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Lucille Ball

Lucille Ball

The face of comedienne Lucille Ball (Lucille Desiree Hunt; 1911-1989), immortalized as Lucy Ricardo on I Love Lucy, is said to have been seen by more people worldwide than any other. "Lucy" to generations of television viewers who delighted at her rubber-faced antics and zany impersonations (among them Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp), she was a shrewd businesswoman, serious actress, and Broadway star as well.

Born Lucille Desiree Hunt on August 6, 1911, she and her mother, DeDe, made their home with her grandparents in Celoron, outside Jamestown, New York, after her father's death in 1915.

Lucy's mother encouraged her daughter's penchant for the theater. The two were close, and DeDe Ball's laugh can be heard on almost every I Love Lucy sound track. But from Lucy's first unsuccessful foray to New York, where she won—and lost—a chorus part in the Shubert musical Stepping Stones, through her days in Hollywood as "Queen of the B's" (grade B movies), the road to I Love Lucy was not an easy one.

In 1926 she enrolled at the John Murray Anderson/ Robert Milton School of Theater and Dance in New York. Her participation there, unlike that of star student Bette Davis, was a dismal failure. The proprietor even wrote to tell Lucy's mother that she was wasting her money. It was back to Celoron for the future star.

After a brief respite, the indomitable Lucy returned to New York with the stage name Diane Belmont. She was chosen to appear in Earl Carroll's Vanities, for the third road company of Ziegfeld's Rio Rita, and for Step Lively, but none of these performances materialized. She found employment at a Rexall drugstore on Broadway; then she worked in Hattie Carnegie's elegant dress salon, moonlighting as a model. Lucille Ball's striking beauty always differentiated her from other comediennes.

At the age of 17, Lucy was stricken with rheumatoid arthritis and returned to Celoron yet again, where her mother nursed her through an almost three-year bout with the illness.

Determined, she found more success in New York the next time when she became the Chesterfield Cigarette Girl. In 1933 she was cast as a last-minute replacement for one of the twelve Goldwyn girls in the Eddie Canter movie Roman Scandals, directed by Busby Berkeley. (Ball's first on-screen appearance was actually a walk-on in the 1933 Broadway Thru a Keyhole.) During the filming, when Lucy volunteered to take a pie in the face, the legendary Berkeley is said to have commented, "Get that girl's name. That's the one who will make it."

Favorable press from her first speaking role in 1935 and the second lead in That Girl from Paris (1936) helped win her a major part in the Broadway musical Hey Diddle Diddle, but the project was aborted by the premature death of the male lead. It would take roughly another 15 years for Lucy to attain stardom.

She worked with many comic "greats," including the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, and Buster Keaton, with whom she honed her extraordinary skill in the handling of props. She gave a creditable performance as an aspiring actress in Stage Door (1937) and earned praise from critic James Agee for her portrayal of a bitter, handicapped nightclub singer in The Big Street (1942).

Lucy first acquired her flaming red hair in 1943 when, after The Big Street, MGM officials signed her to appear opposite Red Skelton in Cole Porter's DuBarry Was a Lady. (Throughout the years, rumors flew as to the color's origin, including one that Lucy decided upon the dye job in an effort to somehow rival Betty Grable.)

It was on the set of an innocuous film, Dance, Girl, Dance, that Lucille Ball first met her future husband, Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz. Married in 1940, they were separated by Desi's travels for much of the first decade of their marriage. The union, plagued by Arnaz's alcoholism, workaholism, and philandering, dissolved in 1960.

The decade prior to Lucy's television debut was filled with intermittent parts in films and the more satisfying role of Liz Cooper, the scatterbrained wife on the radio program My Favorite Husband (July 1947 to March 1951).

Determined to work together and to save their marriage, the couple conceived a television pilot. Studio executives were dubious. The duo was forced to take their "act" on the road to prove its viability and to borrow $5,000 to found Desilu Productions. (After buying out Arnaz's share and changing the corporation's name, Lucy eventually sold it to Gulf Western for $18 million.) They persevered, and I Love Lucy premiered on October 15, 1951.

Within six months the show as rated number one. It ran six seasons in its original format and then evolved into hour-long specials, accumulating over 20 awards, among them five Emmys. I Love Lucy is one of television's four "all-time hits."

The characters Lucy and Ricky Ricardo became household words, with William Frawley and Vivian Vance superbly cast as long-suffering neighbors Fred and Ethel Mertz. More viewers tuned in for the television birth of "Little Ricky" Ricardo than for President Eisenhower's inauguration. The show was the first in television history to claim viewing in more than ten million homes. It was filmed before a studio audience, in sequence, and helped to revolutionize television production by utilizing three cameras.

I Love Lucy begat Lucy in Connecticut (1960); in turn, The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour (1962-1967); then The Lucy Show (1962, with Vivian Vance, later called The Lucille Ball Show, running until 1974); and, finally, in 1986, the ill-fated Life with Lucy, with Gale Gordon.

The Lucy Ricardo character may be viewed as a downtrodden housewife, but compared to other situation comedy wives of television's "golden years' she was liberated. The show's premise was her desire to share the show-biz limelight with her performer husband and to leave the pots and pans behind. Later series featured Lucy as a single mother and as a working woman "up against" her boss.

Following her initial retirement from prime time in 1974 Lucy continued to make guest appearances on television, too numerous to mention. Broadway saw her starring in Mame (1974), a role with which she identified. (Her other Broadway appearance after her career had "taken off" was in Wildcat in 1960.) Her last serious role was that of a bag lady in the 1983 made-for-television movie Stone Pillow.

Lucy was married to comic Gary Morton from 1961 until the time of her death on April 26, 1989, eight days after open-heart surgery. She was survived by her husband, her two children by Arnaz, Luci and Desi Junior, and millions of fans who continue to watch her in re-runs of I Love Lucy, which is now also available on video cassette.

Further Reading

Chapters devoted to Lucille Ball can be found in Women in Comedy (1986) by Linda Martin and Kerry Segrave and in Funny Women (1987) by Mary Unterbrink. Biographies include The Lucille Ball Story (1974) by James Gregory, Lucy (1986) by Charles Higham, and Forever Lucy (1986) by Joe Morella and Edward Z. Epstein. Desi Arnaz's 1976 autobiography, A Book, chronicles their years together from his perspective, and Bart Andrews' Lucy and Ricky and Fred and Ethel: The Story of "I Love Lucy" (1976) features a complete plot summary for each of the show's episodes. People magazine paid special tribute to Lucy in its August 14, 1989, issue. □

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Ball, Lucille

Lucille Ball

Born: August 6, 1911
Jamestown, New York
Died: April 26, 1989
Los Angeles, California

American actress and comedienne

The face of comedienne Lucille Ball, immortalized as Lucy Ricardo on the television program I Love Lucy, is said to have been seen by more people worldwide than any other. Known as "Lucy" to generations of television viewers who delighted at her rubber-faced antics and zany impersonations, she was a shrewd businesswoman, serious actress, and Broadway star as well.

A struggling star

Born Lucille Desiree Ball on August 6, 1911, she and her mother, DeDe, made their home with her grandparents in Celoron, outside Jamestown, New York. Her father died in 1915 of typhoid fever, a sometimes deadly disease that spreads through milk or water. Along with her brother, Lucille was then raised by her mother and grandparents, who took her to the theater and encouraged her to take part in her school plays.

Lucy's mother also strongly encouraged her daughter's love for the theater. The two were close, and DeDe Ball's laugh can be heard on almost every I Love Lucy sound track. But from Lucy's first unsuccessful foray to New York, New York, where she lost a chorus part in the musical Stepping Stones, through her days in Hollywood, California, as "Queen of the B's" (grade B movies were known for their lower production values), the road to I Love Lucy was not an easy one.

In 1926 Lucy enrolled at the John Murray Anderson/Robert Milton School of Theater and Dance in New York. Her participation there, unlike that of star student Bette Davis (19081989), was a terrible failure. The school's owner even wrote to tell Lucy's mother that she was wasting her money. Lucy went back to high school in Celoron.

After a brief rest, Lucy returned to New York City with the stage name Diane Belmont. She was chosen to appear in Earl Carroll's Vanities, for the third road company of Ziegfeld's Rio Rita, and for Step Lively, but none of these performances materialized. She then found employment at a Rexall drugstore on Broadway and later she worked in Hattie Carnegie's elegant dress salon, while also working as a model. Lucille Ball's striking beauty always set her apart from other comediennes. At the age of seventeen, Lucy was stricken with rheumatoid arthritis, a severe swelling of the joints, and returned to Celoron yet again, where her mother nursed her through an almost three-year bout with the illness.

Returning to New York

Determined, Ball found more success in New York the next time, when she became the Chesterfield Cigarette Girl. In 1933 she was cast as a last-minute replacement for one of the twelve Goldwyn girls in the Eddie Canter movie Roman Scandals, directed by Busby Berkeley. (Ball's first on-screen appearance was actually a walk-on in the 1933 Broadway Thru a Keyhole. ) During the filming, when Ball volunteered to take a pie in the face, the legendary Berkeley is said to have commented, "Get that girl's name. That's the one who will make it."

Favorable press from Ball's first speaking role in 1935 and the second lead in That Girl from Paris (1936) helped win her a major part in the Broadway musical Hey Diddle Diddle, but the project was dropped after the premature death of the male lead. It would take roughly another fifteen years for Ball to gain stardom.

Ball worked with many comic "greats," including the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, and Buster Keaton (18951966), with whom she developed her extraordinary skill in the handling of props. She gave a solid performance as a rising actress in Stage Door (1937), and earned praise from critic James Agee for her portrayal of a bitter, handicapped nightclub singer in The Big Street (1942).

Lucy goes red

Ball first acquired her flaming red hair in 1943, when Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) officials signed her to appear opposite Red Skelton in Cole Porter's (18911964) DuBarry Was a Lady. (Throughout the years, rumors flew as to the color's origin, including one that Ball decided upon the dye job in an effort to somehow rival actress Betty Grable.)

It was on the set of a small film, Dance, Girl, Dance, that Lucille Ball first met her future husband, Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz (19171986). Married in 1940, they were separated for much of the first decade of their marriage because of Desi's travels. The union, also plagued by Arnaz's work schedule, alcohol abuse, and outside affairs, dissolved in 1960.

I Love Lucy

Determined to work together and to save their marriage, Ball and Arnaz developed a television pilot (one show developed to sell to studios). Studio executives were not ready. The duo was forced to take their "act" on the road to prove its potential and to borrow five thousand dollars to found Desilu Productions. (After buying out Arnaz's share and changing the corporation's name, Ball eventually sold it to Gulf Western for $18 million.) It worked, and I Love Lucy premiered on October 15, 1951.

Within six months the show was rated number one. It ran six seasons in its original format and then evolved into hour-long specials. It won over twenty awards, among them five Emmys, the highest award for television programming.

The characters Lucy and Ricky Ricardo became household words, with William Frawley (18871966) and Vivian Vance (19091979) superbly cast as long-suffering neighbors Fred and Ethel Mertz. More viewers tuned in for the television birth of "Little Ricky" Ricardo than for President Dwight D. Eisenhower's (18901969) inauguration (swearing in as president). The show was the first in television history to claim viewing in more than ten million homes. It was filmed before a studio audience and helped revolutionize television production by using three cameras.

Lucy's legacy

The Lucy Ricardo character may be viewed as a downtrodden housewife, but compared to other situation comedy wives of television's "golden years," she was free of regular household duties. The show's premise was her desire to share the showbiz limelight with her performer husband and to leave the pots and pans behind. Later series featured Ball as a single mother and as a working woman "up against" her boss.

Following her retirement from prime time in 1974 Ball continued to make many guest appearances on television. Broadway saw her starring in Mame (1974), a role with which she identified. (Her other Broadway appearance after her career had "taken off" was in Wildcat in 1960.) Her last serious role was that of a bag lady in the 1983 made-for-television movie Stone Pillow.

Ball was married to comic Gary Morton from 1961 until the time of her death on April 26, 1989, eight days after open-heart surgery. She was survived by her husband, her two children by Arnaz, Luci and Desi Jr., and millions of fans who continue to watch her in reruns of I Love Lucy.

For More Information

Ball, Lucille, and Betty Hannah Hoffman. Love, Lucy. New York: Putnam, 1996.

Brady, Kathleen. Lucille: The Life of Lucille Ball. New York: Hyperion, 1994.

Morella, Joe, and Edward Z. Epstein. Forever Lucy. Secaucus, NJ: L. Stuart, 1986.

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Ball, Lucille

Lucille Ball, 1911–89, American actress and producer, b. Celoron, N.Y. At first promoted by Hollywood as another glamorous movie star, Ball was often cast as a spunky sidekick in second features. In 1951, as one of the first movie stars to headline a television series, she scored a spectacular success with the comedy I Love Lucy, costarring her first husband, Desi Arnaz. For six seasons she was the most popular female star of the small screen, which was an ideal showcase for her comic energy, flair for slapstick, and gift for vocal mimicry. She went on to star in two subsequent but less successful sitcoms, the last of which ended in 1974. Ball also headed Desilu Productions (1962–67) and Lucille Ball Productions (1967–89). Her films include Stage Door (1937) and Mame (1974).

See biography by S. Kanfer, Ball of Fire (2003).

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Ball, Lucille

Lucille Ball

BORN: August 6, 1911 • Jamestown, New York

DIED: April 26, 1989 • Los Angeles, California

American comedian, actress

Widely considered one of the greatest comedians of all time, Lucille Ball created an early television character that still enjoys great popularity around the world after more than fifty years. In October 1951, when she made her debut as the zany housewife Lucy Ricardo in the situation comedy (a type of program that draws humor from continuing characters and their environment) I Love Lucy, she was a forty-year-old actress with more than sixty movies to her credit. But Ball made her greatest impact on the small screen. As the first female superstar of the television era, she changed the course of TV history and had a lasting influence on American culture. "Quite simply, the show was better written, performed, and photographed than anything else the audience had ever seen," Vince Waldron wrote in Classic Sitcoms. "Even today—more than four decades after the series ended its run—few situation comedies can match the look, pacing, and precision of the best episodes of I Love Lucy, television's first classic sitcom."

"I never thought I was funny. I don't think funny."

A young actress and model

Lucille Desiree Ball was born in Jamestown, New York, on August 6, 1911. She was the eldest of two children born to Henry Durell Ball and Desiree (DeDe) Hunt. Ball's father was a telephone lineman for the Bell Company, and the family moved to Montana and then Michigan before Ball was four years old. In 1915, Henry Ball died, and the family moved back to Jamestown to live with Ball's grandparents.

Ball showed an early interest in acting, and her mother and grandfather encouraged her to develop her talents. Throughout her teen years, she participated in as many school and community plays as she could. When she was seventeen, Ball attended the John Murray Anderson-Robert Milton School of Theater in New York City. After only one term, however, the instructors told Ball that she did not have the special qualities needed to become an actress and asked her to leave the school. But Ball refused to simply accept the rejection and go back home. "Although lonely, homesick, and lost, I couldn't face the sneers and snickers I felt would be waiting for me back in Jamestown," she wrote in her autobiography, Love, Lucy. "This was the day of the Ziegfeld Follies and Shubert spectacles [popular stage shows featuring costumed dancing girls]; hundreds of girls were hired to decorate the stage in fur and feathers. So I decided to become a showgirl."

Ball struggled as a showgirl, too, and was repeatedly fired from various chorus lines. She eventually found her first show-business success as a model. After a bout of rheumatoid arthritis sent her back to Jamestown for almost a year, Ball returned to New York in 1931 to continue modeling. Her big break came when the Chesterfield cigarette company selected her portrait for a major advertising campaign. Ball became the new Chesterfield Girl, and her face appeared on billboards all over New York City. A talent agent recognized her from the ads and recommended her for a role in a movie starring Eddie Cantor called Roman Scandals. She got the part and moved to Hollywood, California, in 1933.

For the next fifteen years, Ball appeared in a number of small movies. She also occasionally received minor parts in major films, such as Stage Door with Katharine Hepburn (1907–2001) and Ginger Rogers (1911–1995). While working on the set of Too Many Girls in 1940, Ball met a young Cuban bandleader named Desi Arnaz (1917–1986). Arnaz had arrived in the United States just five years earlier. At that time, he was penniless, but he soon found work as a musician and bandleader. He got a part in the Broadway version of Too Many Girls, which led to a role in the movie with Ball. The two fell in love immediately. "Everyone at the studio knew I was starry-eyed over Desi, and most of them warned me against him," Ball remembered in her autobiography. "But I had flipped." The couple was married a few months later, on November 30, 1940.

For the next ten years, Ball worked on movies in Hollywood and on various film locations, while Arnaz toured the country with his band. Being away from each other so much took a toll on their marriage. At one point, Ball decided that the only way to save her marriage was to find a way that she and her husband could work together. Approached by CBS Radio to appear on a radio show about a married couple, Ball proposed that Arnaz play her husband. CBS executives worried that the audience would not believe they were married, but Ball managed to convince them to give it a try. The radio show, My Favorite Husband, made its debut in 1948. Although the show was successful, it soon began losing listeners to the new medium of television, which was rapidly increasing in popularity in the late 1940s.

I Love Lucy

In 1950, CBS approached Ball with a plan to move My Favorite Husband to television. Once again, Ball suggested that Arnaz play her husband, but network executives claimed that TV audiences would not find them believable as a couple. In an effort to prove that viewers would accept them, Ball and Arnaz created a stage act of comedy and music that they performed around the country. The tour was a big success. When they returned to California, CBS agreed to produce a TV show starring Ball and Arnaz.

From the debut of the series in 1951, Ball and her husband played important roles in shaping their TV characters. "We called my radio writers on My Favorite Husband and together dreamed up a set of television characters," Ball remembered in Love, Lucy. "Originally, we were Lucy and Larry Lopez…. Desi would be a Cuban bandleader who worked in New York City. I would play a housewife with burning stage ambition." This initial idea proved to be a good one, but getting a sponsor to agree to their plan was a bit difficult.

The pilot, or initial test episode, of the show was filmed quickly, adapting parts from the successful stage act. Ball, who was carrying their first child, wore baggy clothing to conceal her pregnancy. The pilot attracted the attention of cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris, which agreed to sponsor the program on the condition that it be broadcast live from CBS network studios in New York City. Most television programs were produced in New York at that time. The East Coast was the most heavily populated area of the country, and early television pictures declined in quality the further the signals were sent from the original source. Naturally, advertisers wanted to base shows where the most viewers could receive their messages. But this rather ordinary location request by the sponsor created problems for Ball and Arnaz, who refused to move to New York.

The couple wanted to produce the show in Hollywood, using technically superior film rather than less-expensive videotape. They also suggested building a soundstage large enough to hold a live audience and using a multiple-camera technique that would give the actors more freedom to play to the audience. Both CBS and Philip Morris felt that filming the show in California and using the innovative camera style would be too difficult and expensive. In order to make the arrangement work, Ball and Arnaz agreed to take a cut in pay. But they also demanded that their new production company, Desilu, be granted ownership of the show.

Following the successful pilot episode, the creative team decided to add more regular characters in order to balance the personalities of Ball and Arnaz, who played Lucy and Ricky Ricardo. They came up with an older couple, Fred and Ethel Mertz, who became landlords and best friends of the Ricardos. Veteran actor William Frawley (1887–1966) was cast as Fred Mertz, and Vivian Vance (1909–1979) was cast as his wife Ethel.

A smash hit

The first episode of I Love Lucy was broadcast on October 15, 1951. It was an immediate hit, and over time it came to be regarded as the standard for all future situation comedies. By April 1952, nearly 10.6 million television sets were tuned to I Love Lucy each week, marking the first time a TV show had reached so many people. In fact, stores and restaurants across the country would close for the half-hour broadcast, placing a sign on the door that said, "We love Lucy, too. See you after the show." Over the course of its six-year run, the show was nominated for twenty-three Emmy Awards and won five. Emmy Awards are annual honors recognizing excellence in television programming.

When Ball was pregnant with her second child, she and the producers decided to write her pregnancy into the show. A pregnant woman had rarely appeared on television before, and certainly never as the lead in a comedy series. Although CBS was nervous about offending viewers with what was considered a private experience at that time, the plans moved forward. On January 19, 1953, both Lucille Ball and Lucy Ricardo had a baby. Ball's real-life delivery took place on the same day the groundbreaking episode "Lucy Goes to the Hospital" aired. By some estimates more than 44 million people watched that episode, setting a record for a television audience that lasted for decades.

Original weekly episodes of I Love Lucy ran until May 1957. Once the series ended, Desilu Productions sold the rights to air reruns of the show to CBS for the record price of $4 million. This business deal allowed Ball and Arnaz to buy RKO Pictures, a movie-production studio. In November 1957, the characters of Lucy, Ricky, Fred, and Ethel returned to television in The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show (also known as The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour). The hour-long program, which aired until April 1960, kept the same format as I Love Lucy but was set in Westport, Connecticut, where the Ricardos and Mertzes had moved in the last season of the original show. Shortly after this program concluded its run, Ball and Arnaz were divorced. They remained good friends, though, and each retained 25 percent ownership of Desilu Productions.

The first female head of a TV production company

In 1962, following a successful run on Broadway in the musical Wildcat, Ball decided to return to television. She bought out Arnaz's share of Desilu Productions for $3 million and thus became the first female president of a major television production company. Ball then produced a new series, called The Lucy Show, in which she and Vivian Vance played two widowed best friends who shared a house with their children. The show was not as successful as I Love Lucy, though it did earn high ratings. Vance left the show in 1965, but it continued running until 1968. Then Ball starred in another show, Here's Lucy, which also featured her real-life children, Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz Jr. This program aired until September 1974. When it finally ended its run, it marked the conclusion of nearly twenty-three years of original weekly television programming starring Lucille Ball.

In 1967, Ball sold Desilu Productions to the Gulf and Western Industries for $17 million. While she experienced some success as president of Desilu, overseeing the production of such popular shows as Mission: Impossible and Star Trek, she ultimately found the work of a studio head to be too demanding. With the $10 million she earned from the sale as Desilu's major stockholder, she formed a smaller company called Lucille Ball Productions.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Ball continued to appear on television specials and in occasional films. In 1986, she tried to launch a new TV series called Life with Lucy. It turned out to be an unfortunate way to end her career in television, as the show was canceled after only eight episodes. Later that year, her ex-husband Desi Arnaz died. A deeply saddened Ball traveled to Washington, D.C., a few days later to receive the Kennedy Center Award from President Ronald Reagan. In 1988, Ball suffered a stroke, becoming partially paralyzed. She died on April 26, 1989, after undergoing heart surgery.

Throughout her long career, Lucille Ball became known as the "first lady of television." The landmark 1950s comedy she helped develop and starred in, I Love Lucy, is often mentioned among the best TV programs of all time. In an era when women were expected to play traditional roles as housewives and mothers, Ball created a female character who constantly tried to become more independent and add some excitement to her life. Although Lucy Ricardo's struggles always had humorous results, Lucille Ball's career as an actress, producer, and president of a major television studio stood as a real-life example for American women.

For More Information

BOOKS

Ball, Lucille, with Betty Hannah Hoffman. Love, Lucy. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1996.

Fidelman, Geoffrey Mark. The Lucy Book. Los Angeles: Renaissance Books, 1999.

Halberstam, David. The Fifties. New York: Villard, 1993.

Higham, Charles. Lucy: The Life of Lucille Ball. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986.

Morella, Joe, and Edward Z. Epstein. Forever Lucy: The Life of Lucille Ball. Secaucus, NJ: Lyle Stuart, 1986.

Sanders, Covne Steven, and Tom Gilbert. Desilu. New York: William Morrow, 1993.

Waldron, Vince. Classic Sitcoms: A Celebration of the Best Prime-Time Comedies, 2nd ed. Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 1997.

WEB SITES

"Lucille Ball." Museum of Broadcast Communications. http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/B/htmlB/balllucille/balllucille.htm (accessed on May 22, 2006).

PBS American Masters. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/database/ball_l.html (accessed on May 22, 2006).

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