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 (1908–1989), 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,
Lucille Ball. Courtesy of the
Library of Congress 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 (1895–1966), 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 (1891–1964) 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 (1917–1986). 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.
My favourite husband
Still, as the late 1940s rolled around, Ball was looking at a stagnant movie career, unable to break into the kinds of starring roles she'd always dreamed about. As a result, Arnaz pushed his wife to try broadcasting, and it wasn't long before Ball landed a lead part in the radio comedy My Favorite Husband. The program caught the attention of CBS executives, who wanted her to recreate something like it on the small screen. Ball, though, insisted it include her real-life husband, something the network clearly wasn't interested in seeing happen. So Ball walked away, and with Desi put together an I Love Lucy–like vaudeville act and took it on the road. Success soon greeted the pair. So did a contract from CBS.
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 (1887–1966) and Vivian Vance (1909–1979) 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 (1890–1969) 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.
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.
Facts You Never Knew
1.She was the first woman to run a major production company
According to the New York Daily News, after Ball and Desi Arnaz divorced in 1960, she bought out Arnaz's shares of Desilu for $2.5 million, making her the first female CEO of a major production company. Per the outlet, she later sold her Desilu shares to Paramount Studios for $17 million. Then, in 1967, Ball founded Lucille Ball Productions, according to Turner Classic Movie network.
2. She didn't win that many awards
Even though she scored 13 Emmy nominations between I Love Lucy and The Lucy Show, she only took home a total of four Emmys. As for the Golden Globes, she was nominated six times, but never for I Love Lucy. Rather, she was recognized for The Facts of Life, The
Lucy Show; Yours, Mine and Ours, Here's Lucy and Mame. In 1979, she was honored with the Cecil B. DeMille Award.
3. She did win this award
In 1977, with Nancy Malone, Eleanor Perry and Norma Zarky, Ball was one of the first recipients of the Women in Film Crystal Award. According to the official website,Women in Film is all about "promoting equal opportunities for women, encouraging creative projects by women, and expanding and enhancing portrayals of women in all forms of global media.
4. Her father died from typhoid fever
According to an excerpt from Stefan Kanfer's 2003 book titled Ball of Fire (via The New York Times), Ball's father died from typhoid fever in 1915 at only 28 — and it rightfully stayed with her the rest of her life. "Lucille retained only fleeting memories of that day, all of them traumatic," Kanfer writes. "A picture fell from the wall; a bird flew in the window and became trapped inside the house. From that time forward she suffered from a bird phobia. Even as an adult, she refused to stay in any hotel room that displayed framed pictures of birds or had wallpaper with an avian theme.
5. Her life completely changed at 16
As revealed in her memoir, Love Lucy (via Huffington Post), in 1927, her grandfather bought her brother, Freddy, a gun for his birthday. While her grandfather was teaching Freddy and his "little girlfriend" Johanna how to use the gun, Ball said, it went off and hit their 8-year-old next door neighbor, Warner Erickson. The bullet severed his spinal cord. The Erickson family filed a lawsuit, and as Ball wrote, "They took our house, the furnishings that [Ball’s mother] DeDe had bought so laboriously on time, week after week, the insurance — everything. My grandfather never worked again. The heart went out of him. It ruined Celoron for us; it destroyed our life together there.
6. She wasn't always "Lucille Ball"
Remember how Lucy Ricardo sometimes went by Lucille McGillicuddy (her maiden name)? Well, Ball once used the name Diane Belmont, according to The Los Angeles Times. "I always loved the name Diane and I was driving past the Belmont race track, and the names seemed to fit together," she said.
7. She's connected to the Salem Witchcraft Trials
According to NPR, Ball was a descendant of those accused as witches during the Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692. "A lot of celebrated Americans, it has been determined, were descended from the accused witches, including Walt Disney, Clara Barton and Lucille Ball," the outlet reports.
8. She defied ageism
When I Love Lucy first began in 1951, Ball was 40. As it unfortunately still is, that was a big deal back in the day, especially since it's known that a woman over 40 in Hollywood has a harder time finding work compared to younger women and also men.
9. She fought for TV's first interracial couple
Did you know that Ball and Arnaz made TV history as the first interracial couple? Ball also had to fight to keep Arnaz as her TV husband.
Kathleen Brady, author of Lucille: The Life of Lucille Ball, told NPR in February 2014 that CBS didn't want Arnaz, especially since the network was unsure about his accent and Cuban heritage. "CBS and its sponsor, Philip Morris cigarettes, were adamantly opposed to this," Brady said. "They said that the American public would not accept Desi as the husband of a red-blooded American girl." However, Ball defended Arnaz, and according to Brady, she told CBS that they'd have to either cast them both or neither of them.
10. She wasn't a natural redhead
Believe it or not, but Ball wasn't always a redhead. According to Good Housekeeping, her natural hair color was brown and she dyed her hair for her role in Du Barry Was a Lady.
As revealed by I Love Lucy's hairstylist, Irma Kusely, it wasn't easy finding the right tint of red, either. "A lot of people think of it as red — it's not red at all," she said in an interview for EmmyTVLegends.org. "She met a very wealthy sheikh and he had heard about her problem [getting the right coloring]. He said he would send her a lifetime supply of henna, which he did! [We kept it] in my garage, locked away in a safe.
11. She almost drowned stomping grapes
The I Love Lucy episode, titled "Lucy's Italian Movie," is one of the most popular and favorite episodes ever. Well, according to a 2004 letter to the editor at The New York Times, the grape-stomping scene didn't go as planned. "That was a real-life Italian grape stomper who was Lucy's vat partner and who almost drowned the real-life Lucille Ball by pushing her down into the grapes and grape juice and fighting with her during the filming of that episode," reads the letter, signed by Dennis Sprick.
12. Her pregnancy made history
It's known that I Love Lucy wasn't allowed to use the word "pregnant" after both Ball and her character got pregnant. As reported by The Hollywood Reporter, she also made headlines by becoming the first pregnant woman to play a pregnant woman on TV.
13. She's basically responsible for Star Trek
It's hard to imagine television without Star Trek, but that almost became a realitybefore Ball stepped in, according to Entertainment Weekly. "If it were not for Lucy, there would be no Star Trek today,” former studio executive Ed Holly told Desilu historian Coyne Steven Sanders (via EW).
CBS passed on Star Trek, but Ball apparently overruled the board of directors to make sure the pilot was produced, even after it was taken to NBC. The network ended up rejecting the first pilot. However, the Peacock network ordered a second pilot, with William Shatner as Captain Kirk, and this particular pilot was funded by Lucy, as she once again ignored her board. Star Trek ended up making the 1966 fall TV schedule.
14. She was registered with the Communist Party
As reported by The Los Angeles Times in 1953, Ball was once connected to the Communist Party. Apparently, it was a "short association" in 1936, but her family was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Ball explained her connection by saying the only reason she registered as a Communist was to please her grandfather, Fred Hunt, a Socialist.
- 15. She never needed a TV husband
Starring in The Lucy Show made Ball one of the first women to play a woman without a husband. She could easily lead a show without any men by her side. Lucille Ball's costar, Vivian Vance played a divorcee, while Lucille Ball played a widow.
- 16. She lied about her age after marrying Desi
For those unaware, Ball was 5 years older than Arnaz, which was reportedly frowned upon back in the day. According to Us Weekly, they decided to handle the situation by lying about their ages. "When Desi Arnaz and Ball (who was almost six years his senior) tied the knot in 1940, it was socially unacceptable for an older woman to marry a younger man," the outlet reported in August 2011. "To avoid controversy, they both listed 1914 as their birthdate."
==17. She wasn't afraid to take risks
In a 1980 interview with People, Ball showed just how fearless she was when it came to her career. "I guess after about six months out here in the '30s I realized there was a place for me," she said of Hollywood. "Eddie Cantor and Sam Goldwyn found that a lot of the really beautiful girls didn’t want to do some of the things I did — put on mud packs and scream and run around and fall into pools. I said I’d love to do the scene with the crocodile. He didn’t have teeth, but he could sure gum you to death. I didn’t mind getting messed up. That’s how I got into physical comedy."