70 Years With The Ricardos

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, we’re honoring the 70th anniversary of I Love Lucy, which CBS-TV first broadcast at 9:00 PM on October 15, 1951 — the date we cite as the series’ official premiere, when millions of Americans first met Lucy Ricardo (despite a handful of affiliates opting to air the episode earlier, on Saturday, October 13).

As regular readers of this blog know, I consider I Love Lucy to be a seminal masterwork for the development of the American sitcom as an art form, not because, as is often said, it invented the genre (it didn’t), but because it’s the first great sample of it in the new frontier called television, courtesy of a concoction of brilliance via (a) the performers — Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance, William Frawley — all of whom could handle broad physical shtick that affirmed the uniqueness of TV as a visual medium, while also putting over the strong, snappy dialogue that had heretofore defined the genre on radio, (b) the writing, which, not only offered the aforementioned to the performers, but also, as we’ve discussed, created the best comic character of the 1950s in Lucy Ricardo, largely by marrying Lucille Ball’s established-but-rudimentary radio persona to a specific objective that could then be reiterated (or extrapolated from) in weekly well-motivated plot — and (c) the laugh-demanding multi-camera live audience format, which, contrary to public perception, the series did not totally invent, but pioneered and refined as a viable setup for filmed comedy series. It was, as Ball and Arnaz told Variety, “produced like a play, filmed like a movie, recorded like radio, and released as TV” — a summation of a technique that many of the best sitcoms over the past 70 years have used, starting with Lucy. 

In celebration of this milestone, I’m offering a chance to see the first aired episode of I Love Lucy, “The Girls Want To Go To A Nightclub,” as many would have seen it on that debut night 70 years ago. I don’t only mean with the original openings, closings, and commercials intact, but also on a period-appropriate set — specifically, a beautifully restored Admiral television (that’s restored, not retrofitted — meaning, it’s using the internal mechanism, with picture and sound tubes!), made out of Bakelite and released as model 20×122 in September 1949, when less than ten percent of American households had a TV… Now, Admiral made approximately 400,000 TV sets in 1949, of which I estimate — conservatively — this model, with its compact 10-inch screen, constituted 50,000. To break down some more numbers, there were approximately 13 million households with TV sets when Lucy premiered in mid-October 1951, and with this initial broadcast scoring a 38.7 rating, that means about five million homes were watching.

So, with approximately 50,000 of those 13 million homes owning this particular model, if 38.7% of them were watching, then about 19,400 households saw this episode of I Love Lucy on October 15, 1951 via their own 20×122 Admiral. Now, YOU can count yourself among them. Well, on October 15 (at 9:00 PM EDT), that is, when I premiere the video live on YouTube at this link. In the meantime, here’s a clip of what you can expect. Enjoy — and stay tuned!





Come back next week for a new Wildcard! And stay tuned Monday for another musical rarity!  

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