Monday, April 16, 2012

Vivian Vance: She was more than just Lucy's sidekick

Vivian Vance will be forever associated with Lucille Ball.  Those remarkable women can only be described as television's greatest female comedy duo.  Their antics are still as funny today as they were back in the 1950s and 1960s.

I started thinking about Vivian after watching a DVD of a Lucy special, Lucy Calls the President, which aired on CBS on November 21, 1977.  There is a poignancy about that TV special because it marked Vivian's final appearance on television with Lucille Ball.  She died of cancer on August 17, 1979 at the age of 70 and was not well during the filming of the show.

Lucy Calls the President was produced during the Jimmy Carter era.  The former president did not appear on the special, but his mother, Lillian Carter (also known as Miss Lillian), made a cameo appearance.  The supporting cast included longtime Lucy associates Gale Gordon and Mary Jane Croft while Ed McMahon played the role of Lucy's husband.

Over a quarter of a century after the debut of I Love Lucy in 1951, Viv and Lucy still displayed the magic quality that made them such an outstanding comedy team.  The chemistry was still there.  Yet, although Vivian made her reputation as Lucille Ball's comic foil, she should always be remembered as a talented artist in her own right.

Vivian was born Vivian Roberta Jones in Cherryvale, Kansas on July 26, 1909.  She was the second of the six children of Robert and Euphemia Jones.  The family moved to Independence, Kansas, where Viv studied drama at Independence High School. The aspiring actress changed her last name to Vance as a tribute to folklorist Vance Randolf,, her drama teacher and a member of her Independence drama clique.  She later moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico where she was a founder of the Albuquerque Little Theatre.  It's no coincidence that Albuquerque was the hometown of Vivian's Ethel Mertz character.on I Love Lucy.

In 1932, Vivian arrived in New York City and studied under legendary stage actress Eva Le Gallienne.  She appeared in a number of Broadway plays, most often in the chorus.  Then she began to win supporting roles, particularly after her performance as Nancy Collister in Cole Porter's musical Let's Face It opposite Danny Kaye and Eve Arden.

After appearing in a revival of The Cradle will Rock in 1947, Vivian decided to move to California.  Her intention was to pursue other opportunities in the theatre and in motion pictures.  At the time, television was in its infancy and it was a medium she had not yet considered.

In 1951, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were looking to cast the part of their friend and landlord on the new television sitcom I Love Lucy.  Lucy had originally hoped that Bea Benaderet or Barbara Pepper would play Ethel Mertz.  When they were unable to do so, Ball and Arnaz were forced to looked elsewhere.

Director Marc Daniels, who had worked with Vivian Vance in a theatre production, took Desi and producer Jess Oppenheimer to see Vance perform in The Voice of the Turtle on stage at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego.  Desi was impressed and was convinced she was right for the part.  Lucy, however, had her misgivings.  She had never heard of Vance, who was primarily a theatre performer, and she envisioned Ethel to be older and more dowdy than the attractive Vivian.

Vance was hesitant about accepting the offer to join the cast of I Love Lucy.  She had been trying to establish a film career with roles such as Leah, the shrewd chambermaid in The Secret Fury (1950) opposite Claudette Colbert and Robert Ryan and Alicia in The Blue Veil  (1951) opposite Charles Laughton and Jane Wyman.  She also had to consider the fact that television was a fairly new medium in 1951 and its future was still regarded as somewhat uncertain.

Despite her initial reluctance and Lucy's doubts, Vivian Vance decided to accept the role of Ethel Mertz and even gained weight to play the part.  At 42 years of age, she was only slightly older than Lucille Ball, who was 40 when I Love Lucy premiered on October 15, 1951.  Her character was dressed in frumpy attire and 64-year-old William Frawley portrayed her penny-pinching husband, Fred Mertz.

It was reported that Vivian resented the age difference between Frawley and her. She thought he was more suited to playing her father than her husband and  it was certainly no secret that she and her television mate were not on the best of terms. Nevertheless, their onscreen partnership worked and Fred and Ethel Mertz were a huge hit with viewers

Television audiences really loved Lucy and they loved the madcap predicaments that she and Ethel found themselves in every week.  Some of the show's most memorable moments featured the wacky misadventures of of Lucy Ricardo and her best friend. Who can forget the classic scene with Lucy and Ethel working the assembly line in the the chocolate factory?

Vivian Vance's contribution to the success of I Love Lucy was rewarded with four Emmy nominations.  She won the award once, for her her performance on the series in 1953.  In February of 1954, Vance accepted her Emmy, becoming the first to win in the category of "Outstanding Supporting Actress."

After I Love Lucy finished its run in 1957, Vivan Vance and William Frawley continued with their roles as Ethel and Fred Mertz on a series of one-hour specials called The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show (later retitled The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour).  Desi presented Vance and Frawley with the opportunity to star in their own "Fred and Ethel" spinoff.  Bill Frawley expressed interest in the proposal, but Vivian declined. She did not want to work one-to-one with Frawley.

In 1962, Lucille Ball returned to television without Desi Arnaz whom she had divorced. Ball succeeded in persuading Vivian to join the cast of The Lucy Show as her character's best friend, Vivian Bagley.  In this comedy series, Vivian, who was trying to shed her frumpy Ethel Mertz image, appeared slimmer and more fashionable.

On The Lucy Show, Lucille Ball portrayed Lucy Carmichael, a widow with two children living in Danfield, New York.  Vivian played Lucy's friend and housemate, a divorced mother of a young son.  Her character was the first divorcee to appear regularly on a weekly American television series.

Vance, who lived in Connecticut at the time, found the commute to Hollywood very difficult.  In 1965, after completing her third season on the show, she decided to leave due to the strain of so much travel.  As a result, The Lucy Show was revamped with Lucy's character moving to Los Angles and Vivian's character remarrying and remaining in Danfield.  The series continued in its new format until 1968 and Vivian made three guest appearances during its final years.

Lucy starred in another sitcom, Here's Lucy, with her real life children, Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz, Jr.  The series aired from 1968 until 1974 and Vivian Vance made several guest appearances in the role of Vivian Jones.  After being diagnosed with breast cancer in 1973, Vivian moved to Belvedere, California so that she could be near her sister.  During this time, her agent made her a three-year deal with Maxwell House Coffee. For the next few years, she was seen in many ads endorsing the product.  To watch Vivian Vance as Maxine in some Maxwell House commercials from the mid-1970s, click on the links below.

Vivian Vance experienced a great deal of matrimonial woe during her lifetime, having wed four times.  She was 19 years old when she married Joseph Shearer Danneck, Jr. in 1928.  The marriage was short-lived and the couple divorced in 1931.  Vance's second husband was George Koch, a musician, whom she wed in 1933.  They remained married until 1940.

On August 12, 1941, Vivian tied the knot with actor Philip Ober.  Ober appeared in a 1951 episode of I Love Lucy entitled "The Quiz Show" and also played the part of Hollywood producer Dore Schary in a 1955 episode of the show.  The marriage ended in a bitter divorce in 1959 amid allegations that Ober physically abused Vivian.  He died of heart failure while working at the U.S. consulate in Mexico City, Mexico on September 13, 1982.  He was 80 years old.


Vivian's fourth and final spouse was literary agent John Dodds.  She married Dodds on January 16, 1961 and they were still married at the time of her passing in 1979 (from both breast and bone cancer) in Belvedere, California.  Vivian and Dodds llived in various locations in New York and Connecticut..  In 1974, after Vivian's first bout with cancer, they decided to settle on Belvedere Island.  John Dodds also died of cancer on October 9, 1986.  He was 64 years old.

Despite her four marriages, Vivian Vance never had any children.  After her death, Desi Arnaz stated, "It's bad enough to lose one of the great artists we had the honour and the pleasure to work with, but it's even harder to reconcile the loss of one of your best friends."


* Vivian Vance was godmother to musician John Sebastian, founder of The Lovin' Spoonful.  She was good friends with his mother, Jane Sebastian.

* Vivian struggled with mental illness and bravely faced her fears and anxieties.  In 1945, while starring in a touring company of Voice of the Turtle, she suffered a nervous breakdown and underwent psychotherapy.  The State of Connecticut Department of Mental Health honoured Vivian for her advocacy on behalf of the mentally ill.

* Vivian has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

- Joanne


  1. I have always enjoyed Vivian Vance's portrayal of Ethel Mertz. She was a wonderful actress. I particularly liked the episode where she was "Lily of the Valley" in the operetta that Lucy wrote.

  2. I always liked her too, she gave the Lucy show character, she'll b sadly missed. From Nina Jobling-Australia.

  3. I liked Vivian Vance so much, l named my only daughter Viviane in 1987.