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The Story of Lucille Ball

Turn on a television in virtually any country in the world and you’ll see Lucy – knee-deep in grapes in an

Italian vineyard, stuffing herself with chocolates as they stream down a conveyor belt, becoming drunker

and drunker as she flubs take after take of a commercial for an elixer called Vitameatavegamin. Through

stage, screen, and most of all through television, Lucille Ball has become one of the most legendary

actresses the world has ever known.

Life was not always so glamourous for the wide-eyed, carrot-topped star. She endured poverty, trauma,

abandonment, and lonliness before she even turned twelve. Her father Had Ball died of tuberculosis in

1912, when Lucy was just three. Not long after he passed away, Lucy’s mother DeDe (short for Desiree)

was married to Ed Peterson. Ed didn’t like children, especially Lucy and her little brother Fred

(Brady 8). When money became tight, he talked DeDe into moving from their small town of Celeron,

NY to Detroit. Fred was sent to live with DeDe’s parents, Fred and Flora Hunt, and Lucy was sent to live

with Ed’s mother, known as Grandmother Peterson. Living with Grandma Peterson was Lucy’s unhappiest

time. She was old-fashioned, and extremely strict. Lucy had to do strenuous chores from dawn to dusk,

except when she was at school. A devout Christian, Grandma Peterson believed anything that brought

happiness was a sin. There were no birthday parties, toys, or friends. Often alone, Lucy created an

imaginary playmate names Sassafrassa. Together they would sing, dance, perform skits, and go on

adventures. “Sassafrassa” told Lucy she was beautiful, funny, and talented, and that one day she would be

rich and famous (Ball 21). Grandma Peterson shunned vanity of any kind. She punished Lucy whenever

she caught her staring at herself in the mirror, and often ridiculed the girl’s looks. With her crooked teeth,

big eyes and feet, mousy brown curls, and scrawny figure, Lucy was an easy target.

When Lucy was nine, DeDe and Ed moved back from Detroit, and Grandfather Hunt bought a large

house just outside Celeron for the family to live in.

Despite her harsh ways, Lucy credits much of her success to Grandmother Peterson.

“I don’t suppose that hard work, dicipline, and a perfectionist attitude did me any harm. And when life

seemed unbearable, I learned to live in my imagination, to step inside other people’s skins – indispensible

abilities for an actress”, wrote Lucy in her book Love, Lucy (pg.37). “On the other hand, I have her to

thank for the gnawing sense of unworthiness and insecurity that haunted me for years. The Puritan idea

that everything pleasurable is somehow bad almost ruined the first joys of our I Love Lucy success. The

hardest thing for me was getting used to the idea that I deserved it.”

Moving to the new house on Eighth Street, which today is called Lucy Lane, marked the begining of

Lucy’s happy childhood. She grew close to her mother, her brother, her grandparents, and her Aunt Lola.

Lola’s baby daughter Cleo stayed in their house while her mother ran a beauty shop. Cleo and Lucy became

good friends, and they had the fun Lucy had only pretended to do with Sassafrassa.

As a freshman in high school, Lucy and her friend Pauline Lopus performed their first actual play, an

amature comedy called Charley’s Aunt. Charley’s Aunt showed Lucy the wonderful feeling of getting real

laughs on the stage. From then on she was in every show that came along. At fifteen, Lucy’s mother agreed

to let her study at New York City’s John Murray Anderson-Robert Milton Dramatic School. Classes were

extremely tough. One student always stole the spotlight – a dynamic vixen named Bette Davis. Lucy felt

scared and alone. After one semester, the school told her mother Lucy had no talent and she was wasting

her money.

Kicked out of drama school, Lucy still would not give up. She tried modeling, but had no luck. She

decided to change her name to Diane Belmont. Suprisingly, her luck changed. She was hired by hat

designer Hattie Carnegie as a showroom model. She dyed her brown hair platinum blonde.

In 1933 Lucy got the biggest break of her young career: she was selected to be Chesterfield Cigarette’s

newest “Chesterfield Girl”. By 1934 her face was peering up from magazine and newspaper ads and

looking down from roadside billboards all over the country.

During a heat wave in New York, a woman came up to Lucy and asked, “How would you like to go to

California?”. She responded, “Gosh, I’d go anywhere to get out of this heat” (O’Dell 11). She was flown to

Hollywood to become a “poster girl” in the Goldwyn Studio’s comedy Roman Sandals. The studio put

Lucy to work in several small films like Broadway Thru a Keyhole and Blood Money. She recieved her

first screen credit in RKO’s Carnival in 1935. She joined RKO Studios and stayed with them until 1942.

Between 1933-37 she starred or costarred in over twenty-five films. In 1937 she had her best role yet

costarring with Ginger Rogers and Katherine Hepburn in Stage Door.

It was during the filming of 1940’s Dance Girl, Dance that she first met a 23-year-old Cuban musician

named Desi Arnaz. They starred together in Too Many Girls and the two hit it off. They were married on

Novemeber 30, 1940. Lucy and Desi set up a ranch outside L.A., naming it Desilu – a hybrid of the two


Though the public made the marriage out to be a fairy tale, there were many problems. Desi toured all

over the U.S. as a bandleader, while Lucy’s acting career kept her in California. To keep her mind off her

marriage, she concentrated in her work.

Lucy was finally being recognized as a distinguished actress. RKO, however, was not impressed. They

continued to cast her in mediocre films. In 1942 she moved on to MGM, the classiest studio in the business.

An MGM hairdresser took one look at Lucy’s goldenlocks and said, “The hair is blonde, but the soul, it

is on fire. We shall dye it red” ( Ball 94). After roles in more top films (DuBerry was a Lady in

1943, Zeigfold Follies in 1944), the red curls soon became Lucy’s trademark, and earned her the nickname

Technicolor Tessie.

In 1947 she signed on to play the role of Liz Cooper, the wacky wife of a midwestern banker (played by

Richard Denning) in the radio series My Favorite Husband. Despite her radio fame, her “B-plus” roles, and

supporting of various stars, top-of-the-line roles had eluded Lucy since the beginning. In 1948 she was still

actively employed, but she was 37 and had been a Hollywood fixture for almost twenty years. She knew

she would never surpass the “A-list” actresses like Ginger Rogers and Bette Davis. She accepted her status,

saying “I am happy just to be a part of show business” (O’Dell 11).

She was not able to soften the hurt of her career with her marriage. Desi continued to tour the country

with his orchestra, having one-night stand after one-night stand. The distance between the two was proving

to be too much for the relationship to handle. When CBS proposed the idea of making a television series

called I Love Lucy, based on My Favorite Husband, Lucy agreed, on one condition: Desi had to play her

husband instead of Richard Denning. She thought if she and Desi stayed in the same town and worked

together it might save their marriage. “How was I Love Lucy born? We decided that instead of divorce

lawyers profiting from our mistakes, we’d profit from them”, said Lucy in 1952 (Gilbert and Sanders 29).

CBS was skeptical. Would a 1950’s American audience buy the concept of a red-headed housewife

being married to a Cuban bongo player? To test the idea, Lucy and Desi went on tour with their skits. They

proved to be a crowd pleaser.

In 1950 the duo formed Desilu Productions to finance the making of a pilot to show to CBS, though the

pilot never aired. In the pilot, Lucy and Desi played charecters named Lucy and Larry Lopez.

The pilot not only gained CBS’s approval and gained sponsors for the show, it brought about changes

that revolutionized televison. Lucy and Desi demanded the show be produced in Hollywood, when all other

shows at that time were being produced in New York. They were happy at their Desilu ranch and had no

intention of moving. Additionally, Desi hated the canned laughter used in comedy shows. He and Lucy

wanted the show to be performed live with a studio audience with all three film cameras recording

simultaneously. Nothing like that had ever been attemped before. Said Lucy of the risk taking, ” There was

a lot to be scared about. We were innovators” ( O’Dell 12).

During the production of the first episode, William Frawley and Vivian Vance were added to the cast to

play the neighbors, Fred and Ethel Mertz, and Lucy and Larry Lopez was changed to Lucy and Ricky

Ricardo. A few months before the episode aired, Lucy gave birth to Lucie Desiree Arnaz (or “Little Lucie

as she was usually called). Lucy was only twenty days away from her fortieth birthday. She had suffered

several miscarriages, and Little Lucie had to be born by cesarean section to prevent complications.

On Monday, October 1st, 1951, I Love Lucy premiered at last. From that day forward, the world

followed the adventures of the residents of Apartment 4-A, 623 East Street in Manhattan, New York. The

Ricardos and the Mertzes became part of America’s extended family. I Love Lucy became a national

phenomenon unlike anything before it. Stores noted drops in sales on Monday evenings, some closed

completely. Movie theaters reported a decrease in attendance. Even the telephone companies noticed a

significant decline in calls during the half-hour the show ran.

During the show’s second season, the dominance continued. Its popularity reached a peak when actress

Lucille Ball and TV charecter Lucy Ricardo each delivered baby boys on January 19, 1953. Lucy and

Desi’s son Desi Arnaz Jr. was born at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, and the Ricardos’ son “Little Ricky”

was born in every living room in America. 71% of all Americans who owned a television set tuned in to see

the addition of the show’s newest cast member. The inauguration of President Eisenhower aired the next

day – less than half of TV owners watched.

After six seasons of I Love Lucy and two children to raise, Lucy decided to cut back on her work load.

From then on she only did the occasional Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour special. They ran from 1957 to 1960.

Though the media still made Lucy and Desi out to be as happy as their characters, friends and relatives

knew divorce was inevitable. Actress and friend Shelly Winters, well known for speaking her mind,

believed the Ball-Arnaz marriage was doomed from the start. “He just couldn’t take it that she was so much

more important than he was. Nobody ever called her Mrs. Arnaz” (O’Dell 12). After the last episode of I

Love Lucy aired, Lucy and Desi decided to call it quits. The divorce became final in 1960. They split all

assets 50-50.

Lucy returned to the stage, starring in the musical Wildcat. There she was intoduced to stand-up comic

Gary Morton. They liked each other immediately and were married on November 19, 1961.

In 1963 Lucy went back to television in her hit comedy, The Lucy Show, costarring Vivian Vance.

Now on better terms, Desi Arnaz was the show’s producer. “It’s funny”, he said. “Lucy and I get along

better now than when we were married” (Gilbert and Sanders 336).

That same year, Desi, overstressed and weak, turned all of Desilu over to Lucy. Lucy’s role as a

buisiness woman was much different than that of that of an actress. She was tough, bright, and good with

people. “Anytime one of my people is unhappy, he or she is free to go. If a person is unhappy, you have

nothing” (O’Dell 13). Her good business sense made Desilu the largest film and

television complex in the world, employing over 5,000 people. During her term as company president,

Desilu was responsible for creating such smash hits as Star Trek and Mission: Impossible. Lucy was the

wealthiest, most powerful woman who had ever worked in show business. She had achieved her goal of

turning Desilu into a Fortune 500. In 1967, she sold it to Gulf + Western for $17 million. That same year,

The Lucy Show ceased production. When she began her next TV series, Here’s Lucy, she was making

between $20 and $40 million annually.

She formed her own company, Lucille Ball productions. The company’s early projects revolved around

Here’s Lucy, which ran from 1968 to 1974. Later the firm expanded into producing non-Lucy shows like a

1984 TV remake of Sentimental Journey and the Tom Cruise film All the Right Moves in 1983. In 1981

the company developed Home Box Office (HBO) and other pay-cable channels. Lucy made sporadic

television experiences throughout the 1970s and 80s. In 1974 she had the starring role in the big-screen

musical Mame.

In 1985 Lucy recieved one of the greatest honors of her career: she was chosen to be one of the first

inductees – and the first woman – inducted into the Television Academy’s Hall of Fame. Also in 1985, Lucy

showed her serious side in the TV drama Stone Pillow. She played a homeless woman attempting to adjust

to normal life.

In 1986, Desi Arnaz passed away. To keep her mind off her grief, the 75-year-old Lucy returned to

televison in Life With Lucy. The show recieved poor reviews and ratings, and ran only a handful of

episodes. Lucy blamed herself for the show’s failure. She said, “People see me one way: as Lucy [Ricardo],

and shouldn’t think about that character getting old. People should think things stay the same, even though

they don’t” (O’Dell 13).

But Lucy was too well loved to ever be forgotten. When she died on April 26, 1989, it touched the

world. “We lost a member of the family today”,announced CBS News anchor Dan Rather. “Or maybe she

was more like a good friend, the lady next door” (Gilbert and Sanders 360).

Two months later she recieved the Television Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Governors’ Award, their

highest honor. She remains to be the only woman to achieve this tribute.

A few years ago, TV Guide made a shocking estimate. By totaling Lucy’s hours on television , as viewed

all over the globe, they came to the conclusion that the face of Lucille Ball had been seen by more people

than any other person in history, more than George Washington or Abraham Lincoln – despite their faces

being on money- more than Mahatma Ghandi, Princess Diana, The Beatles, Elvis Presley, or any one else.

In their book Loving Lucy, authors Bart Andrews and Thomas Watson summed up Lucy’s everywoman

appeal: “She was one part henna, one part illogic, three parts beauty. She was love. She was Lucy”

(O’Dell 14).

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