how our television show was called I Love Lucy, not Lucille” explained Desi.

Short Dating Period

Six months after they’d first met, the pair eloped. A few hours before Arnaz asked Ball to elope with him, she did an interview entitled “Why I Will Always Remain a Bachelor Girl.” She was in Wisconsin for work and after having a fight with Arnaz, she decided to take her time traveling back to him in New York.

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When she finally arrived home, Ball learned Arnaz was angry because her extended stay had ruined his secret elopement plans. Lucy brushed aside the fact that she left her clothes in Wisconsin; she wore the only thing she had – a black wool dress – as she and Arnaz traveled to Connecticut to get married in November 1940.

She Wore A Ring From Woolworth’s

Desi sent his manager to Woolworth to buy a cheap replacement for the ring he had failed to pick up beforehand. Ball wore the cheap ring throughout their marriage, despite Arnaz later giving her a more expensive one.

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She explained: “In many ways, marrying Desi was one of the boldest things I ever did. I had always gone with older men. I had also achieved some kind of stability in Hollywood, and Desi with his beautiful girls and good times seemed headed in another direction. Yet I sensed in Desi a great need. Beneath that dazzling charm was a homeless boy who had no one to care for him, worry about him, love him.”

A Rough Beginning

Desi continued to tour and the extended absences began to take a toll on the newlyweds. While she tended a soaring Hollywood career, he traveled the country with his rumba band.

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Even after their marriage, separate work schedules often kept Arnaz and Ball apart. For her acting career, Ball had to be in the makeup chair by 3 or 4 am, about the same time Arnaz returned home from work as a bandleader. Both this and their personality differences led many to assume their marriage would quickly fail.

A Brief Split and a Second Wedding

They separated for a period of time in 1944 after Lucy filed for divorce, allegedly because of Desi’s infidelity and a drinking problem. They later reconciled after talking and agreeing to pursue more projects where their professional lives would intersect.

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Lucy wanted to have children and believed a child would help hold her marriage together, it was a challenge for her to conceive. Ball and Arnaz’s marriage almost ended in divorce. Despite this, they stuck it out, and even held a second wedding, this time in a Catholic church.

Put To the Test

I Love Lucywas the TV concept of a radio show Ball had been on called “My Favorite Husband.” When it came time to cast for television, she insisted that Arnaz be cast as her spouse.

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To test their show idea and public interest, Arnaz and Ball created a live show for the vaudeville circuit. They toured the country, allowing Arnaz to sing and Ball to show her comedy skills by breaking into his act. They used $5,000 of their own money to produce the pilot for I Love Lucy.

Desilu Productions

Desperate for a way to spend more time together, which meant getting Desi off the road, the pair created I Love Lucy. To prove that they could make the sitcom work, Arnaz and Ball formed Desilu Productions (the first independent television production company).

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In doing so, Arnaz and Ball made themselves their own bosses and provided their product to CBS rather than working directly for the network or a sponsor. The shooting schedule gave them a chance to work on their relationship and grow their family.

Fighting for Her Love

Eventually, CBS decided to give the couple a shot with I Love Lucy, however, Lucy had to fight for Arnaz to appear as her husband on TV. As a mixed-race couple with a six-year age difference, some took offense to their relationship. When Ball demanded that Arnaz play her husband on the show the producers refused at first.

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They believed the audience would have no interest in an American girl marrying a Cuban man and wouldn’t approve of their relationship. Producers held concerns about Arnaz’s accent as well. But Lucy wanted Desi where she felt the marriage would have a better chance of lasting, which of course it did.

Building a Family

In 1950, Ball became pregnant, and relations between the couple improved. They filmed the original pilot while Lucy was “showing”, but did not include any references to the pregnancy in the episode.

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During this time Ball commented, “The best year of my marriage to Desi was just before and after the birth of our first child. We exchanged no harsh words and experienced no upsets of any kind. Desi hovered about me, attentive to every need… The more conservative he became, the happier I grew.”

New Beginnings

The beginning of their hit show coincided with a new chapter in the couple’s personal lives, too. They became parents to little Lucie on July 17, 1951, three months before the show’s premiere.

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Lucy’s friends would later say that the actress believed having a baby would strengthen the couple’s bond. Both the baby and the show brought Ball and Arnaz closer than ever.

TV Firsts

Television in the 1950s brings to mind clean-cut characters living uncomplicated lives, I Love Lucy debuted in October 1951. It wasn’t long before 40 million viewers were tuning in each week to see what the Ricardos were up to.

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They were the first interracial couple on American Television and In 1953, when Lucy became pregnant with the couple’s second child, Desi Jr., the show became the first in history to depict a pregnant woman.

Pregnancy on Display

Lucy was pregnant again with her second child and this time the pregnancy was incorporated into the series’ storyline. CBS would not allow I Love Lucyto use the word “pregnant”, so “expecting” was used instead.

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In addition, sponsor Philip Morris made the request that Lucy not be seen smoking during the pregnancy episodes. Network executives were hesitant to even include Ball’s real-life pregnancy onscreen in the first place, as they felt that her baby bump might not be appropriate for 1950s audiences.

Family Life Played Out on TV

The seven episodes featuring a pregnant Lucy ended up being the most popular episodes in the history of the series. In fact, “Lucy Goes to the Hospital” was watched by more people than any other television program at the time.

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I Love Lucy allowed a baby to be written into the show as little Ricky and to grow up in real time. America saw little Ricky as an infant in the 1952–53 season and a toddler from 1953 to 1956. However, for the 1956–57 season, little Ricky suddenly aged by two years, becoming a young school-age boy from 1956 to 1960.

She Was the Star

Arnaz reportedly never doubted that his wife was the one audiences were tuning in to watch. “He always knew she was the star,” comedy writer Madelyn Pugh Davis told People Magazine. “Never in all those years did I ever hear him say, “Where’s my part?”

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Desi knew Lucy was the star of I Love Lucyand therefore the most important to the production. He would watch out for her safety on set and, according to Davis, thought “if she was taken care of, that was all that counted. He protected her. People were always asking her to do commercials, and he’d say, ‘No, she doesn’t do that.'”

Show Business Team

Lucy’s contribution was on the artistic side since she knew how to entertain and had a good idea of what television audiences wanted. Desi’s work behind the scenes was as crucial as Ball’s acting when it came to the show’s success.

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Arnaz often tried to help his wife’s career. As a producer, he was in charge of casting, moving production from New York to Hollywood, and obtaining ownership of the show from the beginning. For years, he supposedly kept mum about his insecurities about having a wife more famous than he was, at one point, he even referred to himself as “Mr. Ball”.