Lucille Desiree Ball, best known for her 23 year television series stardom, was one of the most influential woman of the 20th century. She personified persistence and perseverance. Her ambition brought her from a high school drop out to an entertainment mogul.
On August 6, 1911, Desiree and Henry Ball brought Lucille Desiree Ball into the world in Jamestown, New York. A precocious child, Lucy enjoyed make believe and acting. Henry Ball, an electrician, would never see his daughter’s success. He died when Lucy was only three years old.
At age 15, Lucy left high school to enroll in John Murray Anderson-Robert Milton Dramatic School. Desiree blessed her daughter’s decision to move to New York City. Lucy met with little success in snaring acting roles, as her auditions ending in declarations of “no talent”.
Nonplussed by the rebuff from the few roles available to women in New York, Lucy supported herself by modeling under the pseudonyms Lucy Montana and Diane Belmont. She became a showgirl for Earl Carrol and soon was modeling for fashion designer Hattie Carnegie.
Carnegie would choose the dyed blonde Lucy to be the Chesterfield Cigarettes Girl in 1933, in an American ad campaign. This national exposure snared Lucille Ball her role in “Roman Scandals”, a 1933 Eddie Cantor musical. As one of twelve slave girls in the movie, Lucy found herself in the glamorous Hollywood.
Over the next 20 years, Lucille Ball would earn the name of “Queen of the B Movies”. She was willing to take parts that other actresses spurned. Lucy parlayed each role into one of bigger stature. By the end of her career she would have over 80 movie appearances to her credit.
Buster Keaton, one of the foremost silent clowns, saw in Lucille Ball the elasticity of her face and her comic prowess. As a consultant at MGM, he mentored Lucy on stunts. She showed off these talents in such movies as “DuBarry was a Lady” (Red Skelton, 1943) and “Fancy Pants” (Bob Hope, 1940). These detours from her dancing did not break Lucille into the upper echelon of comediennes.
When Technicolor was introduced at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1942, Lucy became a redhead, her mark of distinction. She stood out in the presence of the Hollywood legends of Bob Hope, Ginger Rogers, Eve Arden, Ethel Merman, Ann Miller Groucho Marx, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Red Skelton and Katharine Hepburn. Playing parts beside some of the greatest actors and actresses of the age, Lucille Ball became a star.
“Too Many Girls” (RKO Studios, 1940) starred Lucille Ball as “Connie Casey”. Four football players acted as her bodyguards when the spoiled girl went to school in New Mexico. Desi Arnaz, a Cuban bandleader who had been playing the role of “Manuelito” in the Broadway production, was flown to California to star beside Ball.
Lucille fell in love with her co-star, and they married on November 30th of that year. The newlyweds would fight conflicting schedules between Lucille’s demanding movie performances and Desi’s rigorous band touring dates.
In despair, Lucille filed for divorce in 1944. On the day before their divorce was to become final, Lucy and Desi agreed that they could make the marriage work, if they could only work together. As they completed their separate obligations, Lucille gave birth to a daughter, Lucie Desiree Arnaz.
Lucille worked on radio during her pregnancy. From 1948 to 1951, Lucille Ball was the voice of Liz Cugat (later Liz Cooper) on the 30 minute radio show “My Favorite Husband”. She was chosen to read for the show based on her work on “The Jack Haley Show” in 1938. Her outstanding performance of “Liz” on the successful show would endear CBS to Lucy.
Ready to begin her joint career with Desi, in 1949, Lucy pitched an idea to CBS of a situation comedy. CBS loved Lucy, but did not care for the heavily Spanish-accented man she wanted to play her husband.
Stating that America would reject an All-American girl being married to a Cuban bandleader, CBS refused the show after seeing three pilot episodes. Lucy would not hear of it. In 1950, Desi and Lucille would take their idea on the road in a vaudeville revival act. After much critical acclaim, CBS agreed to air a show called “I Love Lucy”.
Lucille Ball would change television forever. Her combination of facial expressions, slapstick humor and comic stunts continue to influence the next generations of actors who mimic her talents.
Mary Tyler Moore, Cybill Shepard and Candice Bergen adapted her femininity during slapstick and refined her talent of being both beautiful and silly simultaneously. Bronson Pinchot, Penny Marshall, Robin Williams and Ellen Degeneris would adopt their own versions of Lucille’s unusual use of props and her imaginative escapes from seemingly impossible situations.
Lucille Ball made a demand of CBS that would change how television was produced. She wanted the show to be filmed before a studio audience and edited. The added expense of production nearly kept the show off of the air. Lucy and Desi agreed to take salary cuts to absorb part of the cost, but retained full ownership of the show.
In an event watched by more Americans than the inauguration of President Dwight Eisenhower, Lucille broke the Puritanical norm of television. Lucille convinced CBS that she could be pregnant and still work on the show. On the day that Desiderio Alberto Arnaz, Jr. (Desi Jr.) was born by Cesarean section, on the small screen, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo welcomed Little Ricky to the show.
The overwhelming success of “I Love Lucy” netted the duo enough that they formed Desilu Productions. In 1950, the couple decided to end the rigorous production schedule and close the show while it was still number one. By retaining ownership of the show, syndication would make them millionaires. “I Love Lucy” airs in syndication to this day in over 80 countries.
With the next three spin off shows that Lucy made after “I Love Lucy” (“The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour”, “The Lucy Show” and “Here’s Lucy”), Lucille Ball would be seen on American television for 23 consecutive years. It had a dire personal cost.
At the close of “The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour” in 1960, Lucille Ball would divorce Desi Arnaz. Unsatisfied with television, the unpopularity of band tours and his growing disdain for production, Desi turned to alcohol and became reclusive. Lucy was not ready to stop working at what appeared to be the pinnacle of her career.
Lucy’s next two shows would never rival the success of “I Love Lucy”, but would give her the power to reinvent herself yet again. In 1962, Lucille borrowed $3,000,000.00 and bought Desi’s half of Desilu Productions. Lucille was on her way to changing television one more time.
With Lucy in the manager’s seat, Desilu Productions produced shows that defined the 1950s and 60s: “Mission Impossible”, “Star Trek”, “Our Miss Brooks”, “The Dick Van Dyke Show”, “Mannix”, “Make Room for Daddy” and “The Untouchables”.
Most of these shows were shot on the RKO Studios lots, which Desilu had purchased. Irony was not lost on Lucy. She owned the ground where her career had been built. Lucille Ball was one of the most power entertainment moguls.
In 1967, Lucy was ready to embark on the next phase of her career. She sold Desilu to Gulf & Western Industries for $17,000,000.00. With her windfall, she formed Lucille Ball Productions in 1968, with second husband, Gary Morton, a comedian.
“Here’s Lucy” was quickly snatched by networks in 1968 and would air until 1974. That year, Lucille would star in Warner Brothers’ version of “Mame”, her final movie.
Lucille Ball made few guest appearances on television until she portrayed a homeless woman in the critically acclaimed made-for-TV ABC movie “Stone Pillows” in 1985. Revived by success, Lucy was ready to try television again.
“Life with Lucy” aired in 1986. Only eight of the 13 episodes shot would hit the airwaves. The show was unceremoniously canceled. At 75, Lucy no longer has the abilities of her youth, but she had introduced Lucie and Desi, Jr. to television.
In 1989, her final public appearance was at the Academy Awards. Lucille underwent open heart surgery in April. One week later, she suffered an aortic rupture and died on April 26, 1989, at the age of 77.
More than 50 years of entertaining had netted Lucille Ball 5 Emmy Awards and over 200 other awards. To add to her many accolades, Lucille Ball would be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1989) and TVLand Legacy of Laughter Award (2007) posthumously.
The entertainment world lost a pioneer who saw television as the big screen at home, as intimate as the radio; a comedienne of the highest magnitude; a virtuoso of her craft and a beloved colleague.
For the Love of Lucy, by Ric Wyman
The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center, Jamestown, New York