July 26, 1909– Vivian Vance’s most famous character, Ethel Mertz, was a less-than-prosperous landlady of an East 68th Street Manhattan brownstone, owned along with husband Fred Mertz. Fred was played by William Frawley, who was 22 years older. The two actors shared great on-screen comedic chemistry, but they really did not get along when not filming and they never socialized. Vance complained about his age. Frawley had heard that she had stated that he should be playing her father rather than her husband. Apparently Frawley loathed Vance from the moment they began to work together.
All sorts of rumors continue to swirl around the beloved I Love Lucy (1951-57, and in other forms from 1957-1961), among them: Vance and Desi Arnaz were lovers; Lucille Ball and Vance hated each other; Ball was unusually cruel to Vance; Vance and Ball had a passionate affair; Little Ricky was gay, the McGillicuddy family was black, Mary Jane Croft was into bondage, you’ve heard them all.
I Love Lucy, the Ricardos and the Mertz duo were a huge hit. Lucy’s wacky misadventures only gained the heights of hilarity when they featured both Ball and Vance entangled in some scheme gone wrong. Vance’s talents as a comedic sidekick were rewarded. She received four Emmy Award nominations with one win for Best Supporting Actress.
Vance always wanted to be an actor, and in the early 1930s she moved from New Mexico to NYC and soon found work in the theater, landing her first Broadway role in the Jerome Kern musical Music In The Air (1934). She was pretty, could sing and dance, and she gained featured roles in more musicals: Cole Porter’s Red Hot And Blue! (1936), Harold Arlen/Yip Harburg’s Hooray For What!, and Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock (1937). She replaced Ethel Merman on Broadway in Anything Goes when the star took the Cole Porter show to London.
In 1947, Vance suffered a nervous breakdown. She had gone into the comic lead, a slut, late in the long-run of the Broadway play Voice Of The Turtle by gay playwright John Van Druten, and then went with the first national company to Chicago. In what had to be a nightmare, Vance had the breakdown on stage. She returned to New Mexico where she had started her career. Vance took some time off. Sometimes a girl needs to regather her senses. But, she moved to California and bravely faced her fears head-on by returning to the same role in the same play at the La Jolla Playhouse. This gig would lead to her most famous role. Her friend, director Marc Daniels, had recommended her for the part of Ethel on Ball and Arnaz’s new television show. Arnaz went to see Vance in Voice Of The Turtle and decided on the spot that she had to have the role.
Vance was not sure she wanted to play Ethel Mertz. In the early 1950s, working in television was not prestige and Vance was angling for a film career. She had been cast in The Secret Fury (1950) with Claudette Colbert and Robert Ryan, and The Blue Veil (1951) with Jane Wyman and Charles Laughton. Smartly, she decided to accept the part. A great-looking gal, she even agreed to wear unflattering costumes as the character. Did Ball insist that she look frumpy? I am not certain, but so the story goes.
After I Love Lucy ended in 1957, Vance appeared on a series of specials featuring the original characters from the show. In 1962, when Ball returned to a series, having divorced Arnaz as husband on and off-screen, and as a producing partner, she convinced Vance to be part of the cast. A slimmer, more glamorous Vance again played second banana to Ball. Vance was living in Connecticut and she commuted to Hollywood to film the show. She grew weary of the travel and soon became an occasional guest-star instead of a series regular in 1965 until The Lucy Show ended in 1972.
Always a talented song and dance performer, Vance had developed a fear of using her singing voice during I Love Lucy. The first time she showed-off her pipes was in The Pleasant Peasant episode (Ethel and Lucy perform is an operetta). This episode was an emotional breakthrough for her.
Candid about her various neuroses on talk shows and in interviews, Vance would stop for a therapist session on her way to the studio every morning the first three of seasons of I Love Lucy. Her battle with depression did not embarrass Vance and she was open about it. When she traveled, she would visit hospitals to talk to people who suffered from severe depression.
I have trouble accepting the simplistic idea that Ball and Vance were always at odds. They simply disagreed as professionals and friends, but they also supported each other. I am sure that it was not easy to always be fresh and upbeat during a long-running series. There was inequity between the star and the second-billed Vance. When Ball was pregnant she took Vance’s dressing room, which was smaller but closer to the soundstage. Ball had dressers helping her with the quick costume changes. Poor Vance was forced to crawl across the set and lighting cables, change by all by herself and then get back to the stage.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, Vance was a regular on the summer stock circuit. When I was doing summer theatre on Cape Cod in 1973, she was performing nearby in the hip comedy Butterflies Are Free. A mutual friend made sure I was able to attend final dress rehearsal. Vance had not lost any of her crack comic chops and graciously chatted with our group of young actors, encouraging us to stick with our dreams of being performers.
By summer 1979, Vance, battling that damn cancer, suffered a stroke. The great character actor and I Love Lucy cast member Mary Wickes accompanied Ball on a last visit to see Vance. Wickes claims that on the car ride back, Ball was inconsolable. When Vance took her final curtain call a few days later, Ball said that as she spent days watching reruns of the two working together:
“I find that now I usually spend my time looking at Viv. Viv was sensational. And back then, there were things I had to do. I was in the projection room for some reason, and I just couldn’t concentrate on her. But now I can, and I enjoy every move that Viv made. She was something.”
Vance married four times. Her third husband, film bit-player Philip Ober, was abusive and contributed to her mental health issues. Her last husband John Dodds, a literary agent, was gay. When they tied the knot in 1961, Vance was 52 years and might have been simply looking for companionship. Dodds had boyfriends and Vance seemed to not mind. Better a pansy than a brute.
On her own gay rumors, Vance stated:
“Lucille Ball and I were just like sisters. We adored each other’s company. She and I had so many laughs that we could hardly get through filming without cracking up. Then I began hearing that Lucille and I were too close. My first husband disapproved of our closeness. ‘People are talking about you two,” he’d say. ‘You ought to be careful about the hugging and kissing you do on the show’.”
“The word was that something was wrong with me, something my analyst wouldn’t tell me about. That sent me leaping into my car and driving 30 miles to talk to my analyst, Dr. Steele. ‘Is there anything the matter with me that you’ve never told me?’ I wanted to know. Dr. Steele reassured me there wasn’t.”