As Lucy Ricardo, she brought a tomboy’s enthusiasm and a scatterbrained quality to the long-running I Love Lucy (1951-61) television program. She was the wacky wife making life difficult for a loving but perpetually irritated husband. It’s ironic when you consider the early stages of her acting career: With ambitions to become an actress, Lucille Ball entered a dramatic school in New York City in 1926, but while her classmate Bette Davis received the raves, Ball was sent home on the grounds that she was “too shy.” This classification might have been the Dumbo feather that motivated her into appearing in comedies such as Look Who’s Laughing (1941), The Fuller Brush Girl (1950) and as a sidekick to the Marx Brothers in Room Service (1938).
When she was 12, Ball was encouraged into show business by her grandfather, who enjoined her to entertain his cohorts at the Shriners club. After adopting the stage name Diane Belmont and being fired from several chorus jobs, she retreated to her home in Celoron, New York, where she spent two years battling the crippling effects of rheumatoid arthritis, a handicap she kept secret for most of her life. Returning to New York in the early 1930s, Ball returned to working as a model for Hattie Carnegie while also earning money as a Chesterfield cigarette girl. She soon embarked on a Hollywood career, which at first consisted mostly of walk-ons and bit roles before she was turned into a glamorous Goldwyn showgirl in the Eddie Cantor musical, Roman Scandals (1933). Under contract by Columbia, the then-blonde, statuesque actress continued to appear in small roles — most notably as a foil for the Three Stooges in one of their earliest film shorts — before her option was dropped. RKO hired Ball at the urging of producer Pandro S. Berman, who featured her in supporting roles in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films Roberta (1935), Top Hat (1935), and Follow the Fleet (1936).
Working her way up Hollywood’s ladder, in the summer of 1948 she accepted the role of Liz Cooper, a zany housewife who found herself facing comical situations, in the radio comedy My Favorite Husband. In the radio series, Lucille Ball’s husband George Cooper was played by veteran actor Richard Denning. In 1950, CBS came knocking with the offer to adapt the popular radio program to television. Unable to convince network brass to let her real-life husband Desi Arnaz play her husband on the television series, she was given creative control to create her own situation comedy series, I Love Lucy. Here, she and Arnaz pioneered the three-camera technique now considered the standard in filming television sitcoms. She also became the first woman to own a television studio, when she headed Desilu Productions.
In 1952, her real-life pregnancy was written into the show, although the network objected to the use of the word “pregnant” and instead opted for the word “expectant.” All of her pregnancy episodes were reviewed by a minister, a priest, and a rabbi to make sure nothing on screen would be considered offensive. When Lucille Ball gave birth on television to her first child, all of America was glued to the screen. On that evening, I Love Lucy had larger ratings than the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and President Eisenhower’s inauguration.
Paid $50 a week for her role as a supporting actress in Top Hat (1935), Ball now graduated to $3,500 an episode for I Love Lucy, along with part ownership of the mega series. Her next-door neighbor, Jack Benny, often referred to her as “Chesterfield,” after learning that the comedienne was once a spokesmodel for the cigarette brand. But it wasn’t Benny who taught her how to perform on camera. Lucille Ball credited Buster Keaton as her mentor, remarking: “He taught me most of what I know about timing, how to fall and how to handle props and animals.”
Behind the camera, the relationship between Ball and Arnaz was all business until they retired to their homestead between seasons. When they were first married in 1940, Desi Arnaz had to give his wife-to-be a ring from a drugstore because all of the jewelry stores were closed. She wore it for the rest of their marriage. In 1960, Ball and Arnaz shocked fans when they divorced just two months after filming the final episode of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, though the two remained close friends until his death in 1986, even though both would go on to remarry. Both made it clear in multiple interviews that each was the love of the other’s life.
Lucille Ball attempted to revive her television career — twice — with The Lucy Show (1962-1968) and Here’s Lucy (1968-1974). Neither program found the same success as I Love Lucy, and after the latter program concluded, Ball was quoted as saying, “It was a hell of a jolt to find myself unemployed with nothing to do after more than 25 years of steady work.” She starred in a number of television specials, made numerous guest appearances on other programs, and appeared on several awards shows. Her appearance at the 1989 Academy Awards, standing alongside her longtime close friend Bob Hope, resulted in a standing ovation. Her health, however, was taking a steep decline. Just a year prior she was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Hospital after suffering a stroke. Weeks after the Academy Awards ceremony, Ball was hospitalized after suffering from an aortal aneurysm. She underwent surgery, and the following day her aorta ruptured. She passed away April 26, 1989.
Her success can be measured in many forms. In 1968, Lucille Ball was reported to be the richest woman in television, having earned an estimated $30 million. She remains the only Hollywood celebrity to grace the front of two postage stamps: a 34-cent stamp, issued in 2001 and a 44-cent stamp, issued in 2009.
Featured image: Lucille Ball (Carl Amari private collection)
Parts of this profile originally appeared in an article by the author on the website Do You Remember?
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