Centennial Tributes: Lucille Ball
By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
Like most good Hollywood anecdotes, the story is no doubt apocryphal — but legend has it that one day on the set of the Samuel Goldwyn musical comedy Roman Scandals (1933), each of the 12 scantily clad women known as “The Goldwyn Girls” were asked if any of them would volunteer to take a pie in the face in a scene. Only one of the girls stepped forward, and either star Eddie Cantor or director Busby Berkeley (depending on who’s telling it) barked enthusiastically: “Get that girl’s name! That’s the one that will make it!”
Because the account smacks of your typical Hollywood fairy tale, its veracity has been subject to skepticism over the years…but as a character in a John Ford film once observed: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The woman who wasn’t shy about having a little dessert shoved in her mush reportedly was Lucille Désirée Ball, born in Jamestown, N.Y., 100 years ago on this date and who transcended her B-movie actress origins to become one of the most popular and beloved TV personalities (both in front of and behind the camera) in entertainment history.
“The first lady of television” was bitten by the show business bug at an early age, and had several people to thank for this — the first being her grandfather, an eccentric named Fred Ball who often took his “Lucyball” to vaudeville shows when she was residing in nearby Celoron with her mother Desiree (known by the family as “DeDe”) and family. Grandfather Ball also encouraged his granddaughter to take an active part in various school plays. Her father, Henry Ball, died of typhoid fever in 1915 when Lucy was only 3, and when DeDe remarried four years later, stepfather Edward Peterson also supported her show business aspirations — he was in charge of putting together the talent in shows staged by the Shriners (of which he was an active member) and often suggested his 12-year-old stepdaughter audition for a spot in the chorus.
DeDe definitely took notice of her daughter’s show biz ambitions, arranging for Lucy to attend the prestigious John Murray Anderson School for the Dramatic Arts in NYC in 1927. (One of Ball’s school chums was Bette Davis.) The instructors at John Murray Anderson sent Ball home after a few weeks, telling her she “had no future at all as a performer.” Determined to make them eat their words, Ball returned to NYC and this time obtained work as a fashion model. By 1932, Ball had achieved some celebrity as the Chesterfield Cigarette Girl — and started additional forays on Broadway, acting under the name “Diane Belmont.” She worked in various productions staged by impresarios Earl Carroll and Flo Ziegfeld (but didn’t hold those jobs too long) with a plum part in the revue Stepping Stones going south when the Schubert brothers sent her packing as well.
So Lucille Ball went west, young man, and found success in motion pictures a little easier to obtain. She’d land bit parts in films such as The Bowery, Blood Money, Kid Millions, Broadway Bill and The Whole Town’s Talking, and received additional exposure in some of the two-reel comedies cranked out by Columbia in the mid-'30s, notably The Three Stooges’ Three Little Pigskins. She made a number of brief appearances in many of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals produced at RKO (including a small supporting role in 1936’s Follow the Fleet), and would later appear with Rogers (who was a distant cousin on her mother’s side) in Stage Door (1937) along with Katharine Hepburn. During her stay at RKO, Ball was used either as support for comedians such as the Marx Brothers (Room Service) and Joe Penner (Go Chase Yourself) or as the star of many studio programmers (including a pair of series films with Jack Oakie, The Affairs of Annabel and Annabel Takes a Tour) that she soon wrested the crown of “Queen of the B’s” from the former budget picture monarch, Fay Wray.
Ball’s appearance in the studio’s 1940 adaptation of the hit Broadway musical Too Many Girls turned out to be beneficial not only for her professional career but private life as well. It was while working on this film that she made the acquaintance of Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III…who fortunately for audiences shortened it to Desi Arnaz when he got into the bandleading business. The two of them eloped that same year, but when Arnaz received his draft notice in 1942, a knee injury sidelined him from military duty and kept him nearby in Los Angeles to stage USO shows for servicemen just returning from action in the Pacific. Ball continued her film career at RKO, managing to rise above her B-movie material with impressive turns in films such as Dance, Girl, Dance and The Big Street…and in 1943 landed a contract at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Despite solid performances in movies such as Du Barry Was a Lady, Best Foot Forward and Without Love, major motion picture stardom continued to elude Lucy, who by the time she reported for work at MGM had acquired her trademark flaming red tresses after spending the previous 30 years alternating between platinum blonde locks and her natural brunette mane.
Lucille Ball never fully achieved her desire to become a big-time movie star…but not for a lack of trying; she would continue to make the occasional feature film up until the 1970s (Yours, Mine and Ours; Mame) and even appeared opposite Bob Hope in several of his screen outings including Fancy Pants and The Facts of Life. But the medium she ultimately conquered saw its origins in a sitcom she began starring in for CBS Radio in the summer of 1948; in My Favorite Husband, Ball essayed the role of a zany housewife named Liz Cooper (formerly “Cugat”) married to a strait-laced bank vice president (played by Richard Denning), entertaining audiences weekly with her comic antics while Jell-O and General Foods picked up the tab. (I've written an entire post today on My Favorite Husband over at my blog Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.) The series, which also co-starred Gale Gordon and Bea Benaderet as Denning’s boss at the bank and his wife (respectively), was a huge success on the network and demonstrated Lucy’s flair for comedy, something that had only surfaced occasionally in selected films and guest appearances on other radio programs. CBS was anxious to get a TV version of My Favorite Husband up and running, and Lucy was only too happy to oblige…but on the condition that the network replace Denning with Lucy’s real-life spouse Arnaz.
Balking at this prospect at first, CBS agreed to greenlight the Husband project but wasn’t too wild about the TV show’s pilot — it wasn’t until the Arnazes “took their act on the road” to enthusiastic audiences that the network finally acquiesced and put the retitled I Love Lucy on the air. (CBS had wanted to call the series The Lucille Ball Show but Ball said “no dice” because she wanted Arnaz to also receive billing…and for his name to come first. The “I Love Lucy” title was a compromise in that the “I” would refer to Desi.) The series, which centered on the antics of yet another wacky hausfrau (this time endlessly begging her performer husband to let her get into show business), also co-starred Vivian Vance and William Frawley as neighbors/landlords Ethel and Fred Mertz…and wasn’t given much consideration as a show that would establish an audience. But I Love Lucy skyrocketed to No. 3 in the Nielsens during its first year on the air and with the exception of its sixth season (when it took a backseat to national TV craze The $64,000 Question) was ranked as the No. 1 series until its departure in 1957 (it finished its last season at No. 1, only one of three situation comedies in TV history to do so).
It is sometimes difficult in this day and age to fully appreciate the enormous impact I Love Lucy exerted on television. For starters, sponsor Philip Morris wasn’t particularly keen on showing day-old kinescopes to audiences on the East Coast, which was what was going to result if Lucy was done live like most programs at the time (though it was usually the West Coast that watched kinescopes, since most programs were based out of New York; the Arnazes refused to move to the Big Apple to do the show). So Lucy and Desi agreed to take a pay cut in order to cover the expense of filming the series in Los Angeles — the only stipulation being that they would retain the rights to the series after it had aired on CBS. This innovation, which allowed reruns to be sold to individual stations (what eventually became known as syndication) after their initial network airing, made the Arnazes filthy, stinking rich…and it also revolutionized the television situation comedy, because when a system of three cameras was created to capture each episode (supervised by legendary cinematographer Karl Freund) said system also became the industry standard.
The success of I Love Lucy, which became one of the most popular TV comedies of all time regardless of one’s personal opinion on the show’s content, made Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz the power couple in Hollywood, allowing them to purchase Lucy’s old RKO stomping grounds and create Desilu, a company that not only provided ample facilities to shoot TV shows (Make Room for Daddy, The Dick Van Dyke Show) but instituted its own “homegrown” product such as Our Miss Brooks, The Untouchables and Star Trek. They also found time to make a pair of theatrical films that traded in on their I Love Lucy popularity: The Long, Long Trailer in 1954 and Forever, Darling in 1956. Even a brief flare-up involving the 1950s “Red Scare” (Ball was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee after accusations surfaced that she was a Commie) couldn’t stop the Arnazes; they continued to break the rules and write new ones — none more so than when I Love Lucy decided to work Ball’s real-life pregnancy (who would be born Desi Arnaz, Jr.) into the series, becoming the first TV show to feature a “great with child” storyline.
Lucy’s insistence that she work with husband Desi on I Love Lucy stemmed primarily from her concern that their marriage was suffering from strain due to Desi’s bandleading career, which kept the two of them apart for long periods of time (and his dalliances with other women were starting to become the stuff of Hollywood legend). Pooling their talents on the sitcom helped some, but the success of the series did nothing to calm the waters of their tempest-tossed marital vessel, particularly since Arnaz’s affairs were re-channeled toward the enormous workload involved in keeping their burgeoning TV empire up and running. After voluntarily shutting down I Love Lucy in 1957, the couple appeared in a series of irregularly scheduled hour-long specials known as The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour. Lucy and Desi finally called it quits both personally and professionally in May 1960, just two months after shooting on the Comedy Hour wrapped.
The Arnazes remained on good terms with one another despite their breakup; Desi even served as executive producer of Ball’s sitcom follow-up, The Lucy Show, early in its run. The Lucy Show, which premiered in fall 1962 after Ball’s appearance in a Broadway musical entitled Wildcat was a bust, ran for six seasons and featured Lucy’s former I Love Lucy confederate Vance as her sidekick in a show that chronicled the comedic complications of two single mothers (Lucy was a widow, Viv was divorced) encountered while attempting to raise their children. Arnaz served in the executive producer capacity for only 15 of the series’ first 30 episodes before stepping down as president of Desilu. Lucy took up the mantle in 1963.
Lucy’s character on the series was made a widow because the network feared that if she was divorced like Vance’s Vivian Bagley, audiences would assume that she was “Lucy Ricardo” and that she had divorced “Ricky” (despite the fact that Lucy and Desi were no longer married in real life). The Lucy Show was a huge hit for CBS, and like I Love Lucy never dropped out of the Top 10 during its six years on the air but, for many fans, the show never did manage to measure up to I Love Lucy’s legacy. There were a number of casting and writing changes associated with The Lucy Show's sometimes tumultuous production history; chiefly the addition of Lucy’s former My Favorite Husband crony Gale Gordon as Theodore J. Mooney, Lucy’s nemesis (and in later seasons, her boss). Gordon was, in fact, wanted by Lucy to play the part of Fred Mertz in the original I Love Lucy (she also wanted Bea Benaderet to play Ethel) but he couldn’t take the job because of previous commitments.
During production on The Lucy Show, Lucy would be introduced to the man who became her second and final husband, stand-up comic Gary Morton. Her friend Paula Stewart (who had appeared with Lucy in Wildcat) was responsible for their “meet cute” and even though Morton was 13 years Lucy’s junior, Ball tied the knot with Gar and quickly found a production position for him at Desilu, not to mention occasional bit roles on The Lucy Show and in charge of the audience warm-up. Morton would become the sitcom’s executive producer at the start of the 1967-68 season and later served in the same capacity on Ball’s third series, Here’s Lucy.
The Lucy Show came to an end in 1968 mostly because Ball was no longer interested in starring in a show she didn’t own (Lucy sold Desilu to Gulf & Western that same year) and in its place she agreed to headline a third sitcom, Here’s Lucy, which premiered in the fall. Gale Gordon made the transition to this series (playing her brother-in-law and employer), but two new cast members arrived in the form of Ball’s real-life progeny, Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz, Jr. (playing her kids on the show). Here’s Lucy also would serve a six-year stretch on CBS and was, in fact, still in the Top 30 of the Nielsens when the network decided to shut the show down — by that time, it was concentrating on more of its new, “hipper” comedy series such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show and M*A*S*H.
Ball’s television work was then relegated to the occasional special (Lucy Gets Lucky, Lucy Calls the President, a retrospective on the TV sitcom Three's Company) and the 1985 TV-movie Stone Pillow, in which “that crazy redhead” tackled the dramatic role of playing a bag lady named Florabelle. Lucy did attempt a sitcom comeback in 1986 with Life with Lucy, a short-lived series that became her only critical and financial flop (13 episodes were produced but only eight were aired). Lucy’s age (75) dictated that most of the physical comedy be shifted to co-star Donovan Scott, but, despite its initially strong showing, audiences lost interest quickly. It was later reported that because of its failure, Lucille Ball waved off any additional prospects of continuing in TV; her last televised appearance occurred on the 1989 Academy Awards telecast, where she presented the best picture with her lifelong pal Bob Hope. A month later, Ball had to be hospitalized for a dissecting aortic aneurysm and though surgery to repair the damage was successful, her aorta ruptured a second time during her recovery and attempts to revive her proved futile — she died on April 26, 1989.
Many of my generation recognized Lucille Ball as a television icon long before she received posthumous honors such as the Presidential Medal of Honor and a commemorative postage stamp in 2001 (on the occasion of her 90th birthday) for the simple reason that you rarely were able to turn on a TV set without seeing one of her timeless sitcoms blinking back in either color or black-and-white. (As this tribute is being posted, the cable channel Me-TV is in the throes of a one-hundred episode marathon of reruns from I Love Lucy and The Lucy Show.) She was a genuine television legend; a woman who became a force to be reckoned with in the industry as both star and CEO of a production company that cranked out many of the programs considered classics today. And as for that movie career…well, if you ever get an opportunity to see Five Came Back (1939) or The Dark Corner (1946) you’ll find that she wasn’t too shabby a silver screen presence, either. Happy 100th birthday to the immortal Ms. Ball…a truer sentiment than “I Love Lucy” was never spoken.