By Lucille Ball, Berkley, 1997
Smartest Ditz Around
I've always had a love/ hate relationship with I Love Lucy and the subsequent Lucy franchises (though mostly hate with those), but never, ever, have I felt anything but love and admiration for Lucille Ball. Her movies weren't that great and her acting wasn't particularly versatile, but her timing and comic intelligence were unparalleled.
Born in Jamestown, NY to a telephone lineman father and concert pianist mother, Lucille led a peripatetic life with her family, moving from state to state because of her father's job. When typhoid fever took him in 1915, her mother remarried into a strict family and left the children with step-grandparents who did not show young Lucille much affection, encouragement, or joy. Her maternal grandfather, however, was a devotee of theater and encouraged the girl to participate in plays and express herself. Lucille's grandfather, an eccentric socialist, also persuaded her in 1936 to register to vote as a Communist, a gesture of affection that kind of kicked her in the butt some years later.
Ball started off in New York as a model for Hattie Carnegie and a cigarette girl for Chesterfield cigarettes. After being fired from a few shows and road companies, Ball went to Hollywood for a short stint as a Goldwyn Girl, then moved there permanently in 1933 as a contract player for RKO. At that studio, she appeared in a few Astaire-Rogers films, which led to a breakout performance in one of my favorite pictures, Stage Door (1937).
From there it was wacky showgirls and nightclub singers, starring in not-so-great movies meant as vehicles for more prominent male stars, like Bob Hope and Red Skelton. During the 1940s, she made memorable dramatic and comedic radio appearances, including starring in her own popular show, My Favorite Husband opposite Richard Denning. Lucille Ball made the shrewd career move to transfer her radio success to the fledgling medium of television, using her popular radio program as a leaping off point. She insisted that her husband, Desi Arnaz, play her TV husband on the renamed show I Love Lucy.
And we all know how that turned out. She got rich and famous, both as a performer and producer, and deservedly so. Before Angela Lansbury gave all her old Hollywood pals roles on Murder, She Wrote, Lucille Ball often worked with writers, producers, musicians, and fellow actors from radio. She remained a major presence on television until the mid-1970s, when changing appetites diminished the popularity of her shows and the shows produced by her studio, Lucille Ball Productions. Thereafter, she appeared on awards shows, variety shows, and specials throughout the 1980s.
In 1989, Lucille Ball underwent an aortic replacement surgery that ultimately failed. Her heart ruptured while she was in recovery and on April 26, 1989, Lucille Ball died at the age of 77.
Suspense, "Dime a Dance," Episode 74 (1/13/1944)