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Lucille Désirée Ball (August 6, 1911 – April 26, 1989) was an American comedienne, film, television, stage and radio actress, model, film and television executive, and star of the sitcoms I Love Lucy, The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, The Lucy Show and Here's Lucy. One of the most popular and influential stars in America during her lifetime, with one of Hollywood's longest careers, especially on television, Ball was a movie star from the 1930s who could still be seen making films in the 1960s and 1970s; she was a radio regular in the 1940s.

Ball received thirteen Emmy Award nominations and four wins. She was the recipient of the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award in 1979, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Kennedy Center Honors in 1986 and the Governors Award from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in 1989.

In 1929, Ball landed work as a model and later began her performing career on Broadwaymarker using the stage name "Diane Belmont". She appeared in many small movie roles in the 1930s as a contract player for RKO Radio Pictures. Ball was labeled as the "Queen of the Bs" (referring to her many roles in B-films). In 1951, Ball was pivotal in the creation of the television series I Love Lucy. The show co-starred her then husband, Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo and Vivian Vance and William Frawley as Ethel and Fred Mertz, the Ricardos' loveable landlords. After the show ended in 1957, Ball went on to star in two more successful television series: The Lucy Show, which ran on CBS from 1962 to 1968, and Here's Lucy from 1968 to 1974. Her last attempt at a television series was a 1986 show called Life with Lucy. The show proved to be a critical and commercial flop which was canceled less than two months into its run by ABC.

Ball met and eloped with Cubanmarker bandleader Desi Arnaz in 1940. On July 17, 1951, Ball gave birth to their first child, Lucie Désirée Arnaz. A year and a half later, Ball gave birth to their second child, Desiderio Alberto Arnaz IV, known as Desi Arnaz, Jr. Ball and Arnaz divorced on May 4, 1960. On April 26, 1989, Ball died of a dissecting aortic aneurysm at age seventy-seven. At the time of her death, she had been married to her second husband, standup comedian and business partner Gary Morton, for twenty-eight years.

Early life and career

Ball was born to Henry Durrell Ball (September 16, 1886 – February 19, 1915) and Desiree "DeDe" Evelyn Hunt (September 21, 1892 – July 20, 1977) in Jamestown, New Yorkmarker. Although Lucy was born in the Jamestown suburb, she told many people that she was born in Butte, Montanamarker. Her family was Baptist; her father was of Scottish descent, and his mother was Mary Ball. Her mother was of French, Irish and English descent. Her genealogy can be traced back to the earliest settlers in the colonies.

Her father, a telephone lineman for Anaconda Copper, was frequently transferred because of his occupation, and within three years of her birth, Lucille had moved many times, from Jamestown to Anaconda, Montanamarker, and then to Wyandotte, Michiganmarker. While DeDe Ball was pregnant with her second child, Frederick, Henry Ball contracted typhoid fever and died in February 1915. After her father died, Ball and her brother Fred were raised by her mother and grandparents. Her grandfather, Fred C. Hunt, was an eccentric socialist who also enjoyed the theater. He frequently took the family to vaudeville shows and encouraged young Lucy to take part in both her own and school plays.

In 1927, Ball dated a gangster's son by the name of Johnny DeVita. Because of this relationship, her mother decided to ship Ball off to the John Murray Anderson School for the Dramatic Arts in New York Citymarker. There, Ball attended with fellow actress Bette Davis. Ball went home a few weeks later when drama coaches told her that she "had no future at all as a performer".

Ball was determined to prove her teachers wrong, and returned to New York City in 1929. She landed work as a fashion model. Her career was thriving when she became ill with rheumatoid arthritis and was unable to work for two years. She moved to New York Citymarker once again in 1932 to resume her pursuit of a career as an actress, and had some success as a fashion model for designer Hattie Carnegie and as the Chesterfield cigarette girl. She began her performing career on Broadwaymarker using the stage name "Diane Belmont" and was hired—but then quickly fired—by theatre impresario Earl Carroll from his Vanities, and by Florenz Ziegfeld from a touring company of Rio Rita.

She was let go again from the Shubert brothers production of Stepping Stones. After an uncredited stint as one of the Goldwyn Girls in Roman Scandals (1933) she permanently moved to Hollywoodmarker to appear in films. She appeared in many small movie roles in the 1930s as a contract player for RKO Radio Pictures, including movies with the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges. She can also be seen as one of the featured models in the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film Roberta (1935) and briefly as the flower girl in another Astaire-Rogers 1935 film, Top Hat, where she met her lifelong friend, Ginger Rogers. She and Rogers played aspiring actresses in the hit film Stage Door (1937) co-starring Katharine Hepburn. Ball was signed to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in the 1940s, but she never achieved major stardom from her appearance in those films.

She was known in many Hollywood circles as "Queen of the B's"—a title previously held by Fay Wray—starring in a number of B-movies, such as 1939's Five Came Back. Like many budding starlets Ball picked up radio work to earn side income as well as gain exposure. In 1937 she appeared as a regular on The Phil Baker Show. When that completed its run in 1938, Ball joined the cast of The Wonder Show starring future Wizard of Oz tin man Jack Haley. It was on this show that she began her fifty year professional relationship with Gale Gordon, who served as the show's announcer. The Wonder Show only lasted one season, with the final episode airing on April 7, 1939.

In 1940, Ball met Cubanmarker-born bandleader Desi Arnaz while filming the film version of the Rodgers and Hart stage hit Too Many Girls. Ball and Arnaz connected immediately and eloped the same year, garnering much press attention. Arnaz and Ball frequently argued, especially over his indiscretions with other women, but they always made up in the end.

Arnaz was drafted to the United States Army in 1942. He ended up being classified for limited service due to a knee injury. As a result, Arnaz stayed in Los Angeles, organizing and performing USO shows for wounded GIs being brought back from the Pacific. That same year, Lucy appeared opposite Henry Fonda in The Big Street, an uneven film but a strong personal performance. In this film she plays a tough nightclub singer whose legs become paralyzed. Fonda plays a busboy who cares for her.

Ball filed for a divorce in 1944. Shortly after Ball obtained an interlocutory decree, however, she reconciled with Arnaz again. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were only six years apart in age but apparently believed that it was less socially acceptable for an older woman to marry a younger man, and hence split the difference in their ages, both claiming a 1914 birth date.

I Love Lucy and Desilu

In 1948, Ball was cast as Liz Cugat (later "Cooper"), a wacky wife, in My Favorite Husband, a radio program for CBS Radio. The program was successful, and CBS asked her to develop it for television. She agreed, but insisted on working with Arnaz. CBS executives were reluctant, thinking the public would not accept an All-American redhead and a Cuban as a couple. CBS was initially not impressed with the pilot episode produced by the couple's Desilu Productions company, so the couple toured the road in a vaudeville act with Lucy as the zany housewife wanting to get in Arnaz's show. The tour was a smash, and CBS put I Love Lucy on their lineup. The I Love Lucy show was not only a star vehicle for Lucille Ball, but a way for her to try to salvage her marriage to Desi Arnaz, which had become badly strained, in part by the fact that each had a hectic performing schedule which often kept them apart.

Along the way, she created a television dynasty and reached several "firsts". Ball was the first woman in television to be head of a production company: Desilu, the company that she and Arnaz formed. After buying out her by-then ex-husband's share of the studio, Ball functioned as a very active studio head. Desilu and I Love Lucy pioneered a number of methods still in use in television production today. During this time Ball taught a thirty-two week comedy workshop at the Brandeis-Bardin Institutemarker. Ball is quoted as saying, "You cannot teach someone comedy, either they have it or they don't."

When the show premiered, most shows were aired live from New York City studios to Eastern and Central Time Zone audiences, and captured by kinescope for broadcast later to the West Coast. The kinescope picture was inferior to film, and as a result the West Coast broadcasts were inferior to those seen elsewhere in the country. Ball and Arnaz wanted to remain in their Los Angeles home, but the time zone logistics made that broadcast norm impossible. Prime time in L.A. was too late at night on the East Coast to air a major network series, meaning the majority of the TV audience would be seeing not only the inferior picture of kinescopes but seeing them at least a day later.

Sponsor Philip Morris did not want to show day-old kinescopes to the major markets on the East Coast, yet neither did they want to pay for the extra cost filming, processing and editing would require, pressuring Ball and Arnaz to relocate to New York City. Ball and Arnaz offered to take a pay cut to finance filming, on the condition that their company, Desilu, would retain the rights to that film once it was aired. CBS relinquished the show rights back to Desilu after initial broadcast, not realizing they were giving away a valuable and durable asset. Desilu made many millions of dollars on I Love Lucy rebroadcasts through syndication and became a textbook example of how a show can be profitable in second-run syndication. In television's infancy, the concept of the rerun hadn't yet formed, and many in the industry wondered who would want to see a program a second time. In fact, while other celebrated shows of the period exist only in incomplete sets of kinescopes too degraded to show to subsequent generations of television viewers, I Love Lucy has virtually never gone out of syndication since it began, seen by hundreds of millions of people around the world over the past half century. The success of Ball and Arnaz's gamble was instrumental in drawing television production from New York to Hollywood for the next several decades.

Desilu also hired legendary German cameraman Karl Freund as their director of photography. Freund had worked for F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, shot part of Metropolis (1927) and had directed a number of Hollywood films himself. Freund used a three-camera setup, which became the standard way of filming situation comedies. Shooting long shots, medium shots, and close-ups on a comedy in front of a live audience demanded discipline, technique, and close choreography. Among other non-standard techniques used in filming the show, cans of paint (in shades ranging from white to medium gray) were kept on set to "paint out" inappropriate shadows and disguise lighting flaws.

I Love Lucy dominated the weekly TV ratings in the United States for most of its run. (There was an attempt to adapt the show for radio; the cast and writers adapted the memorable "Breaking the Lease" episode---in which the Ricardos and Mertzes fall out over an argument, the Ricardos threaten to move, but they're stuck in a firm lease---for a radio audition disc that never aired but has survived.) In the scene where Lucy and Ricky are practicing the tango in the episode "Lucy Does The Tango", the longest recorded studio audience laugh in the history of the show was produced. It was so long, in fact, that the sound editor had to cut that particular part of the soundtrack in half. The strenuous rehearsals and demands of Desilu studio kept the Arnazes too busy to comprehend the show's success. During the show's hiatus, they starred together in feature films: Vincente Minnelli's The Long, Long Trailer (1954) and Alexander Hall's Forever, Darling (1956).

Desilu produced several other popular shows, most notably Our Miss Brooks (starring Ball's 1937 Stage Door co-star Eve Arden), The Untouchables, Star Trek, and Mission: Impossible. Many other shows, particularly Sheldon Leonard-produced series like Make Room for Daddy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, and I Spy, were filmed at Desilu Studios and bear its logo.

Testimony Before the House Committee on Un-American Activities

In 1953, Ball was subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities because she had registered to vote in the Communist party primary election in 1936 at her socialist grandfather's insistence (per FBImarker FOIA-released documents in a declassified FBI file). Immediately before the filming of episode 68 ("The Girls Go Into Business") of I Love Lucy, Desi Arnaz, instead of his usual audience warm-up, told the audience about Lucy and her grandfather. Arnaz quipped: "The only thing red about Lucy is her hair, and even that's not legitimate." Then, he presented his wife and she received a standing ovation from the audience.

Children and divorce

On July 17, 1951, one month before her fortieth birthday and after several miscarriages, Ball gave birth to her first child, Lucie Désirée Arnaz. A year and a half later, Ball gave birth to her second child, Desiderio Alberto Arnaz IV, known as Desi Arnaz, Jr. When he was born, I Love Lucy was a solid ratings hit, and Ball and Arnaz wrote the pregnancy into the show (indeed, Ball gave birth in real life on the same day that her Lucy Ricardo character gave birth). There were several challenges from CBS, insisting that a pregnant woman could not be shown on television, nor could the word "pregnant" be spoken on-air. After approval from several religious figures the network allowed the pregnancy storyline, but insisted that the word "expecting" be used instead of "pregnant". (Arnaz garnered laughs when he deliberately mispronounced it as "'spectin'"). The episode's official title was "Lucy Is Enceinte," borrowing the French word for pregnant; however, episode titles never appeared on the show. The birth made the first cover of TV Guide in January 1953. Ball's instincts with business were often astonishingly sharp, and her love for Arnaz was passionate, but her relationships with her children were sometimes strained. Lucie Arnaz, her daughter, spoke of her mother's "controlling" nature. Ball was very outspoken against the relationship that Desi Jr. had with Liza Minnelli. She was quoted as saying, "I miss Liza, but you cannot domesticate Liza." She had a few very good friends in the business: Ginger Rogers, Carole Lombard, Vivian Vance and Mary Wickes.

In October 1956, Ball, Vivian Vance, Desi Arnaz, and William Frawley all appeared on a Bob Hope special on NBC, including a spoof of I Love of Lucy, the only time all four stars were together on a color telecast. Fortunately, at least part of the program has been preserved in a rare color kinescope.

By the end of the 1950s, Desilu had become a large company, causing a good deal of stress for both Ball and Arnaz; his increased drinking further compounded matters. On May 4, 1960, just one month after filming the final episode of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, the couple divorced. Until his death in 1986, however, Arnaz and Ball remained friends and often spoke very fondly of each other. Her real-life divorce indirectly found its way into her later television series, as she was always cast as a single woman.

The following year, Ball did a musical on Broadway, Wildcat, co-starring Paula Stewart. It was Stewart who introduced her to her next husband Gary Morton, a Borscht Belt stand-up comic who was thirteen years her junior. Morton claimed he had never seen an episode of "I Love Lucy" due to his hectic work schedule. That marked the beginning of a thirty-year friendship between Lucy and Paula. Ball immediately installed Morton in her production company, teaching him the television business and eventually promoting him to producer. Morton also played occasional bit parts on Ball's various series.

Later career

The 1960 Broadwaymarker musical Wildcat was a successful sell-out that ended its run early when Ball became too ill to continue in the show. The show was the source of the song she made famous, "Hey, Look Me Over", which she performed with Paula Stewart on The Ed Sullivan Show. She made a few more movies including Yours, Mine, and Ours (1968), and the musical Mame (1974), and two more successful long-running sitcoms for CBS: The Lucy Show (1962–68), which costarred Vance and Gale Gordon, and Here's Lucy (1968–74), which also featured Gordon, as well Lucy's real life children, Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz, Jr. Ball appeared on the Dick Cavett show and spoke of her history and life with Arnaz. She insisted that Mame was by far one of her most favorite "family" movies she had ever done. During that interview, Ball revealed how she felt about other actors and actresses as well as her love for Arnaz. She continued by telling Dick that the success to her life was, getting rid of what was wrong and replacing it with what is right. (Talking about her divorce from Arnaz and marriage to Morton) Lucy also reveals in this interview that the strangest thing to ever happen to her was after she had some dental work completed and after placing lead fillings in her teeth, she started hearing radio stations in her head. She explained coming home one night from the studio and as she passed one area, she heard what she thought was morse code or a "tapping." She stated that "As I backed up it got stronger. The next morning, I reported it to the authorities and upon investigation, they found a Japanesemarker radio transmitter that had been buried and was actively transmitting codes back to the Japanese."

Ball was originally considered by Frank Sinatra for the role of Mrs. Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate. Director/producer John Frankenheimer, however, had worked with Angela Lansbury in a mother role in another film and insisted on having her for the part.
During the mid-1980s, she attempted to resurrect her television career. In 1982, Ball hosted a two-part Three's Company retrospective, showing clips from the show's first five seasons, summarizing memorable plotlines, and commenting on her love of the show. A 1985 dramatic made-for-TV film about an elderly homeless woman, Stone Pillow, received mixed reviews. Her 1986 sitcom comeback Life With Lucy, costarring her longtime foil Gale Gordon and co-produced by Ball, Gary Morton, and prolific producer/former actor Aaron Spelling, was a critical and commercial flop which was canceled less than two months into its run by ABC. The failure of this series was said to have sent Ball into a serious depression, and other than a few miscellaneous awards show appearances, she was absent from the public eye for the last several years of her life. Her last public appearance, just one month before her death, was at the 1989 Academy Awards telecast in which she and fellow presenter, Bob Hope, were given a standing ovation.


On April 18, 1989, Ball complained of chest pains and was rushed to the emergency room of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. She was diagnosed as having a dissecting aortic aneurysm and underwent heart surgery for nearly eight hours. The surgery was successful, and Ball began recovering, even walking around her room with little assistance. On April 26, shortly after dawn, Ball awoke with severe back pains. Her aorta had ruptured in a second location and Ball quickly lost consciousness. All attempts to revive her proved unsuccessful and at approximately 05:47 PST, Ball died at the age of 77. She was initially interred in Forest Lawn – Hollywood Hills Cemeterymarker in Los Angeles, but in 2002 her children moved her ashes to the family plot at Lake View Cemetery in Jamestown, New Yorkmarker, where Ball's mother, father, brother, and grandparents are buried.

Legacy and posthumous recognition

Ball has received many prestigious awards throughout her career including some that she received posthumously such as the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George H. W. Bush on July 6, 1989. The Women's International Center's Living Legacy Award.There is a Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center museum in Jamestown, NY. The Little Theatre in Jamestown, New Yorkmarker, was renamed the Lucille Ball Little Theatre in her honor. Ball was among Time magazine's 100 Most Important People of the Century.

On August 6, 2001, on what would have been her ninetieth birthday, the United States Postal Service honored her with a commemorative postage stamp as part of its Legends of Hollywood series. Ball appeared on the cover of TV Guide more than any other person; she appeared on thirty-nine covers, including the very first cover in 1953, with her baby son Desi Arnaz, Jr. TV Guide voted Lucille Ball as the Greatest TV Star of All Time and later it commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of I Love Lucy with eight collector covers celebrating memorable scenes from the show and in another instance they named I Love Lucy the second most influential television program in American history. Because of her liberated mindset and approval of the women's movement, Ball was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

Finally, she was awarded the Legacy of Laughter award at the fifth Annual TV Land Awards in 2007. and I Love Lucy was named the Greatest TV Series by Hall of Fame Magazine. In November of that year, Lucille Ball was chosen as the second out of the 50 Greatest TV Icons, after Johnny Carson. In a poll done by the public, however, they chose her as the greatest icon.

Further reading

  • Lucille The Life of Lucille Ball by Kathleen Brady (2001) ISBN 0-8230-8913-4
  • Love, Lucy by Lucille Ball (1997). ISBN 0-425-17731-9
  • The Comic DNA of Lucille Ball: Interpreting the Icon by Michael Karol (2005) ISBN 0-595-37951-6
  • Lucy A to Z: The Lucille Ball Encyclopedia by Michael Karol (2004) ISBN 0-595-29761-7
  • The Lucille Ball Quiz Book by Michael Karol (2004) ISBN 0-595-31857-6
  • Lucy in Print by Michael Karol (2003) ISBN 0-595-29321-2
  • Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz by Coyne Steven Sanders and Tom Gilbert (1993) ISBN 0-688-13514-5
  • Laughing With Lucy: My Life With America's Leading Lady of Comedy by Madelyn Pugh Davis with Bob Carroll Jr. (2005) ISBN 978-1-57860-247-6
  • Ball of Fire: the tumultuous life and comic art of Lucille Ball by Stefan Kanfer (2003) ISBN 0-375-41315-4
  • I Love Lucy: The Complete Picture History of the Most Popular TV Show Ever by Michael McClay (1995) ISBN 0-446-51750-X (hardcover)


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