August 6, 1911– Lucille Ball:
“The secret to staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly, and lie about your age.”
Thought of as a dizzy sitcom redhead with big showbiz aspirations, Lucille Ball was, in fact, an industry powerhouse, a television pioneer, a Gay Icon, a Feminist Icon and not really a redhead. She was noted for her impeccable comic timing, deft pantomime abilities and an endearing talent for making the outrageous believable.
At 15 years old, she went to Manhattan to study acting. From the first, she was repeatedly told she had no talent and should return home to Jamestown, NY. She tried and failed to get into the chorus of Broadway musicals.
She worked as a model, waitress, and as a soda jerk in a Broadway drugstore before finally landing a spot in The Ziegfeld Follies. She won national attention as the Chesterfield Cigarette Girl in 1933. This got her to Hollywood as a chorus girl in Samuel Goldwyn Productions’ Roman Scandals (1933). She went from Ziegfeld Girl to one of the Goldwyn Girls.
For the next two years, she played unbilled and bit roles in 25 films and made two-reel comedies withThe Three Stooges. But, she moved out from the crowd of young starlets to supporting roles. She was put under contract to RKO and she received several small roles, including one in Top Hat (1935) with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
After seven years at RKO, Ball finally landed starring roles in B-pictures and an occasional good role in an A-picture like playing a cynical young actor in Stage Door (1937), a gold-digging stripper in Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), a handicapped narcissist in the noir The Big Street (1942), and a tough-talking secretary in The Dark Corner (1946).
While filming the musical Too Manny Girls (1940), she met and fell madly in love with a young Cuban actor/musician named Desi Arnaz. Despite different backgrounds, personalities, lifestyles, religions and ages (he was six years younger), the couple had a passionate romance, they eloped in 1940.
Lucy soon switched to MGM, where she got better roles in films in a series of musicals, but she never seemed to move from actor to movie star.
“I never cared about the movies because they cast me wrong.”
In 1948, because the money was too good to pass-up, she took a starring role in the radio comedy My Favorite Husband, where she played the scatterbrained wife of a Midwestern banker.
In 1950, CBS offered to turn it into a television series, but Ball insisted that they also hire her husband. CBS executives objected, saying that the public would never accept the team of an American redhead and a Cuban bandleader with a heavy accent. To prove them wrong, Ball and Arnaz went on a nationwide vaudeville tour with a 20-minute act. They produced a 30-minute pilot with their own money. CBS brass were won over. They even convinced the network to sign over the rights and creative control of the series to them, and work began on the most popular and universally beloved sitcom of all time.
I Love Lucy premiered on October 15, 1951, and within a few months millions of Americans tuned in every Monday evening to watch the zany antics of the Ricardos and their best friends, Fred and Ethel Mertz, played to perfection by William Frawley and Vivian Vance.
It was one of the first shows to be filmed rather than performed live, making it possible to get a high-quality print of each episode for rebroadcast, compared with the poor-quality kinescopes of the era. This change eventually led to a general shift of television production from NYC to Hollywood. I Love Lucy was also one the first shows to be filmed before an audience. Ball and her Cuban husband pioneered the three-camera technique of filming sitcoms (the standard for decades), and the concept of syndicating television programs. As head of Desilu Studios, Ball became the first woman to own her own film studio.
In the episode Lucy Goes To The Hospital, Lucy Ricardo gives birth to her son, Little Ricky, after a predictably nutty sequence of events. Twelve hours before the broadcast, Ball gave birth to Desi Arnaz, Jr, although the episode had been filmed two months earlier. It was an unprecedented pairing of a fictional pregnancy with the real-life pregnancy of an actor; real-time pregnancy had never been depicted on American television. When the episode premiered on January 19, 1953, 72% of all American homes with television sets tuned in. It received higher ratings than the inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower the next day. The script had to be reviewed by a rabbi, a minister, and a priest to make sure it would not be offensive. The sex of the baby was kept secret until the episode aired. When Ball actually had a boy as Lucy did in the script, headlines proclaimed: “Lucy sticks to script: a boy it is!”
I Love Lucy was the number one show in the nation, but the couple sought a less demanding schedule and ended the series in 1957 after 179 episodes. For three more years they produced hour long, high-budget, around-the-world specials titled The Luci-Desi Comedy Hour. Their collaboration ended with their divorce in 1960.
Two years after the divorce, Ball revived the character of “Lucy”, playing a widow in The Lucy Show until 1968, then did Here’s Lucy from 1968 to 1974. In these two series, Ball was joined by her two children Lucie Arnaz and Desi Jr, Vance and Gale Gordon, who succeeded Desi Arnaz as her main foil. Ball always sought superior writers, followed their advice, and paid close attention to production details.
Ball was not just one of the great comic actors of television, and powerhouse in the biz, she was also a supporter of Gay Rights. In an especially candid interview for People in 1980, an era when LGBTQ characters were not often depicted on television, she was asked how she felt about the burgeoning Gay Rights Movement, Ball answered:
“It’s perfectly all right with me. Some of the most gifted people I’ve ever met or read about are homosexual. How can you knock it?”
It was reported that she was surprised and delighted to find out that a gay bar in West Hollywood played I Love Lucy episodes on video monitors.
I think Ball is a true Gay Icon. LGBTQ folks love her not just for her sitcoms, but for her work in gay favorite films like the always quotable Stage Door, where she worked with fellow icons Eve Arden, Ginger Rogers,Katharine Hepburn, and Ann Miller.
There are few moments in film as campy was the cat fight between Ball and Maureen O’Harain Dance Girl, Dance (watch it below), directed by pioneering female, and openly lesbian, Dorothy Arzner.
Many a gay guys’ brunch has been spent discussing Ball’s preformance in the notorious 1974 film version of the musical Mame with Gay Icon Bea Arthur. Gay director George Cukor was originally set to direct Mame with Bette Davis as Mame’s pal Ver Charles. But, Ball broke her leg skiing and filming was delayed. Cukor was replaced by Gene Saks, who cast his wife Arthur who had played Vera on Broadway opposite Angela Lansbury. It is also rumored that Ball had the great Madeline Kahn fired from playing Agnes Gooch. Musical Theatre fanatics will continue to debate the casting of this clunker, even after we are rounded up by the American Fascists.
Ball stayed loyal to her friends from her early days in Hollywood. On The Lucy Show, Ball cast pal Joan Crawford to play herself in an episode. Ball caught Crawford with vodka in her dressing and after she showed up late on the set, threatened to fire her. Crawford was on time for the rest of the shooting.
For the post-Stonewall generation, Ball makes for a most excellent Gay Icon. She isn’t tragic like Judy Garland, or tart-tongued like Davis or monstrous like Crawford. Ball was beautiful and funny, a winning combo.
Ball started me on a lifetime of television addiction. I Love Lucy is my earliest television memory. It was the very first show I simply couldn’t live without. I still watch it. Once while I was deep into chemotherapy in 2014, I watched 11 episodes in a row (the very odd, but funny Connecticut season). One evening this winter, The Husband and I watched her film with Desi Arnaz, The Long, Long Trailer (1953), and we talked about how our love for her never fades or falters. As the video with Anthony Newley below proves, she was even Mod in swinging 1960s London. I Love Lucy.