Even today, everyone still loves Lucy, but most people don’t realise the actress and shrewd businesswoman she was. Lucy constantly broke barriers as a natural leader and accumulated great wealth. Yes, Lucy of, I Love Lucy fame was really a surprise package. She introduced women to a new way of seeing themselves and was not just a sassy blonde of the strawberry variety.
The reruns of I Love Lucy still rake in $20 million for CBS in a year. New generations are discovering her and forming fan clubs. Lucy keeps on giving long after her death. She still gives the gift of laughter, sometimes the best medicine in a troubled world.
Lucy was Lucille Desiree Ball, a pioneer for women in entertainment proving there is a place for women in humour. Before her, women in film were just attractive props for the men to showcase their talent, and the only place for women in humour was as an audience to male jokes. There was no centre stage for funny women, only romantic or cameo roles and discrimination ruled the movie world. Lucy changed all that and paved the way for women to have their own comedy shows or become comedic stars.
Stars like Carole Burnett, Joan Rivers, Fran Dresher aka The Nanny, Will and Grace, Ellen de Generes, and Barbara Streisand, owe it all to Lucy. She was the first to champion the sassy, funny leading lady as a star in her own right, although she admitted she couldn’t sing or dance. Though her roles in musicals disproves her humility.
Lucy had a dream of being funny
Born in 1911 in Jamestown, New York of poor parents, young Lucille Ball left the small town for Manhattan when she was just fifteen. Lucille was blonde, beautiful and had fabulous legs, so she easily obtained work as a model for stores, then a show girl dancing in musicals.
Film star, Carole Lombard noticed her, befriended her and Lucille obtained some bit parts. Carole recognised her comedic talent and these small roles suited Lucille. This led to more notice from scout agents and her roles became bigger.
Lucille became a star and played opposite Henry Fonda and other romantic leading men in the 1940s. They dubbed her the ‘Queen of the B’s’ meaning B grade films. She scored the lead role in these, and then the supporting role in ‘A’ films. But Lucille was tired of being the ‘eye candy’ and roles with no real substance to them. She wanted to be herself and that involved being funny.
Being Funny on Radio
Radio was a new form of entertainment at the time. Families would sit and listen, like we sit and watch television. Lucille read the part of a wacky wife in the program, ‘My Favourite Husband‘. It became very popular, as her voice created the character well, due to her excellent sense of comedic timing.
Then Lucille met the love of her life, Desi Arnaz. He was a bandleader performing in one of her films. He said it was love at first sight, but she said it took her five minutes. Desi was very handsome and Cuban. He was quite the lady’s man but fell for Lucille’s beauty and fun sense of humour. They eloped in November 1940.
Being Funny on Television
When television started to replace radio, they had the idea of a sitcom about a married couple, The Ricardos, similar to the radio show Lucille had read for. They called it I Love Lucy. They formed their own production company called Desilu Productions. Little did they realise a version of this show would run for over forty years and would still be popular in the 21st century after their deaths.
It was all because of Lucy and her exceptionally expressive face. She could pull a vast variety of silly faces, perform all sorts of ridiculous slapstick, and showcase the best sense of comedic timing. For a beautiful woman she did not mind looking google eyed, having pies and mud thrown at her and dressed unbecomingly. Lucille Ball was not a vain woman, but a red-haired madcap in love with the funny side of life.
Her female co-star Vivian Vance was her partner in crime and sidekick. It was a woman’s show. The men were unnecessary for the humour. They were just the husbands in the background. However, Desi, being Cuban, meant that the Ricardos were the first on-screen bi-racial couple.
Being Pregnant on Television
Lucy was past the usual childbearing age, as she had put off motherhood for her career. By 1950, her biological clock was ringing alarm bells. Forty was a late age to be a first-time mum in those days. To manage her role and be a mother, she had to combine the two. This was another record breaker, as mums were expected to be the stay-at-home type.
In another all-time first, Lucy kept playing Lucy Ricardo while pregnant. In 1951, the word ‘pregnant’ could not be used, as it was considered a profanity. Women hid their pregnancy under voluminous clothing.
The polite term was ‘expecting’. So, Lucy kept appearing as the ‘expecting mother’ Lucy Ricardo, while she was really expecting as Lucy Arnaz. Her daughter, also a Lucy, was born, then two years later the ‘expecting’ on television happened again and Desi junior was born. Child actors played the children in the Tv show in place of their real children.
Lucy’s Real life Marriage not a Sitcom
Despite their on-screen chemistry and genuine love for each other, the Arnaz marriage was not quite like the Ricardos on Tv. Desi Arnaz was still a womaniser and a serial one at that. He neglected Lucy and the children, and this made her unhappy. She, like many other comediennes such as Fanny Brice, was a funny girl crying on the inside.
Desi and Lucy reluctantly divorced in 1960 and Lucy found love and laughter again with comedian Gary Morton. Lucy bought out Desi in their Desilu company and became the head of the studio. This too was another record for a woman.
More Record Breaking
Taking a break, Lucy produced and starred in the film, Wildcat then produced some classic 1960 high ratings shows: Mission Impossible, Star Trek and The Untouchables. Lucy was an immense success. Her role as a woman producer and studio head were unheard of at that time.
Allegedly, when Lucy purchased the Star Trek series, she thought it was about a group of travelling performers during World War II. However, this may only be a rumour started by jealous critics, as no astute businesswoman would purchase a series she knew nothing about. Any person who succeeds will always have those whose aim is to cut the ‘tall poppies’ down. Especially if the tall poppy is a woman.
I Love Lucy without Desi
Reuniting with Vivian Vance as Ethel, The Lucy Show was like its predecessor, an instant success. The comedy female duo got up to the same zany pranks and found themselves again in hilariously impossible situations. Like the time they became stuck in a shower stall and could not turn the water off, or when they worked on a chocolate factory conveyor belt and couldn’t keep up with the chocolates.
When Vivian had enough in 1965 and left, Lucy paired with Dale Gordon in Here’s Lucy until 1975. Again, the TV audiences loved her. In 1985 Lucy starred as an old homeless woman in the film, The Stone Pillow. Then she had another go at another Lucy show, her last and this time it did not do so well. Whether times had changed, or the audience felt sad seeing Lucy as an old grandma, who knows, but the show cancelled after six episodes. Perhaps that was enough episodes to syndicate it?
Lucy feels Lost
For the first time in over fifty years Lucy was not working, although she had starred in 80 films. She felt lost and a little unloved by her public. But that was short-lived, for she was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Kennedy Centre. Desi was meant to award it, but he died just five days before. Lucy was very upset, as she still loved him.
This was not the first of Lucy’s many awards and honours. She had been nominated for 13 Emmys and won 5, had two Hollywood Walk of Fame stars and was awarded the Cecile B. de Mille Golden Globe.
A quick footnote to the Hollywood Walk of Fame Stars. Anyone can be nominated for one of the five categories, but the cost of creating, installing and maintaining a star is $40,000.
A Female Pioneer
Lucy was a pioneer for women’s comedic roles, changed the world for women in entertainment. She paved the way for other women gifted with comedic talent and taught women to laugh at themselves.
She also pioneered the idea of having a live audience while a show was running and rotating sets on stage that made quick scene-changes possible. Lucy was far from being a dumb blonde but a unique female pioneer who changed people’s perspective.
At the end of her long and stellar career, Lucy sold Desilu Productions to Gulf Western, which became Paramount Pictures.
Lucy Left a Legacy of Laughter
Along the way in her busy career, Lucy collected millions of adoring fans, international audiences and many, many friends. One of her close friends was Carole Burnett, another comedienne. Lucy helped the young Carole establish her own comedy show and each year sent Carole a dozen red roses for her birthday. The day Lucy died at 77 from a heart attack, it was coincidentally Carole Burnette’s birthday. Shortly after hearing the upsetting news, the roses came to Carole’s door, delivered as always for her birthday.
Lucy is not forgotten as her voice is still fresh today. Her shows still air on television and have strong ratings and she is a much-loved icon, a little like Elvis Presley. Women love to dress up as her and have I Love Lucy competitions and conferences. Yes, everyone still loves Lucy.
Joni Scott is an Australian author with three published novels: Whispers through Time and The Last Hotel and Colour Comes to Tangles. Joni also co-hosts a women’s blog; https://whisperingencouragement.com/ and has her own website; https://joniscottauthor.com