These days, it would be termed a ratings-sweeps stunt, or a postmodernist jape, or maybe even a Seinfeldian gesture of parodic video deconstruction. But in 1953, it was just a TV miracle—a carefully conceived one, as it were: Lucille Ball managed to give birth to her second child, 8-pound-1-ounce Desi Arnaz Jr., in Los Angeles’ Cedars of Lebanon Hospital on the same night Lucy Ricardo was giving birth to Little Ricky on the Jan. 19 episode of CBS’ I Love Lucy.
This was accomplished by scheduling a cesarean delivery to coincide with the Lucy episode, and in retrospect the plan—um, hatched by Ball, 41, and husband Desi Arnaz, 35—seems cannily brilliant. That show is a ratings legend; it is said that water supplies nationwide dropped dangerously when it concluded, because no one had wanted to use the bathroom until Lucy had Little Ricky. I Love Lucy got more media attention than that day’s big news: the inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower. ”Sixteen years later,” Ball once recalled, ”President Eisenhower was standing with us outside the El Dorado Country Club and he pointed to my son and said, ‘Is that the young man who knocked me off the front pages?”’ Well, it wasn’t—people were always confusing poor Desi Jr. with the Little Ricky character.
Amazingly enough, Ball and Arnaz had to fight to pull off this clever ploy. As coauthors Coyne Steven Sanders and Tom Gilbert note in their excellent recent book, Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, ”Both CBS and sponsor Philip Morris adamantly opposed the idea. The Biow advertising agency flatly told Desi, ‘You cannot show a pregnant woman on television.”’ In fact, CBS didn’t even want the show to use the word pregnant; if Ball’s condition had to be acknowledged, ”expectant” apparently was the more genteel, preferred term.
But Ball and Arnaz had clout—their two-year-old show was a top-rated series—and they knew how to use it. Hanging tough, they had seven episodes written around the pregnancy and taped the TV-birth episode in advance, taking a chance that paid off big time: The public adored the Ricardo family all the more. I Love Lucy is always invoked as the ultimate in wacky, escapist TV programming, but when it comes to realistic TV, this was one time when the ditzy redhead was as groundbreaking as NYPD Blue.