Arguably the most popular TV situation comedy in the known world (and possibly a few worlds beyond that!), I Love Lucy has never stopped playing in rerun form since it originally aired over CBS from October 15, 1951, through June 24, 1957. It can be said without much fear of contradiction that everyone -- yes, everyone -- loves Lucy...and Ricky? and Fred? and Ethel. The first sitcom to be filmed with three cameras before a live audience, I Love Lucy starred real-life husband and wife Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, who throughout most of the series lived in a modest New York apartment house managed by their best friends, Fred and Ethel Mertz. Cuban-born Ricky was the bandleader at the Tropicana Club; redheaded Lucy was a housewife who yearned to break into show business -- or, failing that, to become fabulously wealthy through some hairbrained get-rich-quick scheme or other, usually hatched in collaboration with her partner in crime, Ethel -- much to the dismay of the easily excitable Ricky and the eternally crotchety Fred. To call Lucy "zany" would be putting it mildly; there seemed to be no end to the ridiculous situations she could get herself into, nor any limit on the wild plans she cooked up on her own or with Ethel. But no matter how crazy things got, Ricky and Lucy invariably ended up in each other's arms, Ricky declaring his undying love and (at least temporary) forgiveness. During its first season on the air, I Love Lucy was the nation's third highest-rated program. Thereafter, it was ranked number one or very close to it. When during the series' second season Lucy Ricardo had a baby (to coincide with Lucille Ball's genuine pregnancy), the episode on which the blessed event occurred enjoyed the largest viewership of any single program up to that time -- and, since both Lucy Ricardo and Lucille Ball gave birth on the very same day (January 19, 1953), the news was of such magnitude that it pushed President Eisenhower's first inauguration off the front pages!
To keep the series fresh from season to season, I Love Lucy's extraordinarily talented team of writers would every so often alter the format, never more spectacularly than in season four, when the Ricardos and the Mertzes headed to Hollywood so Ricky could star in a movie musical version of Don Juan. In keeping with its tinseltown ambience, the episodes emanating from this premise positively glittered with such celebrity guest stars as Richard Widmark, William Holden, Cornel Wilde, and most memorably, Harpo Marx. The "Lucy in Hollywood" format spilled over into the next season, yielding an unforgettable two-episode story arc involving John Wayne. Season Five also saw the four principals heading to Europe, accompanying Ricky's band on tour. The most significant changes occurred during the sixth and final season. Ricky had quit his job at the Tropicana to open his own night spot, the Club Babalulu, and the increase in the Ricardos' bank account enabled the couple and their son Little Ricky (played from the fall of 1956 onward by Richard Keith) to move to an expensive ranch house in suburban Connecticut. Naturally, the Mertzes moved next door, while on the other side of the Ricardo estate there lived another couple, Ralph and Betty Ramsey (played by Mary Jane Croft and Frank Nelson, who also essayed several other supporting roles on the series). Although the half-hour version of I Love Lucy ceased production at the end of the 1956-1957 season, the four stars (and "Little Ricky") went on to appear in 13 hour-long "Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour" specials, filmed between 1957 and 1960. And while Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz divorced in 1960, their production company Desilu remained a prolific TV-series factory for the next decade, turning out such hits as The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible, and Star Trek. On her own, Lucille Ball continued playing the "Lucy" character in two more series, The Lucy Show and Here's Lucy, which though very successful on their own never quite captured the unique chemistry and charm of I Love Lucy.