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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,026

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This is the grave of Lucille Ball.

Born in Jamestown, New York in 1911, Ball grew up in a working class family. Her father was a lineman for AT&T and moved around a lot to work on the phone lines. By the time she was 3, her family had moved to Montana and then to New Jersey and then to Michigan. Then in 1914, her father died. Ball’s mother moved back to New York to live with her and Lucy spent a few years with them. Her mother remarried and they moved in with his parents, who were awful Puritans. In any case, when Ball was 12, her stepfather encouraged her to try out for a chorus line for a Shriner’s event. She loved it. A performance career was born.

Ball’s mother really wanted to encourage her performance because the young girl started dating a local thug when she was 14. So the parents sent her to New York. She bombed out of the acting school she was sent and the teachers told her she was terrible. Incidentally, Bette Davis was at the same school at the same time. Ball didn’t listen to them. What turned her career was getting to know Hattie Carnegie, the fashion queen. Carnegie told her to die her dark hair blonde and start modeling. This worked. She became a Chesterfield girl, got a few Broadway gigs, and moved to Hollywood to try her luck there. It took awhile. Like so many hopefuls, she could get bit parts in big productions but there were 100 girls for every role that even had a speaking part. But Ball slowly started clawing her way into speaking parts. Her first credited role was in Chatterbox, from 1936. This got her a number of small but actually credited roles in Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers pictures. In 1937, she managed a real supporting part in Stage Door, starring Rogers and Katharine Hepburn.

In 1940, while appearing as the lead in Too Many Girls, a musical, she met Desi Arnaz, the Cuban bandleader. They fell in love and a tumultuous relationship began. It was often not good. She initially filed for divorce in 1944 but they didn’t go through with it. But it’s hard to call this a good marriage at any time.

Through the 40s, Ball was a successful B-list actress. She was in lots of movies, particularly mediocre comedies and musicals. She was good at her job. She wasn’t quite a star. But she was a known person. Her name headlined movies. She had made it. Maybe she wasn’t Rogers or Hepburn, but she was a real actress with a real career. For most people, that would have been the pinnacle of success and that would have been OK. But Ball managed to hit the jackpot with the rise of television. In 1947, she was doing a radio play (still very common) for CBS called My Favorite Husband, with Richard Denning. This was so successful that CBS decided to transition it into a comedy for its new television division. Ball agreed to participate on one condition–she wanted to replace Denning with Arnaz in the show. CBS freaked out about this. After all, Ball and Arnaz had an interracial marriage–even if he was pretty white. He was still Cuban after all. They reluctantly went along but then hated the initial episodes. So Ball had to sell it. Part of it was that she was trying to save her marriage. Arnaz cheated on Ball all the time and she knew it and hated it. She chalked it up to their both being on the road all the time acting and performing. Maybe that was true, but of course that didn’t mean Arnaz had to have sex with any available woman. But they also needed to hone their act. So they did a vaudeville act on the road together that proved to be very popular. Ball had great comic timing and they just needed to improve their chemistry. This convinced CBS to run with the show.

Now titled I Love Lucy, this show of course become one of the iconic early television programs. There are few if any early shows that remain this beloved today. In part, it’s because it was genuinely funny, unlike most of the suburban sitcoms of the period that are just nostalgia shows now. Along with The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy was also a bit of a throwback to the vaudeville era of comedy. It was urban. It showed work, even if the role as the wife of a famous bandleader made her middle class instead of working class. It came out of the early twentieth century entertainment traditions, not the already idealized 1950s, being romanticized at the very time people were living it. Let’s also remember that this was done live, so the work had to be first rate at all times. Not only was the show among the most popular of the 1950s, but Arnaz and Ball started a production company that created a lot of the other high quality shows of the period and well into the future, including Star Trek, The Untouchables, and Mission Impossible. They made a LOT of money on the production company. In fact, it was Ball and Arnaz that pioneered television shows being shot live with multiple cameras. Another pioneering thing about I Love Lucy is that it was the first time a pregnant woman was shown on TV. Of course, CBS freaked out about this too and tried to kill it. But Ball and Arnaz insisted the storyline be included since, you know, Lucy was actually pregnant. Despite CBS being prudes about this, the audiences loved it and her pregnancy became a national story that people followed.

Worth noting here that I Love Lucy was nearly tanked by another issue–Ball was a communist in the 30s. She registered as a member of the Communist Party in 1936, as did most of her family. In fact, she was on the CP California Central Committee in 1937 so this was no minor commitment. During World War II, she followed the CP line and was all-in for FDR and war production. But after the war, not only did she leave the party, but she became a Republican and was a fervent Eisenhower supporter in 1952. That saved her. As Arnaz once told the audience as he was warming them up before a show, “The only thing red about Lucy is her hair, and even that is not legitimate.” Her politics did not turn completely terrible though–this isn’t Reagan here. She later was a huge supporter of gay rights, for instance.

I Love Lucy ended production in 1957. Arnaz and Ball finally divorced in 1960. A bad marriage lasted a long time, though they did remain friends in the aftermath. Ball bought out Arnaz’s role in the production company. And then she dedicated herself to the studio. That doesn’t mean she completely disappeared from acting. She popped up here and there. She was in a 1960 Broadway musical called Wildcat, but she got really sick and so that tanked the show. She was a great talk show guest. She was also in a couple more TV shows that kept her on the air continually until 1974, though few speak that highly of either The Lucy Show or Here’s Lucy these days. She almost got the role of the mother in The Manchurian Candidate, but John Frankenheimer already knew Angela Lansbury and so went with her. As a side note, Lansbury not only played the matronly and evil mother in that movie, but is somehow still alive today. Ball also had a bunch of TV movies and specials and the like.

Ball’s last TV show was 1986’s Life with Lucy, but it was a flop and was cancelled before completing its first season. By this point, her health was starting to decline. In 1988, she had a heart attack. She managed to show up at the 1989 Academy Awards to give an award, but that was her last public appearance. She died of an aortic aneurysm, probably due to her life of heavy smoking, in 1989. She was 77 years old.

One more point here–I had no interest in seeing the biopic starring Nicole Kidman a few months back. Biopics are almost universally terrible, or at best boring and pointless. But I do want to say that the desire of people to see biopics and the desire to employ actors who look like the person instead of actually being good at acting or right for the role are two big problems in modern film. Of course Kidman is an excellent actor, but she absolutely does not have the comic timing of Lucille Ball. But hey, a redhead, as if you couldn’t just die the hair of someone else, as Ball did on her own hair.

Anyway, let’s watch some of Ball’s work:

Lucille Ball is buried in Lake View Cemetery, Jamestown, New York. As you can see, I had to trek through serious snow to get to this grave. Never let it be said I don’t physically sacrifice for you people. Not to mention drive on sketchy roads to get there.

If you would like this series to visit other cast members from I Love Lucy, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Arnaz had his ashes scattered in the Sea of Cortes, so no luck there. Vivian Vance is in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin and William Frawley is in Los Angeles. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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