I don't think I'm too versatile, but that's sort of beside the point. If millions like [Lucy], it would be pretty silly of me to go astray. I've learned a lot about my trade over the years. I have a knowledge of physical comedy, my timing is reliable, and I'm believable. People laugh where they should, and they don't think I'm unbelievable because I believe it all the way. I do what I do with all my strength and heart." — Lucille Ball
For nearly two decades, Lucille Ball was an actress in search of a medium. When she reached for television in the early years of the medium's history, she not only found her niche — she changed the course of an industry.
She began her career inauspiciously enough in the early 1930s as a Manhattan department-store model. From there she went on to become a Hattie Carnegie model, a Chesterfield poster girl, a chorus girl, a Goldwyn Girl, a movie extra, an RKO bit player, a supporting actress, a leading lady of the 'B's, an MGM glamour girl, a dramatic actress, and a radio comedienne. Then, in 1951, she became Lucy Ricardo. And neither America nor television — nor, for that matter, Lucille Ball — has been the same since.
Born on August 11, 1911, in the hamlet of Celeron in western New York, Lucille grew up wanting to become an actress. At 15, with the encouragement of her mother, she dropped out of school and enrolled in the John Murray Anderson-Robert Milton Dramatic School in Manhattan. But she was shy (and was also in awe of the school's star pupil, Bette Davis), and she felt, as she later recalled, "terrified and useless." After six weeks, she returned home and went back to high school, but she soon renewed her courage to try New York and Broadway again.
In the summer of 1933, when she was modeling for Hattie Carnegie, Lucille wandered over to the Palace Theater, hoping to encounter some actors. Instead, she ran into an actors' agent, Sylvia Hahlo. Hahlo told her that Samuel Goldwyn needed another showgirl for his movie Roman Scandals, which was to star Eddie Cantor. Directed to Goldwyn's New York office, Lucille applied for the job and was hired. Three days later she boarded a train for Hollywood.
For the next 18 years, Lucille Ball, as the New York Times once observed of her in another context, "bounced": she went from Goldwyn, to Columbia, to RKO, to MGM, and back again to Columbia in search of the role, the movie, the image, the personality — the vehicle — that would showcase her gifts. By the early 1950s, Ball had made dozens of movies — among them That Girl from Paris, Stage Door, The Big Street, and Easy to Wed — movies so easily forgotten that she was only vaguely known to much of the television audience when I Love Lucy premiered on October 15, 1951.
The story of how Lucy and Lucille Ball finally got on the airwaves is not only a history of early television, it is also the story of a marriage.
Ball had married Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz in 1940. By the spring of 1951, she and Arnaz were experiencing marital troubles. They decided to try to save their marriage by combining their careers. Seizing upon the idea of playing a husband-and-wife comedy team, they turned to television. The networks, however, did not receive their idea with much enthusiasm. One TV executive reportedly told the couple that the vast American public, particularly Middle American mothers, would never accept the idea of a Latin being married to a somewhat ordinary, albeit wacky, American housewife.
Ball and Arnaz decided to take their case to the people. With a 29-minute revue in which they played themselves, they toured the then-vanishing vaudeville circuit of Middle America to considerable success. From that tour they fashioned a half- hour filmed pilot about a young couple, Ricky and Lucy Ricardo, and their best friends/landlords, Fred and Ethel Mertz (William Frawley and Vivian Vance).
CBS and the Philip Morris company, the potential sponsor, liked the pilot, but they insisted that the show be done live from New York, then the center of all first-rate telecasting. Ball and Arnaz, however, had no desire to commute between Los Angeles and New York; they wanted to raise their family in Southern California.
In the face of the couple's determination, Philip Morris and CBS finally relented and agreed to let them do the show from Hollywood, with the stipulation that it still be done live. Now it was Lucy and Desi's turn to compromise. Because they wanted to film the show, they traded away part of their weekly salaries in exchange for producing the show themselves and retaining 100 percent of all residual rights. This meant that their newly formed production company, Desilu, would own each show after it had been broadcast once.
CBS president William Paley, who privately predicted that filming would be too expensive and that the show would fail within six weeks, approved of the deal. It was a deal he would not soon forget.
In September 1951, the first I Love Lucy was filmed before an invited audience, using a three-camera technique that Arnaz had originated to give the show the spontaneity of a live stage production — which in fact it was. Because I Love Lucy became an instant and sustained hit, Arnaz's production technique revolutionized television. Having fought the new medium since its inception, the movie studios now realized that television was not going to disappear, and they turned to producing their own TV series. Moreover, I Love Lucy persuaded the television networks that greater profits and greater control of the product lay in film. This realization led to the demise of live drama and the eventual shift of production from New York to Hollywood, where the studios were.
I Love Lucy had literally shaken an industry.
And in the meantime, Lucille Ball had found her long-sought vehicle in the persona of Lucy Ricardo.
Years earlier, James Agee had written of Ball's performance in The Big Street: "Pretty Lucille Ball … tackles her 'emotional' role as if it were sirloin and she didn't care who was looking." "Pretty Lucille Ball" now tackled her role in I Love Lucy as though her professional life depended on it. In the process, she became queen of the comediennes. Whether she was locking herself in a freezer, singing off-key, posing as a movie stuntman, digging up the cement footprints at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, or handcuffing herself to her husband, Ball dived headlong into a weekly farce that seemed to encourage millions of husbands and wives to laugh at themselves and their own marriages. At a time when the institution of marriage was beginning to experience its first postwar tremors, Lucy Ricardo came along to reassure the country with marital comedy. Marriage is a farce, but it's fun — that message held the nation captive every Monday night at 9:00. And thanks to domestic and international reruns, I Love Lucy continues to captivate viewers worldwide 33 years later.
On June 24, 1957, after six seasons, I Love Lucy ended its spectacular run in the originals. Shortly afterward, Lucy and Desi began producing the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show, a one-hour monthly telecast that ended when the couple divorced in 1960. On December 15 of that year, returning to New York to realize an old dream, Ball starred in the Broadway musical Wildcat.
After her triumph in that show, she returned to television as widow Lucy Carmichael in The Lucy Show (1962-68), which featured Vivian Vance and Gale Gordon. Later, the series was retitled Here's Lucy (1968-1974) and altered to include Ball's children, Desi Jr. and Lucie Arnaz, and Ball's character was changed to that of another widow, Lucy Carter. Together, these long-running shows further established the actress as the first lady of American television and its biggest star.
In 1962, Ball had assumed the reins of Desilu, buying out her former husband's shares for a reported $3 million and in the process becoming the first woman in television to serve as president of a major production company. During her tenure, Desilu created some of TV's most popular shows, among them Mission: Impossible, Mannix, and the durable Star Trek. In 1967, Desilu was sold to Gulf & Western Industries.
Because Ball came to the medium when it was just beginning and remained to help shape it, it is impossible to think of television today without considering her impact on it. As a pioneer, a businesswoman, and an enduring performer (with three Emmys for her work), Lucille Ball has given television some of its most memorable hours.
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Lucille Ball's induction in 1984.