“I’m not funny. What I am is brave.”–Lucille Ball.
One of the great female pioneers of American film and television, Lucille Ball’s impact upon pop culture is impossible to doubt. Through her comedy, her music, and her iconic television program I Love Lucy, she gained a fanbase numbering in the millions. Of course, it would be one thing if that was all there was to know about her, but behind the scenes, Ball would make her mark in a deeper sense than she could onscreen. What are we talking about, you might ask? Who was this fascinating figure of early television? Read more about her below!
1. Late Bloomer
It’s long been known that the entertainment industry is unkind to aging actresses, especially if they weren’t already famous in their youth. Going backward in time, you’d expect this to be even more true than before. However, it might astonish you to know that Ball was over 40 years old by the time I Love Lucy premiered on television! Sadly she was an exception rather than a rule, but it was a step in the right direction at least.
2. East? But I Wanted West!
Ball was born in Jamestown, New York on the 6th of August 1911. She would, however, later make the claim that she had been born in Montana, which is where her grandparents were from.
3. She Don’t Need No Man!
After I Love Lucy, Ball starred in The Lucy Show. By that point, she and Desi Arnaz had amicably divorced, and Ball proved that she could hold her own as a TV star rather than just being part of a famous couple act.
4. Living in a Big Old City
Ball was so eager to be an entertainer that she quit high school to pursue her dreams. When she was 15 years old, she switched secondary school in Jamestown for acting school in New York City.
5. Vengeance is Sweet
Unfortunately for Ball, she had a rather miserable time at the John Murray Anderson School for the Dramatic Arts. Ball would later reflect that all she ever learned in those classes “was how to be frightened.” To make matters worse, her instructors repeatedly insisted that she would be unsuccessful. Ball would prove them wrong, however, as her entire career and legacy can testify!
6. I Love Lucy and She Loves Me
Ball was filming a role in Dance, Girl, Dance when she first met her future husband and co-star, Desi Arnaz. Awkwardly, she was also sporting torn clothes and a black eye thanks to a fight scene being filmed. Arnaz would later reflect that his first thought upon seeing Ball was “That’s a hunk o’ woman!” For her part, Ball would claim “It wasn’t love at first sight. It took a full five minutes.”
7. No Doubt John Doe Approved…
Ball’s mother married a man named Edward Peterson four years after the death of Ball’s father. When Ball’s mother and stepfather traveled to another city to find work, they left Ball and her brother with Peterson’s parents. The elderly Petersons were very puritanical, to the point where they would not allow mirrors in the house except for one over the bathroom sink. Ball was harshly punished by the Petersons one day when they caught her admiring her reflection.
8. Time for a Change
Ball was born a brunette, though she would famously dye her hair during her adult life. She maintained her dyed hue well into her senior years.
9. My Love Don’t Cost a Thing!
In a bizarre instance of bad planning, when Ball first married Desi Arnaz in 1940, all the jewelry stores were closed. Arnaz had to give Ball a ring which he’d gotten from a drug store. While this might have made another bride have second thoughts about getting hitched, Ball proudly wore the ring for their entire marriage.
10. That’s Our Lucy!
Before she became famous as an entertainer, Ball worked in an ice cream store. However, she was fired when she forgot that a banana split requires bananas in them! That honestly sounds like an episode of one of her TV shows!
11. My Right-Hand Brother
Ball’s younger brother, Frederick, would follow in her footsteps when it came to the world of entertainment. He would accompany Desi Arnaz on his musical tours as his manager during the 1940s and 1950s, and he would sit on the Board of Directors at Desilu Productions.
12. Queen of Comedy Indeed
For a long time, Ball held the record for the longest recorded laugh in the history of US television. During an episode of I Love Lucy, Ball had a to do a dance number while hiding several eggs in her shirt. This comedy sequence prompted a laugh which lasted a full sixty-five seconds.
13. This Opinion Won’t Age Well
In an example of just how comfortable people were showing their racism in those days, Ball and Desi Arnaz’ hopes to make a TV show out of their act faced staunch opposition from producers because they didn’t think America would watch a show where a white woman was married to a “foreign” man. Never mind the fact that Arnaz and Ball had already been married for a decade!
14. We’ll Show You!
In an effort to put racist producers in their place, Ball and her husband decided to take their show on the road to prove that Americans would have no problem viewing them as an on-screen couple. Since Arnaz had a thriving career as a touring musician, it was no problem for them to insert vaudevillian sketches into any shows he did. The comedy bits were such a resounding success with audiences around the country that some of their onstage skits were later reenacted for episodes of I Love Lucy.
15. Old Blood
Ball was descended from English, Irish, French, and Scottish settlers coming to North America for a new life. In fact, one of Ball’s ancestors was Elder John Crandall, who was one of the first settlers of the Thirteen Colonies.
16. What are the Odds?
In an odd coincidence, Ball’s first child, Lucie, shared a birthday with Ball’s brother, Frederick.
17. Only She Can Say That!
The producers and writers of I Love Lucy learned quickly that only Ball was allowed to make fun of her husband’s accented English. Whenever other characters made a jab at Desi Arnaz for the way he spoke, studio audiences thought it was hitting below the belt. It was only acceptable to them when Ball poked fun at Arnaz.
18. The Same Year as World War One
Ball was six years older than her first husband, Desi Arnaz. The two of them would actually hide that fact by lying about both their ages. Despite Ball being born in 1911 and Arnaz being born in 1917, they both claimed to have been born in 1914.
19. Stay Tuned
The radio show which led to I Love Lucy was called My Favorite Husband and it first began in 1948. Ball played Liz Cooper, who was the same kind of wacky wife character that Lucy Ricardo would become on television.
20. Thanks Mom!
As anyone who remembers watching I Love Lucy will know, the show often featured Ball’s character Lucy Ricardo getting herself in a series of hijinks and risky situations. When that happened, there was sometimes a woman in the studio audience who would call out “Uh-oh” at just the right time. This was none other than Ball’s mother, DeDe.
She would watch every taping of the show and would get very invested in what happened. Her reaction was so funny to sound engineer Glen Glenn (a moment of appreciation for that name), that he would use her reaction in scenes during which she hadn’t even been present.
21. Et Tu, Bluto?
It won’t be a surprise for you to know that Ball had millions of fans, but you might be surprised to know that one of her absolute diehard fans was none other than John Belushi. The comedian took the time to learn everything about Ball’s career and personal life.
22. Breaking New Ground
In 1950, Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz co-founded Desilu Productions. This made her the first woman in Hollywood to run her own production company, especially after she bought Arnaz out in 1960.
23. Lucy Who?
In 1961, Ball met her second husband, Gary Morton, thanks to a mutual acquaintance, and married him that same year. Morton was 13 years younger than her and, according to him, had gone through his life never watching I Love Lucy.
24. Double the Tribute!
Ball actually has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame! One was established for her work in television, and the other for her work in films.
25. This Didn’t Go the Way I Wanted…
One of the most famous comedy groups of their day was the Marx brothers, first in the vaudeville world and then transitioning to films. Ball was a huge fan, and invited Harpo Marx to be a guest star on I Love Lucy. Things didn’t work out so well, however, due to their differing comedy styles. Ball was bad at improvising, and needed everything to be memorized and well-rehearsed, while Marx was more improvisational and never did things the same way twice. This led to much friction between the two during filming, and the episode needed to finish filming after the studio audience left.
26. Accolades Galore!
It goes without saying that Ball was a much-lauded celebrity for her work in film and television. She won four Emmy Awards (out of 13 nominations) and was named by Newsweek as the “Top Female Entertainer of the 20th Century.” Additionally, she was awarded a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1989.
27. Is That Hypocritical?
When Ball’s son, also named Desi, was 17, he began a relationship with actress Patty Duke, who was six years older than him (the same age gap that Ball had with her first husband). Oddly, Ball was staunchly opposed to the relationship and made no secret of her disapproval. The same thing happened when her son had a relationship with actress/singer Liza Minnelli, with Ball remarking that despite her admiration for Minnelli, she felt Minnelli was too old for her son.
28. Close Call
Ball was nominated for six Golden Globe nominations throughout her career. One was for I Love Lucy, two of them were for the show Here’s Lucy, while the other three were for her work in films (Mame, The Facts of Life, and Yours, Mine and Ours). Ball later received the Cecil B. DeMille Award from the Golden Globes in 1979.
29. Don’t Say the P-Word!
In yet another example of us shaking our heads and going “It was another time…”, Ball caused a panic behind the scenes of I Love Lucy when she became pregnant. It was the first case in American television of the lead actor being visibly pregnant in their show. The pregnancy ended up being written into the show, though the word “pregnant” couldn’t be used onscreen. Instead, the term they used was that Lucy was “expecting.” We kind of want to show 1950s audiences a reel of HBO’s standard lineup just to see how many people lose their minds.
30. Never Too Old to Try Something Else
Ball’s final film appearance was the 1985 made-for-television film Stone Pillow. In a break away from her life of comedy, Ball portrayed a homeless woman named Flora who forms a connection with a younger woman. While it was “ranked as one of the top ten highest-rated telecasts that week,” Ball never did relaunch herself as a dramatic actress.
31. I Never Even Read Marx!
In the late 1940s and 1950s, the United States was seized with a paranoia known as the Red Scare. Terrified of Communist infiltration, the House Un-American Activities Committee was founded to weed out potential Communists in Hollywood. As you can imagine, this devolved into a witch hunt which ruined many people’s lives.
Surprisingly, Ball was revealed to have registered as a member of the Communist Party in the US (back when there was a Communist Party in the US). Ball had to give confidential testimony where she explained that she had only signed on as a favor to her fervently left-wing grandfather, and never shared his political views. Ball received no blacklisting or punishment from the HUAC, thanks in part to her huge fanbase (which included FBI director J. Edgar Hoover).
32. That’s My Girl!
Ball’s daughter, Lucie, would follow her parents into the world of entertainment. She has had an extensive career in musical theatre, as well as acting in a variety of shows such as Law & Order, Fantasy Island, and Murder, She Wrote. In addition, Lucie also earned a Golden Globe nomination for the 1980 film The Jazz Singer.
33. From a Friend
Ball tragically lost her life on April 26, 1989, which was the same day that her good friend, Carol Burnett, turned 56. What made it especially painful was that Ball had previously ordered flowers for Burnett, which were duly delivered that same day.
34. The Producer Behind the Scenes
You might be wondering just what Ball did with Desilu Productions during her lifetime. In keeping with the medium which made her famous, Ball went on to produce television shows. Some of them became big hits like The Untouchables and Mission Impossible (which ended up inspiring the film franchise which will be mentioned in all of Tom Cruise’s future obituaries).
35. We Will Be Forever Grateful
The real jewel in Ball’s producing crown, however, was a show which she produced despite many people warning her not to touch it. This show was a pioneering sci-fi series known as Star Trek! No doubt every Trekkie reading this felt the urge to give a Vulcan salute in gratitude to Ball’s memory.
36. I’ll Be the Goof!
According to Ball herself, she got her big break in comedy through her willingness to do things that other actresses at the time refused to do (We should reiterate that this referred to Ball allowing herself to look ridiculous). She’d get herself covered in mud, she’d fall into pools, and she’d throw childish temper tantrums on screen. This brought her into the world of physical comedy where she could prove that women were able to match men in any genre.
37. This Definitely Won’t Age Well
Despite the popularity of Ball’s comedy, it was hard for her to find a sponsor for I Love Lucy to get it off the ground. Ultimately salvation came from tobacco company Philip Morris, but this also meant that smoking cigarettes was required in each episode.
38. Light Up!
Not surprisingly to our modern society, Ball took issue with having to smoke Philip Morris cigarettes in every single episode of her show. However, you might be surprised by her motivation. Ball had no issue with smoking cigarettes, it was the brand of cigarettes which irked her. She preferred to smoke Chesterfield cigarettes. Ultimately, her solution to this conundrum (if you can call it that) was that she filled empty Philip Morris packs with Chesterfields, defying the sponsors on a personal rather than public level.
39. Post-Wedding Friendship
By 1960, Ball and Desi Arnaz were famous as a couple both on and off the screen. However, the portrayal of the relationship onscreen was an illusion. Just a day after filming the final episode of I Love Lucy (which was also the day after Arnaz’s birthday), Ball filed for divorce, declaring that her marriage had devolved into “a nightmare.” Despite this less-than-happy separation, Ball and Arnaz moved past any bad feelings and kept a close bond to each other until Arnaz’s death in 1986.
40. Early Tragedy
Ball was only 3 years old when her father, Henry Durrell Ball, died of typhoid fever in 1915. Due to her youth, Ball only remembered that day with fleeting detail, but one of those details was the fact that a bird flew into her house and got trapped inside.
41. Eat Your Heart Out, Hitchcock
Due to the incident of the bird on the same day as her father’s death, Ball developed a fear of birds (which is known as ornithophobia). Her fears were such that she allegedly forbade pictures of birds to be put up in her house and would not stay in any hotel rooms with bird pictures in them.
42. Drowning in Wine, Literally
In one of the more well-known episodes of I Love Lucy, Ball’s character tries out the old method of winemaking known as grape-stomping. However, the lightheartedness very nearly ended in serious tragedy. As your grandparents might remember, Ball ends up having a wrestling match with one of the other grape-stompers to great hilarity. However, the other actress whom they hired spoke no English, and she misunderstood what was required of her for the scene. As a result, Ball found herself being pushed face-first into the grapes, and nearly drowned before the filming was cut!
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