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The Opening Credits To I Love Lucy Showed Something Strange That Would Never Fly Today

Anyone who grew up watching I Love Lucy is familiar with the show’s Valentine Heart opening. What many don’t know is that opening wasn’t the original introduction to the show. It was actually adopted when the show went into syndication. The reason for the switch was because the show was originally sponsored by tobacco giant Philip Morris, and the opening intro was basically an advertisement for smoking…

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A Big Box Of Cigarettes

It’s considered one of the most iconic opening credits montages in TV history: the giant, satin valentine heart that introduced the I Love Lucy show and displayed the name of the actors. For those who grew up watching the show or have spent many a moment watching reruns of Lucy, Ricky, Fred, and Ethel in action, that heart is easy to visualize, and the opening musical notes effortlessly recalled.

But you may be surprised to learn that the I Love Lucy original opening credits weren’t actually the original sequence; the montage was changed when the series went into syndication. The heart image that opened the show was created for daytime rebroadcasts on CBS from 1959-1967, as well as all subsequent syndication. So, what did the show open with for the first three years of the series?

For the first three years of the show’s run, I Love Lucy opened with an animated Ricky and Lucy meandering down a pack of Philip Morris cigarettes. In the first four episodes, once Lucy and Ricky got to the bottom of the cigarettes, there was also an additional ad for the brand. It featured a bellhop named Johnny Roventini singing the company’s jingle of “Call for Philip Morris” before the show would actually start.

Imagine the opening sequence of any current television series being a blatant ad for cigarettes; times certainly have changed. Once it was decided to change the intro, viewers could still see many product placements and cigarette promotions in almost every episode of I Love Lucy.

Of course, there were a lot of politics behind the abundant showcasing of Philip Morris’ tobacco products in the show. Why else would they have opening credits like that? Philip Morris execs loved the idea behind I Love Lucy and wanted to get it to air, but in order to cut down on production costs, Morris wanted Lucy and Desi to film in New York, as opposed to Los Angeles.

In order to shoot the show in L.A., Lucy and Desi struck a compromise with the tobacco giant in which the two stars took a substantial pay cut, but retained ownership of all the episodes themselves, and agreed to heavily promote the Philip Morris brand throughout the series. This, of course, led to Lucy and Ricky smoking A LOT of Philip Morris cigarettes.

The Philip Morris influence was so far-reaching that the show didn’t just have the characters actively smoking on set, but there were also promotions actually written into the script wherever it made sense. And, of course, there were commercials with Lucy and Desi telling everyone to enjoy the show more by smoking Philip Morris cigarettes while they watched it.


Why Was The Opening Changed?

When the show was sold into syndication in 1959 and Philip Morris was no longer the sponsor, the opening was completely reworked. It’s unusual to take SUCH a drastic departure from an original opening, however. Shows that rework an opening usually try to retain some semblance of similarity for continuity purposes. But the opening for I Love Lucy was such a blatant promotion for smoking, and especially that particular brand of cigarettes, that in order not to ostracize new sponsors, an entirely new opening sequence was really the only option. This proved to be a good decision as many shows began to get away from promoting cigarette smoking in the coming years, for obvious reasons.

Photo: of Industrial Service

Complications From Smoking

In the mid 20th century, smoking was a very common and normal activity. People were actually led to believe that it was good for their health, and were constantly encouraged to smoke by television, newspaper, and billboard ads, as well as by celebrities who needed to promote their corporate sponsors.

While Lucy and Desi both lived relatively long lives, Desi died from lung cancer in 1986, and Lucy passed away from heart disease in 1989. Both of these conditions are well-known to be caused by smoking.

Episodes Available On DVD

While so many shows from of the early days of television are lost forever, Lucy and Desi were smart enough to have the forethought to keep control of – and properly store – their master reels, allowing them to make millions in the years to come off of episodes run in syndication. The original episodes, including the introductions, have been digitally restored and are available for purchase on DVD and Blu-Ray. It’d be interesting to watch them all and note just how prevalent cigarettes and smoking were throughout the show’s lifetime.