Dame in the Game: We Love Lucy

In another installment of her column Dame in the Game, Maureen Lee Lenker places the spotlight on Lucille Ball, a groundbreaking comedienne and television pioneer. 

Though we’ll always remember Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo, the madcap housewife constantly getting herself into scrapes, the depth and reach of her career and influence extend far beyond I Love Lucy. The character of Lucy Ricardo and the behind-the-scenes machinations of Desilu Productions were groundbreaking in many ways themselves — Lucy and Ethel marked the first female comedy team in entertainment (which would inspire Laverne and Shirley and many more in the ensuing decades), and the character of Lucy, though a 1950s housewife, was also a woman who should never be underestimated.

In addition to I Love Lucy, where she was her own boss,  Ball was also a movie star known as “Queen of the B’s,” a major breadwinner (and provider) for her extended family, and an ambitious, complex woman. Though her career as “America’s favorite redhead” plays a large part in her legacy, Lucille Ball is our Dame in the Game this month because of her role in television history, but also for all that came before and beyond those achievements.

Ball was born on August 6th, 1911 in Jamestown, New York, where she had a difficult childhood, losing her father to typhoid fever at only three years old and being raised by her grandparents. Her brother, Fred, listed their self-reliant upbringing, as the source of her inner drive and ambition, saying, “We were taught from the beginning to take care of ourselves. That was probably the attribute that caused Lucille to be successful.” Those who knew Ball growing up described her as possessing an intense need for control and a deep sense of responsibility for others. She was also an extremely ambitious child and already interested in acting as an outlet for her nervous energy. When her high school teachers told her they were too busy to oversee a new school organization, Ball went ahead and founded a Dramatics Club and proceeded to write a play, cast herself as the lead, and direct it.

Dame in the Game: We Love Lucy
Sweet little Lucy.

Throughout her teens and early twenties, Ball divided her time between Jamestown and New York City where she had a short-lived stint at drama school and worked as a model and Chesterfield Cigarette Girl. A very practical person, she accepted an offer to appear as a Goldwyn Girl in an Eddie Cantor film in Hollywood because it would pay three times her normal schedule. Once in Hollywood, she decided to stay and carved out a reputation for being the rare glamour girl up for anything onscreen. While others fretted about their appearance, Ball willingly made herself the butt of slapstick gags, allowing her face to be covered in mud and more. From her first film on, she discovered the potency of her abilities as a comic actress and her capacity to make people laugh, particularly if she was willing to put herself in any situation onscreen for those laughs. This gung-ho attitude earned her bit parts in films with The Marx Brothers and The Three Stooges.

She became a contract player at RKO and continued to appear in small roles in numerous films, eventually graduating to leads and supporting roles in B pictures. As her career continued, she became obsessed with achieving success and being able to support not only herself, but her entire family. Once more securely established, she moved her mother, grandfather, and brother out to Hollywood to be close to her and worked to provide them all with a place to live and more. Due to a relationship with producer and de facto studio head Pandro Berman, she had access to all the scripts at RKO scheduled for production and she read every one to see if there were possible roles for her. Berman said of her, “She was very talented and very determined. She was ambitious, and she had to make it. She would’ve killed herself if she hadn’t.”

Dame in the Game: We Love Lucy
Ball in her pre-redhead days.

In 1937, she had a memorable role as a brassy aspiring actress in Stage Door alongside a crop of other great studio talent including Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, and Eve Arden. Then, in 1938, she began a string of projects that earned her the title “Queen of the B’s.” At times, she was involved in so many projects that the wardrobe department would be sewing two or three sets of costumes for her at once. Though she rarely found work that was deserving of her talents (or even made full use of them), she appeared in a steady stream of roles as career girls and “other women” — she had no illusions about her own skills, noting that she had the looks of a model, but a “deep, aggressive voice that has no softness or romance to it.”

Directors were incredibly impressed with her self-possession and how well she understood her own strengths and weaknesses as a performer and worked to their advantage. Garson Kanin said of her: “She was extremely inventive to the point I was surprised she didn’t want to write. Like most good actresses, she did not like to be directed. She didn’t need to be. She was her own self. . . I think Lucy was a great, great personality. She was an individual, and that’s what got her going at the time.”

The strength she showed offscreen in doggedly pursuing her career and supporting her family translated to her onscreen performances, making it difficult for her to forward her model-worthy beauty into the studio model of ingenues and romantic leading ladies. But Ball was aware of this and not afraid to use this to her advantage onscreen — one of her most memorable roles was as paralyzed, conniving showgirl Gloria Lyons in 1942’s The Big Street. Though she initially feared the role might taint her public image, she took Charles Laughton’s advice to heart and delivered on his counsel: “If you are going to play a bitch, play the bitchiest bitch who ever lived or don’t play the part at all.”

She took a similar tack in her own career, calling upon Olivia de Havilland for advice on breaking away from a contract model and finding better representation. Ball was also willing to help other aspiring actresses for the sake of recognizing similar ambition and kindred spirits. Irene Vernon described how Ball stood up for her to producer Arthur Freed and remarked, “Women were so put down then, and it meant a lot to me that she was important and a woman and she had no ulterior motive for helping me.”

Dame in the Game: We Love Lucy
Lucille Ball and Ginger Rogers in Stage Door (1937).

In the 1940s, she also had a stint as a contract player at MGM, but still did not manage to break through to the level of stardom she craved. In 1949, she arranged a new contract with Columbia at the behest of silent star Buster Keaton, who helped her refine her comedic timing and hone the art of physical comedy. Ball was hungry for what she could learn from the lesson and made him drill her in physical gags. This earned her more chances to showcase her comedic chops on screen including a spinoff of the Red Skelton film Fuller Brush Man into The Fuller Brush Girl. She was so devoted to her career and willing to commit to anything for a laugh, that her co-star on the film, Eddie Albert said, “Lucille was more devoted to her career and her talent than anyone else I ever met. She thought only of being an entertainer. . . She sought out opportunities to do stunts and kept asking, ‘Can I do it?’ She’d roll barrels and bowling balls and get blown up in the stunts. She was in smoke and fire. She was so stalwart.”

In addition to her film career, she began appearing on radio shows in the 30s and 40s where she began to develop and hone her voice as a comedic actress — she finally felt she’d struck gold in 1948 while playing Liz Cooper on the CBS radio show “My Favorite Husband.” Liz Cooper became the test run for Lucy Ricardo, an earlier model of a zany housewife scheming to get the best of her husband. The show also provided a model for Ball’s control offscreen — as the star, she took charge and began (for the first time) to speak out about scripts and scenarios to the writers and producers. This was also where Ball first worked with with the core team of Madelyn Pugh, Bob Carroll, Jr., and Jess Oppenheimer who would go on to produce and write I Love Lucy.

Dame in the Game: We Love Lucy
Lucy in Kodachrome for Du Barry Was a Lady (1943).

Ball was so successful on the radio show that CBS asked her to consider developing it for television, a newly emerging medium at the time. It was perfect timing as Ball was already intrigued by the idea of branching into television with her production company with husband Desi Arnaz, Desilu Productions — the couple had been visiting sets around Hollywood attempting to soak in the method of putting on a television show. She wanted to bring “My Favorite Husband” to the air but with Desi playing her onscreen husband — Ball was beginning to worry that if she didn’t find a reason to keep his work close to home, it would spell the end of their marriage.

CBS was reluctant to move ahead with this plan, however, so Ball and Arnaz organized a vaudeville tour produced by Desilu Productions to demonstrate their success as an onstage couple. In the summer of 1950, they toured a series of movie houses around the country opening for films in an effort to prove themselves. Ball abandoned all vanity and appeared as a clown in a battered fedora and baggy suit, honking a horn in imitation of a seal. When this still didn’t earn them a favorable deal with CBS, the couple decided to produce the pilot themselves under the Desilu Banner, unwittingly securing themselves rights to what would become an incredibly lucrative television show.

Much of the resistance from CBS came from the fact that Lucille and Desi were not willing to relocate to New York City to film the show, which was the home of television production at the time. They helped pioneer the “multicam” technique (two or more cameras recording the same scene simultaneously) and popularize it through its use, as well as ultimately helped build a television empire in Southern California and make it the home of the burgeoning medium. All of these maneuverings led Ball and Arnaz to strike a deal that involved a $1000 salary cut in exchange for ownership of the negatives of the shows. Desi and Lucy were now producers, but it would end up being the best deal they ever made.

As was her way, Ball threw herself into her work, despite being pregnant at the time of shooting the pilot. Producers and crew noted how thoroughly Ball researched and rehearsed each of her onscreen gags to be sure it would come off flawlessly in front of a live studio audience. One anecdote described how Ball rehearsed blowing up and popping a paper bag for three hours to determine what combination of timing and type of bag would generate the most noise without seeming planned.

Dame in the Game: We Love Lucy
Lucy and Ricky (Desi Arnaz).

At last, she had found a platform for her talents. Ball said, “I never found a place of my own, never became truly confident until, in the Lucy character, I began to create something that was truly mine. The potential was there. Lucy released it.” She was known for being challenging on-set, giving direction to guest stars and visiting actors, and alternating between bullying her directors or pretending to be ignorant to test their mettle — the tales of Ball’s behind-the-scenes antics don’t necessarily paint her in a flattering light, but they do show a woman who knew exactly what it took to produce the highest quality product and who would stop at nothing to ensure that occurred without a hitch. She earned an Emmy nomination for Best Comedy Performer for their first season, and when Red Skelton won in 1952, he took his time at the podium to say, “Ladies and gentleman, you’ve given this to the wrong redhead. I don’t deserve this. It should go to Lucille Ball.”

When Lucy found she was pregnant again, rather than postponing the show, Ball and producer Jess Oppenheimer decided to make Lucy Ricardo pregnant too. They broke the taboo of showing a pregnant woman on-screen and flew in the face of complaints from CBS and sponsors. Ball and Arnaz shed very real tears on-screen in the episode where he sings “We’re Having a Baby.” By this time, the Ricardos were so popular that Ball scheduled her c-section to coincide with the night the episode where Lucy Ricardo goes to the hospital would air. Ball gave birth to a son on the same day that 44 million Americans tuned into to watch Lucy and Ricky have a baby — twice as many as would watch the inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower the next day. The fictional and real life pregnancy earned Ball a spot on the cover of numerous magazines, including Life and Newsweek. She and the show won Emmys, I Love Lucy was the number one show in America, and Philip Morris signed on to sponsor the show for two and a half more year guaranteeing the Arnazes $5 million. Concurrently, Desilu negotiated a $250,000 contract with MGM, the most expensive deal in the studio’s history.

Dame in the Game: We Love Lucy
Lucy makes history.

In the midst of all of this success, Ball also faced serious allegations from the House of Un-American Activities Committee. She had once registered as a communist to assuage her grandfather’s wishes. They taped a show while she was under the shadow of suspicion and tried to make the best of it with Desi making a pre-show announcement, saying, “I want you to meet my favorite redhead — in fact, that’s the only thing red about her, and that’s not even legitimate.” The fact that HUAC let her off with a slap on the wrist when they blackballed many who did less was a sign of how beloved she was by the American people. Still, the fear of political repercussion so frightened her that she never voted again following this incident.

Desilu Studios was growing rapidly, producing I Love Lucy, Our Miss Brooks with Eve Arden, and hundreds of commercials. It was netting Lucille and Desi approximately $600,000 a year and I Love Lucy merchandise brought them an additional $500,000, much of it bearing Lucy’s likeness. In 1954, they also made the film The Long, Long Trailer for MGM, relying on a similar formula to I Love Lucy, and coming in 17th at the box office that year. As their marriage began to fall apart, Lucy threw herself into her work. Those on set noted that she was more committed to her artistry and the success of the show than ever in the wake of the disintegration of her relationship.

Desilu Productions continued to increase its success with its expanded roster of television shows, becoming a veritable production empire with an output of 691 half-hour program between 1955 and 1957. In September 1957, Desilu purchased the former holdings of the RKO studio, including property that was once the Selznick studios where the comedienne had an ill-fated auditioned for Scarlett O’Hara. Ball, alongside Desi, now owned the lot that had given her her career — and she didn’t forget this. It was essential to her that they maintain all the RKO employees already working on the lot and that they do their best to preserve the studio’s existing inventory of props, costumes, etc. While Desi appreciated the business implications of the deal and the added production space, Ball relished the chance to come full circle. She didn’t fully appreciate how unusual it was for a woman to own a studio of this nature and merely said, “You gotta have the right place to work. This way there’s nobody to tell you what set you can use and when you can use it.” At this point, Desilu now comprised thirty-five soundstages and a backlot of forty acres across three locations and boasted a gross production worth $30 million. Lucy and Desi had built a television empire in the heart of movieland.

Ball also used Desilu’s increased power to foster talent in younger generations. She renovated a theater space on the lot and founded a “workshop” as a training program for players for Desilu shows. This company of young actors included Robert Osborne, the long-time host of Turner Classic Movies, whom Ball took under her wing, introducing him to many studio stars and advising him to pursue journalism and film history. She also befriended and mentored a young Carol Burnett who went on to have her own successful sitcoms as a comedienne inspired by Lucille Ball. Small, but pointed victories like this defined Ball’s generosity of spirit — when she leased apartments in New York to appear on Broadway in a show called Wildcat, she refused to ride in the elevator of the building until African Americans were allowed to as well.

Dame in the Game: We Love Lucy
Carol Burnett with her mentor Lucille Ball.

Desi and Lucille would eventually divorce, which sent Desi into an alcohol-soaked tailspin. He became unable to hold up his end of the company, which led Lucy to buy him out for his stake in Desilu. With that deal, she became the first woman to own a controlling interest in a major film studio and be its de facto studio chief. Though she was often reluctant to fully take the reins in her new position, Ball did oversee some of Desilu’s greatest successes in her tenure. While others at the company advised her to pass on projects because of their production costs, Ball alone saw the potential value in the pilots for Mission: Impossible and Star Trek and used her veto power to shepherd these two iconic properties to the air.

In 1967, Gulf + Western, which owned the adjoining Paramount lot, made an offer to buy Desilu and after much deliberation, Ball took it. Desilu was quickly folded into the Paramount subsidiary despite hopes otherwise. Left without a home base for the first time in nearly twenty years, Ball formed Lucille Ball Productions to oversee her own projects, particularly her two long-running CBS sitcoms, The Lucy Show (1962-68) and Here’s Lucy (1968-74), both of which offered similar characters and formulas to I Love Lucy. She continued to remain an astute actor and businesswoman — she negotiated a deal before making her hit 1968 film Yours, Mine and Ours to receive a percentage of the profits. By the time, Here’s Lucy ended its run in 1974, she’d starred in nearly 500 sitcom episodes.

In the last decade of her life, she continued to work, even attempting a comeback sitcom in 1986, which barely lasted two months on the air. She died in 1989 shortly after making her last public appearance on the Oscars, alongside former co-star Bob Hope. She has since received numerous awards and recognition, including a Presidential Medal of Freedom, a museum in her hometown, and been named as one of “100 Most Important People of the Century” by Time. I Love Lucy still runs in syndications and earns lucrative merchandising profits each year, and TV Guide has declared her the “Greatest TV Star of All Time.” Her legacy as a star; contributions and groundbreaking achievements as a businesswoman and entrepreneur; and her strong, gutsy demeanor matched with a desire to support and provide for her entire family make her a towering icon of Hollywood achievement and a true dame in the game.

Dame in the Game: We Love Lucy
We Love Lucy

 

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