Some of you must have watched I Love Lucy, a popular serial on television featuring the wonderful scatter-brained redhead named Lucy. The show is a perennial favourite of people around the globe and its lead character, Lucy, is one of the most popular comedienne the world has seen.
Lucille Desiree Ball was born on August 6, 1911, in Celoron, New York. She modelled as a teenager, winning national exposure as the Chesterfield Cigarette Girl in 1933. This success led to her first movie role, as a chorus girl in Roman Scandals (1934). From the early 1930s through the late 1940s, Ball appeared in over 60 films, most of whom were low-budget.
Ball played bit roles in these films, often being typecast as the plucky sidekick of the heroines. Still, there were those who recognised her talent even in these roles, like renowned critic, James Agee who said, “Nobody in Hollywood understands her talents. She is a giant tied down by pygmies.”
Agee’s words were to prove prophetic later.
In 1940 Ball married Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz whom she’d met on the sets of the film, Too Many Girls. She continued to make movies while he toured with his band for the next decade. But this began to take a toll on their marriage. So they decided to make a TV comedy about a red-headed housewife and her Cuban bandleader husband.
The idea for the comedy came when America’s leading radio and television networks, Central Broadcasting Service (CBS), approached Ball for televising a radio-show called My Favourite Husband, in which she played the wacky wife of a conservative banker. Ball suggested that her real-life husband, Arnaz, play her TV husband.
Ball and Arnaz, belonging to different cultures and racial types, were an unusual couple for those times. CBS executives were thus rather unsure about public acceptance of such a couple. Arnaz and Ball would not give up though. They went on a successful nationwide tour with their vaudeville act – including a medley number called “Cuban Pete-Sally Sweet”–and put up their own money to film a pilot of the show. CBS was won over.
I Love Lucy premiered on October 15, 1951, and went on to became one of the most popular shows on television. In its six-year run, the show remained one of the most-watched shows ever shown. It won more than 200 awards, including five Emmys.
The show had four principal characters, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo (Ball and Arnaz) and their neighbors, Fred and Ethel Mertz (William Frawley and Vivian Vance). All of them were popular but it was Ball who won people over with her excitable, accident-prone act. Lucy did a lot of falling down from stairs and goofing-up, but it was all done with a great deal of wide-eyed innocence and charm. She made people want to protect her.
In real life though, Ball was far from being the goofy, scatter-brain she projected on screen. Her show introduced viewers to the 30-minute situation comedy, and this was to change the way TV comedies were made. She formed a production company with Arnaz, called Desilu. As its head Arnaz pioneered a new way of producing TV shows in a way that the final product could be rebroadcast again and again.
And two years after they divorced in 1960 (their marriage could not withstand the strain of their celebrity lifestyles), Ball bought his half of Desilu–taking out a bank loan of $3 million – and became sole owner of what was then the world’s largest production facility.
In 1962, Ball brought the character of Lucy back to life on The Lucy Show, which ran from 1962 to 1968, and Here’s Lucy, from 1968 to 1974. Both shows featured her children, Lucie and Desi Jr., from her marriage to Arnaz. She also appeared on Broadway plays and films including two new comedy films, The Facts of Life (1961) and Critic’s Choice (1963); and co-starred with Henry Fonda in Yours, Mine and Ours(1968).
Ball proved to be a shrewd businesswoman. In 1967, she sold Desilu Productions for $17 million, netting a total of $10 million as her own share. In 1968, she and her second husband, former nightclub comedian Gary Morton, formed Lucille Ball Productions.
In 1986, the 75-year-old Ball tried to bring back her signature role yet again, in American Broadcasting Corporation’s Life with Lucy, but this time she couldn’t find an audience.
Lucille Ball died on April 26, 1989 at the age of 77 from complications arising out of an open-heart surgery. At the time of her death, I Love Lucy was being syndicated in more than 80 countries. The world will always love Lucy for reminding us to sit back and laugh at life’s funny moments.