Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Saturday, August 06, 2011

We All Loved Lucy

Today is the 100th anniversary of Lucille Ball's birth. She died in 1989 at the age of 77 of an aortic aneurism.

Lucy was a remarkable woman. She wasn’t simply a television phenomenon; she was beautiful, smart, and talented. I read her biography when I was in my twenties and found her story incredibly inspiring.

She was born in Jamestown, N.Y. in 1911. Her father died of typhoid fever when she was four. He worked as a lineman for Anaconda Copper and they moved around quite a bit. The day he died, a picture fell from a wall and bird got trapped in their house and from that day, she developed a fear of birds.

She took her father’s death and other family calamities bitterly. “There’s always a hammer,” she said. (In 1927, her family suffered misfortune when their house and furnishings were taken away in a legal judgement after a neighborhood boy was accidentally shot and paralyzed by someone target-shooting in their yard, under Ball's grandfather's supervision. The family then moved into a small apartment in Jamestown. Yet she was no quitter. At 19, she became a model, posing as the Chesterfield Cigarette girl. Her grandfather, Fred Hunt, who often took them to vaudeville shows, saw that Lucy had talent and encouraged her to perform to perform in school plays.

Her mother, Dee-Dee, remarried and the couple left Lucy in the care of her stepfather’s parents, who were strict and Puritanical. They frowned on frivolity and vanity and only had one mirror in the house. When they caught Lucy admiring herself in that solitary mirror, she was punished.

However, Dee-Dee’s new husband, Edward, was a Shriner. When his organization needed female entertainers for the chorus line of their next show, he encouraged his 12 year-old Lucy to audition. While she was onstage, this was a brilliant way to receive praise and recogntion.

In 1927, Lucy dated a gangster’s son by the name of Johnny DeVita. To help break the relationship up, DeeDee took advantage of Lucille's desire to be in show business and allowed her to go to the John Murray Anderson School for the Dramatic Arts in New York City. There, Lucy met fellow actress Bette Davis. Lucy went home a few weeks later when drama coaches told her that she “had no future at all as a performer.”

Lucy was determined to prove her teachers wrong, and returned to New York City in 1929. She landed work as a fashion model. Her career was thriving when she became ill with rheumatoid arthritis and was unable to work for two years. She moved to New York City once again in 1932 to resume her pursuit of a career as an actress, and had some success as a fashion model for designer Hattie Carnegie and as the Chesterfield cigarette girl. She began work on Broadway under the name Dianne Belmont. She was hired—but then quickly fired—by theatre impresario Ear Carroll from his Vanities, and by Florenz Ziegfeld from a touring company of Rio Rita.

She was let go from the Shubert brothers production of Stepping Stones. After an uncredited stint as one of the Goldwyn Girls in Roman Scandals (1933) she permanently moved to Hollywood to appear in films. She appeared in many small movie roles in the 1930s as a contract player for RKO Radio Pictures, including a two-reel comedy short with the The Three Stooges in Three Little Pigskins (1934) and a movie with the Marx Brothers in Room Service (1938). She can also be seen as one of the featured models in the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film Roberta (1935) and briefly as the flower girl in Top Hat (1935), as well as a brief supporting role at the beginning of Follow the Fleet (1936) another Astaire-Rogers film.

Ginger Rogers was a distant cousin of Lucy’s on her mother's side of the family. She and Rogers played aspiring actresses in the hit film Stage Door (1937) co-starring Katharine Hepburn. In 1936, she also landed the role she hoped would lead her to Broadway, in the play Hey Diddle Diddle, a comedy set in a duplex apartment in Hollywood. The play premiered in Princeton, N.J. on Jan. 21, 1937 with Lucy playing the part of Julie Tucker, one of three roommates coping with neurotic directors, confused executives, and grasping stars who interfere with the girls' ability to get ahead. The play received good reviews, but there were problems, chiefly with its star, who was in poor health. The playwright wanted to replace him, but the producer, said the fault lay with the character and insisted that the part needed to be reshaped and rewritten. The two were unable to agree on a solution. The play was scheduled to open on Broadway at the Vanderbilt Theatre, but closed after one week in Washington, D.C. when the leading man suddenly became gravely ill.

Lucy was signed to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in the 1940s, but she never achieved major stardom from her appearance in those films. She wwas known in many Hollywood circles as “Queen of the B's”—a title previously held by Fay Wray - starring in a number of B- Movies, such as 1939's Five Came Back. Like many budding starlets Ball picked up radio work to earn side income as well as gain exposure. In 1937 she appeared as a regular on The Phil Baker Show. When that completed its run in 1938, Ball joined the cast of The Wonder Show, starring future Wizard of Oz tin man Jack Haley. It was here that she began her 50-year professional relationship with Gale Gordon, who served as the show’s announcer. The Wonder Show only lasted one season.

In 1940, Ball met Cuban -born bandleader Desi Arnaz while filming the film version of the Rodgers and Hart stage hit Too Many Girls. At first, Arnaz, six years younger than Lucy, wasn’t interested. When they met again later that day, the two connected immediately and eloped the same year. Arnaz was drafted to the U.S. Army in 1942. He ended up being classified for limited service due to a knee injury. As a result, Arnaz stayed in Los Angeles, organizing and performing USO shows for wounded GIs being brought back from the Pacific.

Lucy filed for a divorce in 1944. Shortly after she obtained an interlocutory decree of divorce, however, the couple reconciled with Arnaz. Aparently they believed that it was less socially acceptable for an older woman to marry a younger man so they split the difference in their ages, both claiming a 1914 birth date until this was disproved.

In 1948, Lucy was cast as Liz Cugat (later “Cooper”), a wacky wife, in My Favorite Husband, a radio program for CBS Radio. The program was successful, and CBS asked her to develop it for television. She agreed, but insisted on working with Arnaz. CBS executives were reluctant, thinking the public would not accept an All-American redhead and a Cuban as a couple. CBS was initially not impressed with the pilot episode produced by the couple’s Desilu Productions company, so the couple toured the road in a vaudeville act with Lucy as the zany housewife wanting to get in Arnaz's show. The tour was a smash, and CBS put I Love Lucy on their lineup. The show was not only a star vehicle for Lucille Ball, but a way for her to try to salvage her marriage to Desi Arnaz, which had become badly strained, in part by the fact that each had a hectic performing schedule which often kept them apart.

Lucy told her biographer that early in her career she met some of the great comedians from the silent film era. Hollywood was filled with many beautiful starlets – and many casting directors who took advantage of that beauty. She knew if she was to make it, she had to develop a skill many beautiful actresses wouldn’t dream of attempting – comedy.

Her comedian teachers taught Lucy to take a pratfall or a pie in the face with courage and dignity. She had to be a trouper. One of the most difficult things any actress – especially one who’s beautiful – is to invite audiences to laugh at her. Lucy realized that comedy was simply a talent to get her up the ladder in Hollywood, but a gift.

Laughter is generally considered hostile. But Lucy recognized that it was also a human necessity – a release for tension. In her biography, she recognized that comedy was a sacrifice, particularly for an actress. However, she also regarded that ability as a gift, something to give to her audiences. So she contorted her beautiful – and flexible – face into various expressions of dismay, horror, simplicity, and infantile pouts that made generations of audiences laugh.

Lucy laughed all the way to bank with Desilu Productions, which was responsible (thanks to Desi) for innovations in camera technology (the ability to actually record television) and a number of successful television programs, including Star Trek.

Lucy has been my role model for years (much to my mother’s dismay). In Lucy, there was a generous nature and a savvy intelligence determined to overcome setbacks, pick herself up from the pratfall, and continue on. Laughter was music to her ears.


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