Saturday, August 6, 2011

Lucille Ball: 100 years after her birth, we still love Lucy

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the world's greatest comedians.  The redhead herself, Lucille Ball was born on August 6, 1911 in Jamestown, New York.  Lucy died on April 26, 1989 in Los Angeles.  She had undergone heart surgery and her aorta had ruptured twice.

Lucille Ball was her real name.  As a young model, she tried using the name Diane Belmont for a while, but decided "that kind of phony elegance" wasn't for her.   
Lucy was the daughter of an electrician, Henry Durrell Ball, who worked as the foreman of a telephone crew.  Henry died of typhoid fever in February of 1915 when he was only 28 years old.  He left behind a a pregnant wife, Desiree (DeDe), and 3-year-old Lucy.  Four months after his death, Lucy's brother, Fred Henry Ball was born on July 17, 1915 (Fred Ball died on February 5, 2007).

The young Lucille Ball was raised by her mother, DeDe, and her maternal grandparents, Fred and Flora Belle Hunt.  DeDe eventually remarried a man of Swedish background named Ed Peterson.  According to Lucy, Ed was pleasant enough, but he never considered himself a father to her and her brother Freddy.  Lucy's mother and her stepfather eventually divorced. 

During her early teenage years, Lucy, who had always enjoyed playacting, enrolled in the Murray Anderson-Robert Milton School for the Dramatic Arts in New York City.  One of her fellow students was Bette Davis who earned rave revues for everything she did at the school. 

Lucy, on the other hand, didn't impress.  At the end of the term, the school sent a letter to her mother advising that Lucy did not have what it takes to be an actress and that she would be "wasting her money" if she continued.  Lucy was then forced to return home.

Undaunted, Lucille Ball did not give up.  Determined to build a career in show business, Lucy returned to New York City in 1928.  She became a model and took whatever acting parts came her way. 

By 1933, Lucy was headed for Hollywood.  Her first film appearance was as a Goldwyn Girl in the 1933 Eddie Cantor film Roman Scandals.  During the 1930s, she was cast in many minor roles as a contract player for RKO Radio Pictures.  At RKO, she performed in a comedy short with the Three Stooges (Little Pigskins, 1934) and worked with the Marx Brothers (Room Service, 1938). 

Harpo Marx later appeared in a classic 1955 episode of I Love Lucy.  He and Lucy displayed their comedic genius in an unforgettable mirror routine. 

To see a video of Lucy discussing the Harpo Marx mirror routine on The Dick Cavett Show, click on the link below.

Lucille Ball met Desi Arnaz in 1940, while the two were filming the Rodgers and Hart Broadway musical Too Many Girls.   Lucy and the Cuban-born bandleader, almost six years her junior, eloped during that same year.  They were married by a judge in Greenwich, Connecticut on November 30, 1940.

In her autobiography, Love Lucy, she wrote:  "Everyone at the studio knew I was starry-eyed over Desi, and most of them warned me against him. 'He's too young for you.' Or, 'He's a dyed-in-the-wool Catholic and you're a Protestant,' and so on.  But I had flipped."

Lucy and Desi faced some difficulties during the early years of their marriage and Lucy actually filed for divorce in 1944.  They reconciled but their separate career paths caused them to spend a great deal of time apart.

In 1948, Lucille Ball was cast in a radio program for CBS Radio.  She voiced the part of Liz Cugat (later Cooper), a zany housewife, in My Favorite Husband.  After three successful seasons, CBS was enthusiastic about the concept of the show and eager to develop it for television. 

Lucy agreed to give the new medium of television a try, but there were two major hurdles between her and CBS.  Lucy was adamant that Desi should play the part of her television husband on the series.  She wanted to preserve her marriage and felt that this would be the best way for her to spend time with Desi.  She also insisted that the show to originate from Hollywood rather than New York.  Although most other early television sitcoms were done live from New York, Lucy had no desire to commute from Hollywood. 

The CBS brass was reluctant to have Desi Arnaz portray Lucy's husband despite the fact they were married in real life.  They didn't think that television viewers would find him believable as Lucy's spouse.  In the early years of television, it was quite radical for a native of Cuba with a thick Spanish accent to star in an American TV series.

Lucy and Desi

All of this did not deter Lucy and Desi.  In the summer of 1950, they performed before live audiences to prove that audiences would accept them as a couple.  Then they produced a pilot for the program with their own money.  The pilot eventually won over the CBS brass and I Love Lucy was placed on the CBS schedule for the fall of 1951.  It was to be filmed before a live audience in Hollywood.

It was the decision to film I Love Lucy, rather than perform it on live television, that allowed for the high quality prints of each episode that were made available for countless reruns.  I Love Lucy was filmed using three cameras, unlike live programs, which were rebroadcast on poor quality kinescopes.

In July 17, 1951, as she approached her 40th birthday, Lucy gave birth to her first child.  She and Desi welcomed their new daughter and named her Lucie Desiree Arnaz.  When I Love Lucy debuted on October 15, 1951, Lucille Ball was nurturing a 3-month-old infant.

I Love Lucy quickly became the most popular show on television as audiences followed the madcap adventures of Lucy Ricardo and her Cuban bandleader husband, Ricky Ricardo (Note: They were called Lucy and Larry Lopez in the pilot episode).  Fred and Ethel Mertz, their best friends,  were played by William Frawley and Vivian Vance. 

In 1952, Lucy was pregnant with her second child and she wanted the pregnancy to be written into the show.  CBS  was concerned about the show's ratings and its sponsors in an era when the word "pregnancy" was even not used on the air.  The network finally approved the pregnancy storyline but insisted that the word "expecting" had to be used rather than "pregnant."  Desi evoked laughter when he intentionally mispronounced the word "expecting" as "spectin." 

Lucy's pregnancy storyline delighted audiences and provided great fodder for comedy.  Fans waited with great anticipation for Lucille Ball to give birth on screen and in real life. 

On January 19, 1953, a son was born to Lucy and Desi whom they named Desi Arnaz, Jr.  That same day, Lucy gave birth to Ricky Ricardo, Jr. (Little Ricky) on the air.  The birth of Little Ricky graced the cover of the first issue of TV Guide  in January of 1953.

During the sixth and final season of I Love Lucy, the Ricardos moved from their brownstone apartment in New York to a country home in Westport, Connecticut.   Although the move reflected the 1950s migration to suburbia, I preferred the episodes in the Ricardos' modest Manhattan apartment.  The show seemed to lose something when the Ricardos left New York.

I Love Lucy ceased production as a weekly series at the end of the 1956-57 season.  It was still extremely popular but Lucy and Desi had two young children and they wanted to reduce their workload.  As a result, I Love Lucy was replaced by The Lucille Ball -Desi Arnaz Show, a series of full-hour specials about the travels and misadventures of the Ricardos and Mertzes. 

The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show first aired on November 14, 1957 and ran until 1960.  13 episodes were produced and a collection of the series was shown in syndication as the Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour.  Many big-name celebrities appeared on these specials including Danny Thomas and his Make Room for Daddy cast, Tallulah Bankhead, Red Skelton, Ernie Kovacs and Edie Adams, Fred MacMurray and June Haver, Bob Cummings, Rudy Vallee, Betty Grable and Harry James, Bob Cummings, Paul Douglas, Fernando Lamas, Maurice Chevalier, Ida Lupino and Howard Duff and Milton Berle. 

The Lucy-Desi specials ended about the same time as the tempestuous Ball-Arnaz marriage.  The last of the specials was filmed on March 2, 1960 and divorce proceedings began the next day.  There was great tension between the couple during the final two episodes of the series. 

During the penultimate episode, "Lucy Goes to Japan," with guest star Bob Cummings, Lucy appeared red-eyed on screen (It is particularly noticeable that she had been crying if one looks closely at her in the last scene).  The episode was not filmed before a studio audience due to the strained relationship between Lucy and Desi.  During filming of the final episode of the series with Ernie Kovacs titled "Lucy Meet the Moustache," the relationship had deteriorated to the point that Lucy and Desi only spoke directly to each other when their characters were required to do so.

Lucy and Desi Arnaz were divorced on May 4, 1960.  Of the breakup of her marriage, Lucy remarked, "I hate failure and that divorce was a number one in my eyes.  It was the worst period of my life.  Neither Desi nor I have been the same since, physically or emotionally."

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz eventually established an amicable relationship again.  They both remarried but remained on friendly terms and Lucy always remained fond of Desi.  During her estrangement from him, Lucy came to a realization about their relationship. 

In her memoir, she wrote: "I realized we never liked each other.  We had a great attraction going for each other in the beginning but we didn't approve of each other.  He disapproved of my moderation and my conservatism.  I was square, he said.   I disapproved of the way he worked too hard, played too hard, and was never moderate in anything.  It was like living on top of a volcano, you never knew when it would erupt or why."

On November 19, 1961, Lucy married stand-up comedian Gary Morton whom she had met in New York a few months before she open on Broadway in the musical Wildcat.  Morton, born December 19, 1924, was more than 13 years older than Lucy and the couple signed a prenuptial agreement to squelch rumours that Gary was a gold digger.  They remained together until Lucy's death in 1989.  He married Susie McAllister in 1996 and passed away on March 30, 1999 at the age of 74. 

Lucy and Gary Morton

Desi Arnaz married Edith Mack Hirsch on March 2, 1963.  Edith died in 1985 and Desi, a heavy smoker, died of lung cancer on December 2, 1986.  He was 69 at the time of his death in Del Mar, California.

After she and Desi had gone their separate ways, Lucille Ball starred in two other popular sitcoms. From 1962 until 1968, she played the role of Lucy Carmichael, a widow with two children, on The Lucy Show.  Vivian Vance co-starred as her divorced friend Vivian Bagley.  Gale Gordon played the role of her boss, banker Theodore J. Mooney. 

In 1968, The Lucy Show was revamped and retitled.  Its title was changed to Here's Lucy and the name of Lucy's character was changed to Lucy Carter.  Lucy's teenage children, Kim and Craig, were played by her real-life offspring, Lucy Arnaz and Desi Arnaz, Jr.  Lucie Arnaz remained with the show until it ended in 1974 but Desi, Jr. left in 1971.

Gale Gordon was retained in a new role as her brother-in-law Harrison Carter.  Harry was also Lucy's employer at Carter's Unique Employment Agency.  Vivian Vance, who ceased to be a regular member of the cast in 1965, did not appear in Here's Lucy. Vivian died of cancer in 1979.

To open the 1971 season of Here's Lucy, Elizabeth Taylor and then-husband Richard Burton appeared as guest stars.  In the episode, Elizabeth show off her the much-publicized diamond ring that Burton had given her.

After Here's Lucy finished its run in 1974, Lucy did not star in another sitcom until 1986.  Lucy was 75-years-old at the time and the show flopped miserably.  In Life with Lucy, she played a feisty grandmother named Lucy Barker and her old friend Gale Gordon portrayed her business partner, Curtis McGibbon.  When the show was cancelled after less than two months, Lucy was terribly disappointed. 

Later in her life, after years performing comedy, Lucille Ball was not afraid to take on a dramatic role.  In 1985, she played the part of an elderly homeless woman in a made-for-television film called Stone PillowStone Pillow received mixed reviews but Lucy earned some praise for her performance.  She proved that she was willing to let an audience see her looking haggard and unattractive.

What a legacy of laughter Lucy has left us!  Her comedic talent lives on in countless reruns and DVDs of I Love Lucy, The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, The Lucy Show and Here's Lucy.   Each generation can watch and the comedy of Lucille Ball anew. 

Lucy's final public appearance was at the 1989 Academy Awards where she appeared with fellow comedian Bob Hope.  After Lucy passed away,  Hope paid tribute to her with these heartfelt words:  "One of the greatest gifts to mankind is laughter and one the greatest gifts to laughter is Lucille Ball.  God has her now, but thanks to television, we'll have her forever."  

Lucille Ball claimed that she never thought she was funny.  She once said, "I don't think funny."  Lucy clearly understood, however, what audiences found funny.  In her autobiography, she wrote:  "I'm known among comediennes as a stunt girl who will do anything . . . I do know that if an actress has the slightest aversion to pie in the face or pratfalls, the camera will pick it up instantly.  The audience won't laugh; they'll suffer in sympathy." 

Lucille Ball was not afraid to get down and dirty in a comedy role.  Two of the most popular episodes of I Love Lucy are "Job Switching" (1952) and "Lucy's Italian Movie" (1956).   In "Job Switching," Lucy and Ethel find jobs at a chocolate factory where they are completely inept at wrapping chocolates.  Due to a speedy conveyor belt, they find themselves stuffing chocolates in their mouths blouses and hats.  In Lucy's "Italian Movie," while vacationing in Europe, Lucy is offered a minor film role by an Italian producer.  In an attempt to prepare herself for the part, Lucy ends up in a vat of unpressed grapes fighting with professional Italian grape stompers.  She ends up with pressed grapes all over her.

To watch a video of Lucy and Vivian Vance in the famous chocolate factory scene in I Love Lucy, click on the link below.

Lucy was successful at comedy because she didn't have an aversion to that pie in the face.  She was a fantastic physical comedian and audiences couldn't help but laugh at her.  They did not feel sympathy for her when her face and her clothes were messed up or when she was locked in a freezer.  They simply found her hilarious.

Lucille Ball was a very hard worker and had a reputation as a perfectionist.  In Love, Lucy, she stated: "I don't suppose that hard work, discipline, and a perfectionist attitude toward my work did me any harm.  They are a big part of my makeup today, as any of my co-workers will tell you.  And when life seemed unbearable, I learned to live in my imagination, and to step inside other people's skins - indispensable abilities for an actress."  That, I suppose, along with remarkable talent, was the secret to Lucy's success.

- Joanne


  1. lucy was a great woman!

  2. I loved lucy every since I have seen her on tv never will forget her love to laugh