Ball, Lucille (1911–1989)

views updated

Ball, Lucille (1911–1989)

American actress, star of the television show "I Love Lucy," and co-founder and president of Desilu Productions, which revolutionized television production in America and the world. Name variations: Lucy. Born Lucille Ball on August 6, 1911, in Jamestown in western New York State; died following heart surgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California, on April 26, 1989; daughter of Henry Ball (an electrician) and Desirée ("DeDe") Hunt (a sales-woman); attended public school to ninth grade; married Desi Arnaz, on November 30, 1940 (divorced 1961); married Gary Morton, on November 19, 1961; children: (first marriage) Lucie Arnaz (an actress), and Desi Arnaz, Jr.


countless honors, including Emmys for best comedienne (1952 and 1967); induction into the Television Academy Hall of Fame (1984); and Kennedy Center Honors for Lifetime Achievement (1986).

Father died when she was three (1914); lived with her stepgrandmother from the ages of seven to eleven; attended Robert Minton-John Murray Anderson School of Drama for six weeks (1926); a tragic shooting accident which maimed and eventually killed a neighboring boy led to a lawsuit that cost the family its home (1927); moved back and forth between Jamestown and New York City, where she supported herself modeling for Bergdorf Goodman and Hattie Carnegie and still photographers (1926–28); went to Hollywood for a six-week stint as a Goldwyn Girl, appearing in Roman Scandal, starring Eddie Cantor (1933); made more than 60 films, including Stage Door The Big Street DuBarry Was a Lady, and The Fuller Brush Girl for a variety of studios (1933–50), and starred in the CBS-radio show "My Favorite Husband" (1948–50); played the wacky, star-struck housewife Lucy Ricardo as star of the ground-breaking and wildly successful "I Love Lucy" and its spin-off "The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour" (1951–60) with her then-husband Desi Arnaz, with whom she founded Desilu Productions; starred in the Broadway Musical Wildcat (1960–61); starred in three "Lucy" tv-series (1962–74); president of Desilu Productions (1962–67); starred in the film Mame (1974) and the tv-movie "Stone Pillow" (1985), and the short-lived series "Life with Lucy" (1986).

One Saturday afternoon in the early 1920s, a tall slim girl, about 14 years old, with large blue eyes and chestnut hair, sat in the darkness of a vaudeville theater in Jamestown, New York. Exactly who had brought her she could never remember, all she knew was the effect the performer Julius Tannen had on the people around her. A dour figure in a business suit, he stood in the glare of a single light bulb, and, by changing his stance and his accent, he transformed himself from put-upon husband to immigrant woman, from captain of industry to bellboy, uniting through the marvel of his talent the audience of bankers and society matrons and lathe-turners and midwives and moving them from laughter to tears. Lucille Ball felt the waves of emotion crashing around her and vowed that she too would be on the vaudeville stage.

She must have appreciated his ability to evoke a range of emotions as much as she valued the way Tannen lifted people from their daily lives, because almost from infancy she was forced to struggle under trying circumstances and to suppress her own complaints. Her father, an electrician named Henry Ball, died of typhoid when she was three, shortly before the birth of her brother Fred. Her mother Desirée Hunt Ball married Edward Peterson, a factory worker, in 1918, and followed him to Detroit, leaving Ball in Jamestown with Peterson's mother. The dour woman forced Lucille to wash dishes by candlelight and to go to bed on summer evenings at six. Mirrors were completely forbidden, so that about the time she was eight, Lucille was amazed when she caught sight of her face reflected in a trolley window and realized that she was able to entertain herself by making bizarre expressions with her extraordinarily mobile mug.

After Ball was reunited with her mother and the Hunt family in Celoron outside Jamestown, a young boy was fatally injured in a shooting accident on their property. In 1928, Ball's family lost its home in a resulting lawsuit. Forced to leave Celoron, bitterly unhappy in the family's cramped apartment in Jamestown, and something of a scandal to the town because of her romantic involvement with a local hoodlum, Ball was granted her wish—to go to New York to prepare for a career on stage at the Robert Minton-John Murray Anderson School of Drama. "All I learned in drama school was how to be frightened," Ball recalled.

Intimidated by the school's star pupil, Bette Davis , and so homesick and terrified that

she could barely speak or move in class, she was invited to leave after six weeks. Until she was 20, Ball moved between Jamestown—where she was the first girl to bob her hair, wear galoshes in the "Flapper" style, and appear publicly in slacks (which she had styled from men's pajamas ordered from a catalog)—and New York City, where she tried to get work as a showgirl with Flo Ziegfeld and Earl Carroll. Flat-chested and shy, she was fired from every company and was close to starving in Manhattan when someone told her that her flat chest would be an advantage as a model. She worked for designer Hattie Carnegie , as well as Bergdorf Goodman and other fashion establishments, and gave up her dream of show business, except for one day in October 1930 when she skipped work to watch Clara Bow make No Limit on the city's streets. Carnegie fired her but finally took her back because of Ball's resemblance to Constance Bennett , the most popular film star of the era and an important Carnegie customer.

A chance meeting with an agent led to Ball's being hired to appear in the Eddie Cantor movie Roman Scandals as a Goldwyn Girl in 1933. Happy to leave the summer heat of Manhattan, where she was modeling fur and woolen coats, she expected to return from Hollywood in six weeks. Instead, she stayed for 56 years. "My stick-to-itness came out here. Suddenly I was in show business. It interested me because I was learning, and because I was learning, I never complained. Whatever they asked, I did. I did one line, two lines, with animals, in mud packs, seltzer in the face. Eddie Cantor noticed it first. he'd say, 'Give it to that girl, she doesn't mind.'" In Hollywood, she developed a confident façade that she could not effect in New York City, but, because she did not have the sculpted glamorous face of the 1930s, she was not seen as a beauty, and she struggled for parts. Put under contract at the beginning of the talkie era and on the brink of the Technicolor age, it seemed meaningless when she was singled out by a prominent director of the silent era, Edward Sedgwick. Sedgwick, who worked with Buster Keaton, saw her on the Goldwyn lot telling a story with the exaggerated expressions and melodramatic gestures that Mabel Normand struggled to achieve. Although he was then regarded as a has-been, he walked up and said, "Young lady, if you play your cards right, you can be the greatest comedienne in America." Thinking Sedgwick was trying to pick her up, she turned away. The money in films was so good in those Depression days that she was able to reunite her family and support them in Hollywood.

She moved to RKO where she appeared in bit parts, notably in Top Hat and Follow the Fleet, with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, and came under the protection of studio head Pandro Berman. After she got rave notices in a play Hey Diddle Diddle, directed by Anne Nichols, author of the play Abie's Irish Rose, Ball made her third lead in the film adaptation of the Edna Ferber -George Kaufman play Stage Door, starring Rogers and Katharine Hepburn. It was a story of struggling young actresses in a theatrical rooming house. According to Hepburn, the director Gregory LaCava made up the story as he went along, basing it on scraps of conversation he heard as he eavesdropped on the set. LaCava saw Ball as a girl who dressed well but didn't have the talent or the focus to make it in show business, and he cast her as the one character who chucked her failing career to go home to a nice husband and children in Seattle. As Ball's character departs, Rogers tells Hepburn: "She'll have a photo album of kids and all we'll have is scrapbooks." Stage Door was a critical success, but of the star-packed film that included Ann Miller, Eve Arden and Gail Patrick , who later became a producer of the CBS-TV series "Perry Mason," the one who won an Academy Award was Andrea Leeds.

Although Ball was making several pictures a year for RKO and seemed to be earning her $3,500 salary, the studio began to survey audiences and learned that few people could identify her name or face. She was not selling tickets. Trying to build her up, in 1940 RKO put her in Dance, Girl, Dance (written by Tess Slesinger and directed by Dorothy Arzner ), an adaptation of the Broadway musical Too Many Girls, that had been produced and directed by George Abbott. On the day she and Maureen O'Hara completed their fight scene in the film, Ball walked into the RKO commissary where Abbott introduced her to Desi Arnaz, a Cuban band leader who had a featured role in the musical and was making his film debut. She and Arnaz, six years her junior, began a tempestuous courtship on the set, which ended when they married on November 30, 1940, at the Byram River Beagle Country Club in Greenwich, Connecticut. Desi's film career soon sputtered, and he entered the army to serve in World War II. The marriage foundered, and they divorced, for less than one day, in 1944.

In 1943, Ball had moved to MGM where mogul Louis B. Mayer gave her a star build-up that included a significant change of hair color. "When she arrived at MGM, her hair was medium brown," the studio's hair stylist Sydney Guilaroff recalled. "I would not say that it was dull, but it was not interesting. I thought there were enough successful blondes, why not a redhead?" The dyes turned Ball's hair green, however, and colorists worked hours before her hair became a color that was relatively human in shade. Ball's first MGM film, the 1943 DuBarry Was a Lady with Gene Kelly and Red Skelton was a hit, but her films soon fell off at the box office, and she was considered a talented supporting player. Over the years, she worked with the Three Stooges, The Marx Brothers, Edgar Bergen, and Harold Lloyd but no one recognized her gift for physical comedy, not even Ball herself who was committed to being a glamorous movie star. The comic gifts of such females as Carole Lombard and Rosalind Russell were recognized, but Ball lacked their verbal timing and witty edge. ZaSu Pitts, Nancy Walker , who was then a teen performer, and the great Fanny Brice were popular, but unlike them, Lucy was pretty and on the track for stardom. Buster Keaton tried without success to tell Mayer that Ball was a comic genius, but Mayer could not conceive of this in an attractive woman. Keaton and Sedgwick, who were now both personal friends of Ball's, slowly overcame her objections and trained her in pratfalls, timing, and the transmission and reception of custard pies.

Ball's film career seemed to have bottomed out when the two landed her a contract with the comedy unit of Columbia where she made several knock-about physical comedies, notably The Fuller Brush Girl, where the persona of Lucy Ricardo seems ready to emerge. Meanwhile, she was on CBS-radio in 1948–50, playing a scatterbrained housewife in "My Favorite Husband."

Her personal life was in shambles in the late 1940s. Unable to land a role in films, Desi Arnaz went on the road with his band, and the two were seldom together. Despite a series of miscarriages, Ball, who loved her husband desperately, was determined that they would have children together. When she made the 1950 Fancy Pants with Bob Hope, she persuaded the comedian to make Desi musical director of his radio show to keep him in Hollywood. Then, when CBS wanted to transfer "My Favorite Husband" to television, Ball insisted that her husband be her co-star. Arnaz saw the financial and star potential in television, but Ball was dubious, because film studios blackballed performers who appeared on the medium, unless they were promoting movies. Ball insisted that their show, "I Love Lucy," be filmed in Hollywood, rather than done live in New York. In the fevered negotiations that followed, Ball and Arnaz ended up owning the show and being responsible for its production. CBS executives felt that the couple would be defeated by the challenges, particularly filming for television, and that network executives would find a way to minimize the role of Arnaz, whom they abhorred for his accent and Latin origins. "Who would believe a Cuban band-leader married to a red-blooded American girl?" one asked, incredulous.

The lady was a democrat with a small-d.

—Frank Gorey

Nichols, Anne (1891–1966)

American playwright. Born in 1891; died in a nursing home in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, on September 15, 1966, after a long illness; married actor Henry Duffy (divorced); children: one son.

Anne Nichols wrote Abie's Irish Rose, a theatrical phenomenon that ran from 1922 to 1927. Despite everything the critics threw at the stage, it was the longest running play up to that point in the history of Broadway. Wrote Robert Benchley: "'Abie's Irish Rose' is the kind of play in which a Jewish boy, wanting to marry an Irish girl named Rosemary Murphy, tells his orthodox father that her name is Rosie Murphesky, and the wedding proceeds." As the play continued to fill the house night after night, year after year, Benchley took its success personally, refreshing the blurbs in his weekly theatrical column in Life:

June 22, 1922: Abie's Irish Rose —Among the season's worst.

August 2, 1923: Abie's Irish Rose —A very sore point with this department. Please don't ask us about it….

May 7, 1925: Abie's Irish Rose —If this runs until May 22 it will have broken the record held by "Lightnin'" for length of run. We are as nervous as a witch.

May 28, 1925: Abie's Irish Rose —Now let's just make this fourth year the biggest and best of all.

Nichols also wrote, but with less success, The Gilded Cage (1920), Love Dreams (1921) and, with Adelaide Matthews , Just Married (1921).

Remembering the cinematographer Karl Freund from her days at MGM, Ball, who was awaiting the birth of her first child, Lucie Arnaz, asked that Freund be hired for "I Love Lucy." Intrigued by the challenge, Freund developed a lighting system that made it possible to film the show on three television cameras before a live audience, which was another of Ball's requirements. Also essential to her were her radio writers Jess Oppenheimer, Marilyn Pugh , and Bob Carroll, Jr. Although the network and Phillip Morris, its sponsor, did not like the first show, the American public embraced it the Monday night it was broadcast on October 15, 1951. They loved Lucy Ricardo, a home-bound housewife who was determined to thwart her Cuban band-leader husband and trick her way into show business. "I never found a place of my own, never became truly confident until, in the Lucy character I began to create something that was truly mine," she said. "The potential was there. Lucy released it." Soon 14 million Americans, one in nine, were watching the show. Desilu produced such shows as Eve Arden's "Our Miss Brooks" and "The Whirlybirds" and leased facilities to shows starring Danny Thomas and Loretta Young .

Her life was full and pressured. She gave birth to her son Desi, Jr., on January 19, 1953, the same night "Little Ricky" was born on television. The show drew more viewers than the presidential inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower on the following day. Within the month, she won her first Emmy, along with one for the

show and signed an $8 million contract with her sponsor Phillip Morris. Positioned as one of the richest women in America, she then became the target of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which was conducting a witch hunt on people suspected of being Communists. That she was one of America's most visible and successful capitalists was in no way proof against this. Ball, who had seen several of her friends ruined by HUAC, was certain she and the show would be destroyed. She went before the committee and explained that her grandfather, a socialist who was devoted to the memory of Eugene V. Debs, had asked her to register to vote as a Communist during the Depression, but she was only humoring him and had not voted at all. "In those days," she told the committee with dangerous candor, "that was not a big terrible thing to do. It was almost as terrible to be a Republican." She was the greatest star the committee had ever interrogated, and its members decided to believe her. Although it allowed a cloud to remain over other performers like Larry Parks and Judy Holliday , at Arnaz's insistence a HUAC representative announced that Lucy was no Communist. "The only red thing about this girl is her hair, and even that we're not sure of," Arnaz told reporters, and earned the distinction of making the deadly HUAC something of a joke.

Vance, Vivian (1911–1979)

American actress. Born in Cherryville, Kansas, in 1911; died of cancer on August 17, 1979, in Belvedere, California; daughter of Robert A. and Mae (Ragan) Jones; attended public schools in Independence, Kansas; grew up outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico; married Philip Ober (an actor), in 1941 (divorced 1959); married John Dodds (a literary agent and publishing executive), in 1961.

From 1951 to 1959, Vivian Vance played Ethel Mertz, wife of Fred, on "I Love Lucy." But in 1945, six years before she was cast in the show, Vance had had a nervous breakdown while on the road in The Voice of the Turtle. "One day I was up and around, the next I was lying in bed in my hotel room, my hands shaking helplessly, in a state of violent nausea, weeping hysterically from causes I didn't know," she told Bart Andrews, author of The "I Love Lucy" Book. "A few nights before, on stage, a piece of business called for me to pick up an ashtray. I began to do it and found I couldn't move. The brain ordered, but the arm declined. It was one of the most sickening moments I have ever gone through." For two years, she did not work, until she met a woman psychiatrist who changed her life. In gratitude to Dr. Eleanor Steele , Vance established the Vivian Vance Fund at the Philadelphia Psychoanalytic Institute in 1946. She was also once chair of the Connecticut Mental Health Association. For the last few years of series work with Lucille Ball , Vance commuted from her 125-year-old colonial home in Stamford, Connecticut. Though she was persuaded by her publishing executive husband to write her autobiography and actually did so, she changed her mind about publication and shoved the manuscript into a drawer. Vance, who was given an Emmy in 1953 and a Genii Award in 1964, was featured on Broadway opposite Ed Wynn in Hooray for What, 1937, and worked with Danny Kaye and Eve Arden in Let's Face It, 1941. Her movies include The Secret Fury (with Claudette Colbert , 1950), The Blue Veil (1951), and The Great Race (1965).

suggested reading:

Castelluccio, Frank, and Alvin Walker. The Other Side of Ethel Mertz: The Life Story of Vivian Vance. Manchester, CT: Knowledge, Ideas & Trends, 1998.

The always stormy Ball-Arnaz marriage collapsed under the pressures of her fame and his business pressures and increasing dependence on alcohol. They divorced in 1961. Hoping to make a new life in New York, Ball starred in the Broadway musical Wildcat, which opened December 16, 1960. Her health broke under the strain of the divorce and the physical demands of the show, including singing for which she had no talent or training. She dropped out and, soon after, married Gary Morton, a comedian ten years her junior. Desilu, which produced the show, had to refund $165,000 in ticket sales. Ball returned to Beverly Hills, where she and her "I Love Lucy" co-star Vivian Vance began filming "The Lucy Show," which soon made the top ten in the fall of 1962. A few months later, Ball bought out Arnaz's interest in Desilu for $3 million and became company president. Although she relished being a star, she objected whenever anyone said she was powerful. Never happy as an executive, Ball delegated the running of the studio and concentrated on production of her own show. By the mid-1960s, the trend in television was for action-adventure, one-hour films in color and away from the half-hour, black-and-white comedies that had made Desilu's reputation. The studio struggled to find its way, and, against the wishes of her most trusted advisors, Ball approved production of two expensive, innovative shows—"Mission Impossible" and "Star Trek." "Mission" was an early success, but "Star Trek" lagged in the ratings for several seasons, until it became a cult favorite in syndication. "If it had not been for her, 'Mission Impossible' and certainly 'Star Trek' would never have gotten on the air," said Ed Holly, a company officer, "neither of those shows would ever have been made." In 1967, Ball sold Desilu to Paramount for $17 million. As majority stockholder, her personal share was $10 million.

Ball continued to do "Lucy" shows until 1974, when she made the film Mame, a personal disappointment and critical disaster. She emerged from semi-retirement in 1985 to play a homeless woman in the TV-movie "Stone Pillow," which her fans rejected. Her last series, "Life with Lucy," was yanked from the air because of poor ratings. An admitted workaholic and perfectionist, Ball was wretchedly unhappy when she was not before the cameras, and, aside from backgammon and word games, she was unable to fill her days. She was stunned the night of the Academy Awards in April 1989 when she and Bob Hope got a screaming, roaring, standing ovation from crowds within and outside the auditorium. A few weeks later, she was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles where she underwent six-and-a-half-hour emergency heart surgery. In the days that followed, when she learned her fans were besieging the hospital with 5,000 cards a day and phoning to learn of her condition, she realized that she was beloved as ever. On the eve of going home from the hospital, around dawn on April 26, 1989, her aorta burst, and she died. Lucy Ricardo, Ball's great contribution to American entertainment, goes on forever.


Andrews, Bart. The "I Love Lucy" Book. NY: Doubleday, 1985.

Bochu, Jim. Lucy in the Afternoon. NY: William Morrow, 1990.

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

Harris, Eleanor. The Real Story of Lucille Ball. NY: Farrar, Straus and Young, 1954.


Correspondence and clippings at University of Southern California and University of California at Los Angeles; San Diego State University; Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills; New York Public Library at Lincoln Center; and the Fenton Historical Society, Jamestown, N.Y., 1989.

related media:

Hollywood: The Golden Years. BBC Television Productions in Association with RKO Pictures, 1987.

"I Love Lucy." The Voyager Co., 1991.

Lucy and Desi: A Home Movie. Arluck Entertainment, 1993.

Kathleen Brady , author of Lucille: The Life of Lucille Ball and of Ida Tarbell: Portrait of a Muckraker (University of Pittsburgh Press)