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Birth of the 50s: Lucy and Ike.

January 19, 2009, 3:59 pm

[Editor's Note: Professor Lori Clune returns today for another guest post here at EotAW. Thanks, Lori, for your help with this.]

On this night in 1953, 71.7% of American televisions were tuned to CBS as Ricky and Lucy gave birth to their son, Little Ricky, on I Love Lucy. Well, actually Lucy did all the work off-screen. As many of us recall (thanks to endless reruns) Ricky spent much of the episode in outrageous voodoo face makeup for a show at his club, the Tropicana. From Lucy’s calm statement, “Ricky, this is it,” to the nurse holding up the swaddled bundle, the viewer saw no drugs, pain, or mess. Heck, we weren’t even sure how Lucy came to be “expecting” (CBS nixed saying “pregnant”), what with their two twin beds and all. Lucy and Ricky Ricardo (Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez) — also married in real life — had welcomed their second child, also a boy, via scheduled caesarian section that morning.

The next day 67.7% of televisions tuned in to watch Dwight D. Eisenhower take the oath of office as the 34th POTUS. During the 1950s, television was invading American homes. Only 1 in 10 American homes had a television in 1949; by 1959 it was 9 in 10. Eisenhower’s inauguration (while earning a lower rating than Little Ricky’s birth) reached a substantial number of Americans, about seven times more than had seen or heard Truman’s inaugural just four years before.

As Eisenhower explained in his inaugural address, in 1953 the United States faced “forces of evil…as rarely before in history.” No one needed to be told that the forces of evil were communist. Few Americans, however, could have imagined that a force of evil was the very red-head they loved in their living rooms.

Just eight months after the birth of Lucy’s “sons,” the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) charged Lucille Ball with membership in the Communist Party. Ball had registered with the CP in Los Angeles in the 1930s. She may have even held some meetings at her house. Ball testified to HUAC that she only joined the CP to placate her socialist grandfather who had insisted that she register as a communist. She claimed to be ignorant and “never politically minded.” When pressured by the press, her husband Desi Arnez retorted, “the only thing that is red about this kid is her hair – and even that is not legitimately red.”

Within days of her testimony, HUAC took the unprecedented action of calling a press conference and announcing that “there is no shred of evidence” linking Lucille Ball to the Communist Party. The committee made this unusual “public exculpation” because they wanted to, in their words, “insure that distortion of available facts not be permitted and that rumor not be substituted for truth in any case.” Historians argue that pressure from CBS and I Love Lucy sponsors – particularly Philip Morris – inspired HUAC’s action. Regardless of the reason, after a “seven-day brush with the blacklist,” HUAC cleared Lucille Ball’s name. Few accused communists were so lucky.

President Eisenhower enjoyed remarkable approval ratings, averaging over 60%, throughout his eight years in office. However, based on TV ratings, Americans loved Lucy more. In fact, Americans loved Lucy so much, they were willing to forgive her purported membership in the Communist Party. Desi Arnez explained, “Lucille is 100 per cent an American…as American as Ike Eisenhower.”

Some 50 million Americans watched Lucy during the 1953-54 season. Everyone still loved Lucy. A lot.

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