Lucille Ball is a true icon. Her signature red curls and inimitable comedic timing cemented her place in America’s pop culture. But there is far more to her career than her starring role in I Love Lucy.
While the sitcom boasts an impressive number of accolades, its leading lady was the real trailblazer. Ball managed to check off a long list of “firsts” on and off camera throughout her career.
From being the first female studio head to paving the way for future women comedians, Lucille Ball shattered the glass ceiling before such a notion even existed.
1. First Interracial Couple On Television
When CBS approached Lucille Ball to create an adaptation of her successful radio series, “My Favorite Husband,” Lucille used her upper hand. Rather than casting her radio co-star, Ball insisted CBS cast her real-life husband, Desi Arnaz.
At the time, the country was on the heels of a massive Civil Rights movement. CBS was hesitant to cast Arnaz due to his Hispanic heritage. But after seeing Ball and Arnaz’s dynamic, and their touring vaudeville act, the studio acquiesced.
Lucy and Ricky Ricardo became the first interracial couple on television. Their real-life chemistry became an integral part of the show and laid the foundation for their TV and film empire.
2. First Woman To Perfect Half-Hour Comedy
Eventually, Ball would leave CBS for a new relationship with NBC. In a 1980 interview with People, Ball said she never felt disloyal for making the switch. Just like their hesitancy to cast Arnaz, Ball felt like CBS was standing in the way of progress.
“CBS didn’t want my expertise to develop new half-hour comedy material like NBC did,” Ball said. “How to do half-hour comedy innovatively is something I pride myself on. We invented it with I Love Lucy.”
Ball’s fearless comedy style started in the 1930s. In the same interview, Ball reflected, “a lot of the really beautiful girls didn’t want to do some of the things I did—put on mud packs and scream and run around and fall into pools. I didn’t mind getting messed up.”
3. First Woman To Run A Major Hollywood Studio
Ball and Arnaz created Desilu Productions in 1950 to produce I Love Lucy. As the show’s popularity grew, the studio’s success did, too. They eventually outgrew their small soundstage and upgraded to their own studio in Hollywood (now Red Studios Hollywood).
At its peak, Desilu Studios was the largest and most prolific television operation in the world. After the couple split in 1960, Ball bought out Arnaz’s half of the company. Ball gained sole ownership, becoming the first woman to run a major Hollywood studio.
Desilu Studios produced the original Mission: Impossible and Star Trek series with Ball at the helm. She would later agree to a buyout by Gulf + Western in 1967.
4. First Woman To Be Pregnant On A Major Network Tv Show
Part of what made I Love Lucy so special was Ball and Arnaz’s real-life marriage. So, it’s only fitting that the show also featured a real-life pregnancy. While Ball wasn’t the first woman to appear pregnant on-screen, she was the first to do so on a major network show.
TV in the 1950s was staunchly puritan. So, the implication that Lucy and Ricky left their separate twin beds to conceive was thought to be too scandalous for audiences. However, just like their mixed-race marriage, viewers loved it.
In fact, they loved it so much that the sitcom beat out a presidential inauguration’s viewership.
5. First Birth To Beat A Presidential Inauguration’s Viewership
Unsurprisingly, viewers became emotionally invested in the pregnancy after watching Ball pregnant on-screen for months. When Lucy gave birth to Little Ricky, the episode garnered 44 million viewers. That means a whopping 72% of homes were tuned in when the episode aired on January 19, 1953.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower took the oath of office the following day and drew only 29 million viewers. 27 million people would watch Queen Elizabeth II’s live coronation five months later. “Lucy Goes to the Hospital” beat out both events.
I Love Lucy kept its remarkable record until 1983, when the final episode of M*A*S*H* drew in an average of 50 million viewers. Considering how much more accessible TVs were in 1983 than in 1953, Ball’s record still stands on its own.
In that same vein, all of Lucille Ball’s career holds its weight. Ball was a feminist before it was hip to be one and a true revolutionary. She loved what she did, and it showed in the quality of her work.
And that’s how she managed to get an entire country to fall in love with Lucy.