The face of comedienne Lucille Ball (Lucille Desiree Hunt; 1911-1989), immortalized as Lucy Ricardo on I Love Lucy, is said to have been seen by more people worldwide than any other. "Lucy" to generations of television viewers who delighted at her rubber-faced antics and zany impersonations (among them Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp), she was a shrewd businesswoman, serious actress, and Broadway star as well.
Born Lucille Desiree Hunt on August 6, 1911, she and her mother, DeDe, made their home with her grandparents in Celoron, outside Jamestown, New York, after her father's death in 1915.
Lucy's mother encouraged her daughter's penchant 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, where she won—and lost—a chorus part in the Shubert musical Stepping Stones, through her days in Hollywood as "Queen of the B's" (grade B movies), the road to I Love Lucy was not an easy one.
In 1926 she 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, was a dismal failure. The proprietor even wrote to tell Lucy's mother that she was wasting her money. It was back to Celoron for the future star.
After a brief respite, the indomitable Lucy returned to New York 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 found employment at a Rexall drugstore on Broadway; then she worked in Hattie Carnegie's elegant dress salon, moonlighting as a model. Lucille Ball's striking beauty always differentiated her from other comediennes.
At the age of 17, Lucy was stricken with rheumatoid arthritis and returned to Celoron yet again, where her mother nursed her through an almost three-year bout with the illness.
Determined, she 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 Lucy 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 her 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 aborted by the premature death of the male lead. It would take roughly another 15 years for Lucy to attain stardom.
She worked with many comic "greats," including the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, and Buster Keaton, with whom she honed her extraordinary skill in the handling of props. She gave a creditable performance as an aspiring 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 first acquired her flaming red hair in 1943 when, after The Big Street, MGM officials signed her to appear opposite Red Skelton in Cole Porter's DuBarry Was a Lady. (Throughout the years, rumors flew as to the color's origin, including one that Lucy decided upon the dye job in an effort to somehow rival Betty Grable.)
It was on the set of an innocuous film, Dance, Girl, Dance, that Lucille Ball first met her future husband, Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz. Married in 1940, they were separated by Desi's travels for much of the first decade of their marriage. The union, plagued by Arnaz's alcoholism, workaholism, and philandering, dissolved in 1960.
The decade prior to Lucy's television debut was filled with intermittent parts in films and the more satisfying role of Liz Cooper, the scatterbrained wife on the radio program My Favorite Husband (July 1947 to March 1951).
Determined to work together and to save their marriage, the couple conceived a television pilot. Studio executives were dubious. The duo was forced to take their "act" on the road to prove its viability and to borrow $5,000 to found Desilu Productions. (After buying out Arnaz's share and changing the corporation's name, Lucy eventually sold it to Gulf Western for $18 million.) They persevered, and I Love Lucy premiered on October 15, 1951.
Within six months the show as rated number one. It ran six seasons in its original format and then evolved into hour-long specials, accumulating over 20 awards, among them five Emmys. I Love Lucy is one of television's four "all-time hits."
The characters Lucy and Ricky Ricardo became household words, with William Frawley and Vivian Vance 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 Eisenhower's inauguration. The show was the first in television history to claim viewing in more than ten million homes. It was filmed before a studio audience, in sequence, and helped to revolutionize television production by utilizing three cameras.
I Love Lucy begat Lucy in Connecticut (1960); in turn, The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour (1962-1967); then The Lucy Show (1962, with Vivian Vance, later called The Lucille Ball Show, running until 1974); and, finally, in 1986, the ill-fated Life with Lucy, with Gale Gordon.
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 liberated. The show's premise was her desire to share the show-biz limelight with her performer husband and to leave the pots and pans behind. Later series featured Lucy as a single mother and as a working woman "up against" her boss.
Following her initial retirement from prime time in 1974 Lucy continued to make guest appearances on television, too numerous to mention. 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.
Lucy 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 Junior, and millions of fans who continue to watch her in re-runs of I Love Lucy, which is now also available on video cassette.
Further Reading on Lucille Ball
Chapters devoted to Lucille Ball can be found in Women in Comedy (1986) by Linda Martin and Kerry Segrave and in Funny Women (1987) by Mary Unterbrink. Biographies include The Lucille Ball Story (1974) by James Gregory, Lucy (1986) by Charles Higham, and Forever Lucy (1986) by Joe Morella and Edward Z. Epstein. Desi Arnaz's 1976 autobiography, A Book, chronicles their years together from his perspective, and Bart Andrews' Lucy and Ricky and Fred and Ethel: The Story of "I Love Lucy" (1976) features a complete plot summary for each of the show's episodes. People magazine paid special tribute to Lucy in its August 14, 1989, issue.