The Kennedy Center

Lucille Ball


Lucille Ball

In May, 1985, Lucille Ball was in New York City's South Bronx, an elderly bag lady in grimy rags, slumped against the graffiti-covered wall of a lone building left standing like a scarecrow in the midst of a field of bombed-out stone rubble, its door and lower windows cemented up, its roof gone.

She was starring in a serious dramatic motion picture-for-television, Stone Pillow. It was a project as far removed from comedy as she ever undertook. Slowly, steadily a crowd began to form as if from nowhere appearing like birds massing before a storm, intent on getting closer and closer to the bag woman. Some started a low chant, unintelligible at first, then, as others began to pick it up, distinguishable. Four syllables repeated to feverish pitch: "We Love Lucy. We Love Lucy." A row of wooden barricades and several police cars away from center stage, the unsolicited neighborhood audience showed its appreciations far into the night to the lady who has the reputation for having made more people laugh louder and longer then anyone else in history.

Lucille Ball, one of television's foremost comediennes for more than 30 years, during which she won numerous awards including four Emmys, was been an entertainer for more than half a century.

When Ball was only 15, she persuaded her mother to let her enroll in the New York City drama school conducted by John Murray Anderson and Robert Milton. "I was a tongue-tied teenager spellbound by the school's star pupil--Bette Davis," recalls Ball. So tongue-tied was she that the school wrote to her mother: "Lucy's wasting her time and ours. She's to shy and reticent to put her best foot forward."

She put it forward, however, pounding the New York pavements until she finally landed a job in 1927 in the third road company of Rio Rita. At that time she was calling herself Montana, a name she shed when she was dropped from the chorus of the musical Step Lively. Adopting the name Diane Belmont, she continued undaunted and was hired as a Seventh Avenue dress model, soon moving up to modeling for Hattie Carnegie, At night, she did free-lance modeling to supplement her $35 a week job. It was at this time that her career was interrupted by a debilitating disease, rheumatoid arthritis, which knocked her out of commission for three years.

Back on her feet again, and with her original name restored, she was chosen as the model for the Chesterfield cigarette posters, exposure which resulted in her being chosen as one of 12 "Goldwyn Girls," appearing in and promoting an Eddie Cantor film, Roman Scandals.

Extra parts and walk-ons followed. She was a mannequin swathed in ostrich feathers in Roberta, a florist's clerk with her back to the camera and one line of dialog in Top Hat, and an extra in The Three Musketeers with the Ritz Brothers.

A relatively sizable part in Stage Door, starring Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, and Eve Arden, provided her with the opportunity to demonstrate her comedic flair. Her first featured role was in Go Chase Yourself (1938). Among the films in which she appeared the following year was Dance, Girl, Dance. It was on the set of that film that she met Desi Arnaz with whom she appeared in her next film, Too Many Girls, and whom she married in 1940.

Her film career continued with such vehicles as The Big Street, DuBarry Was a Lady, Best Foot Forward, and Thousands Cheer. In 1946, she starred as the dumb, redheaded butt of the contrived situations in Easy to Wed, with Van Johnson and Ester Williams, a role many consider to be her best on screen.

After 22 weeks touring in the stage play Dream Girl, she took a vitally important turn in her life. He embarked on a radio comedy "My Favorite Husband" and her broadcasting career took flight. Her character in that popular program was the inspiration for her later classic "I Love Lucy" character, Lucy Ricardo. "I Love Lucy," which was on for six years, from 1951 trough 1957, won her two of her Emmys and was followed by "The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour" and then "The Lucy Show," which earned her two more Emmys, and "Here's Lucy."

Ball always gave Arnaz credit for the idea of "I Love Lucy" and for the business acumen which built it. It was Ball herself, however, who developed the concept of using three cameras, a theatrical set, and a live audience for a television series. She was also the first to insist the shows be filmed.

"I didn't want to work unless there was an audience to give me feedback," she explained. "We decided to do it just like a play and show it as a film."

The record-breaking run of the series began on October 15, 1951, with Ball, Arnaz, Vivian Vance, and William Frawley. Vance was to continue with Ball in "The Lucy Show" with Gale Gordon, who had been in "My Favorite Husband." Vance appeared occasionally on "Here's Lucy," which also had Gordon as a regular and Ball's children, Lucie Arnaz, and Desi Arnaz Jr., in recurring roles.

During the first six years of "I Love Lucy," Ball and Arnaz appeared together in two motion pictures, The Long Long Trailer and Forever Darling. In 1960, she starred in the film The Facts of Life with Bob Hope, with whom she had earlier appeared in Fancy Pants and with whom she later co-starred in Critic's Choice.

In 1962, after the breakup of her marriage to Arnaz, Ball bought his interest in Desilu Productions and its studio and successfully ran it before finally selling it to Gulf and Western Industries.

Among her additional theatrical films were Yours, Mine and Ours and Mame. In 1960, she made her Broadway debut starring in the musical Wildcat, in which she played an oil "wildcatter" on the Mexican border in the early 1900s. It was during the run of the play that Ball met Gary Morton, a stand-up comedian who was appearing at the Copacabana. They married in 1961.

In 1976, CBS paid tribute to Ball with the special "CBS Salutes Lucy: The first 25 Years." In 1984, she was honored at an "All Star Party for Lucille Ball" by Variety Clubs International. Following the serious dramatic role in Stone Pillow, Ball returned to comedy as the star of the series "Life With Lucy," with her long time pal, Gale Gordon.

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