The hoopla over the baby girl born Tuesday to Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes recalls another highly anticipated birth 53 years ago — arguably, one of the most-covered births of the 20th century.
Actually it was two births — one in a hospital and one on a TV sitcom.
On Jan. 19, 1953, Lucille Ball gave birth to a boy named Desiderio Arnaz IV at Cedars of Lebanon hospital in Los Angeles.
That evening, Lucy Ricardo, Ball’s character on the hit TV series “I Love Lucy,” had a son called Little Ricky before a record 44 million television viewers in one of modern media’s first examples of art and life intermeshing.
The Cruise-Holmes pregnancy and birth has attracted media attention around the globe — from online blogs to cable news shows. Those elements didn’t exist in 1953, but the Arnaz baby was a big story in newspapers worldwide, and on radio, too.
And just as they did outside the Cruise estate in Beverly Hills, media types also gathered at Cedars of Lebanon waiting for word of the Arnaz birth.
Just don’t say ‘pregnant’
The hugely popular series “I Love Lucy” was thrown into a turmoil at the start of its second season in the autumn of 1952 when Lucille Ball announced she and co-star Desi Arnaz were expecting a baby. The production team agreed the only solution for the show was to have Lucy Ricardo have a baby, too.
The bosses at CBS were alarmed. No series character had ever been pregnant before. In fact, the word “pregnant” was banned from the network.
The early “Lucy” episodes that season brought a scattering of complaints about how showing pregnancy on TV was in bad taste.
Aware of a possible backlash, producer Jess Oppenheimer arranged for a Catholic priest, a Jewish rabbi and a Protestant minister to review the scripts and attend the filmings. The word “pregnant,” for example, was substituted in the dialogue with “expecting a baby.”
As the real-life delivery approached, Oppenheimer and writers Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll Jr. faced another challenge: What sex should baby Ricardo be? One suggestion was to film two endings to the birth episode — one with a baby boy, one with a girl — and at the last minute, insert the ending that matched Ball’s real baby.
Ultimately, Desi Arnaz decided the TV baby would be a boy, whether it matched the real one or not.
“Lucy gave me one girl (Lucy Arnaz), she might give me another,” Desi Arnaz reasoned. “This is my only chance to get a son. You give me a boy on TV.”
As it turned out, timing of the TV baby was easy: Ball was having a Caesarean section. Desiderio Alberto Arnaz IV was born in the morning, and Little Ricky Ricardo was born that night.
The news was flashed around the world, including to countries like Japan, where “I Love Lucy” was yet to appear. Little Ricky became a character on the show, acted alternately by twin boys, not Desi Jr.
There was even some tie-in merchandising, with Little Ricky dolls and other knickknacks becoming popular items in children’s stores.
Little Cruise dolls are less likely.