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TECHNICOLOR TESSIE:
A PORTRAIT OF LUCILLE BALL

By Tennille K. Langille

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3/12 x 5-1/2 Small Lucille Ball Fan PhotoLucille Ball on the arm of Eddie Cantor - 1933 Photo from Mid-Week PictorialWhen someone says the name “Lucille Ball”, most people automatically think of the zany, red-haired beauty that performed brilliant comedy on the 1950’s sitcom, I Love Lucy. What many people don’t realize, however, is that behind the comic talent was a strong, independent, and complex woman who came from humble beginnings, overcame challenging obstacles, and reined as Hollywood’s “Queen of the B Movies” before she became a household name. 

        Lucille Desiree Ball was born in Celeron, New York on August 6, 1911. Her father died when she was only three, which required her mother to work long hours to support the family. As a take-charge youngster, Lucy took it upon herself to take on odd jobs to help bring in some extra money for the family—the oddest of these jobs being a “seeing-eye guide” for a blind soap peddler. Lucy learned to be independent from a young age and did not to rely on others to meet her needs. This trait grew strong in her and carried through into her adulthood.

Lucy left for New York City’s John Murray Anderson Drama School when she was 15. Although her love for acting and performing was deep within her, she felt outshined by the other glamour girls enrolled in the school, especially the star pupil—a brunette beauty named Bette Davis. This caused Lucy to become shy and unconfident in her drama classes, and her instructors were continually frustrated with her. Eventually the school sent her home and encouraged her to look into another career field, because she didn’t have “what it took” to make it as an actress. Following her failure in drama school, she decided to try a career in modeling. She modeled under the name of Diane Belmont and was quite successful in this career field. In 1933 she 1950's Star Premium Lucille Ballbecame nationally recognized as the Chesterfield Cigarette Girl. But her love for acting never left her.

A few years later, following an almost paralyzing bout with rheumatoid arthritis, she was discovered by a talent scout for Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios. He offered to sign her on with Metro as a “Goldwyn Girl” and, not surprisingly, she leapt at the chance. She packed her bags and headed for Hollywood. She had a few walk-on parts before she was cast in her first role—a slave girl in Roman Scandals alongside Eddie Cantor. As a Goldwyn Girl, her platinum blonde hair and classic beauty turned heads and earned her several more title and supporting B movie roles.

Soon after, Lucy moved on to work with Columbia and RKO Studios. It was during her contract here that people began to take notice of her talents, in films such as Top Hat with Fred Astaire and Stage Door with Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers. But it wasn’t until Lucy appeared with the Marx Brothers in Room Service that her brilliant comedic talent began to unearth. The actresses of that time were the glamorous types and were not agreeable to taking a pie in the face or doing physical stunts. Lucy was not afraid to do either. Lucy herself once said, “I’m not funny, what I am is brave”. How right she was. 

In 1940, Lucy was cast in the RKO Studios picture, Too Many Girls. It was during this project that her life was changed forever. She was introduced to a handsome Cuban singer named Desi Arnaz, who had recently signed on with RKO and was cast in the picture as one of her co-stars. Although an unlikely match, the two were instantly attracted to each other. An intense relationship ensued and after only five months of dating, the two were married on November 30, 1940.

1952 People Today featuring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz on the coverIn the early 1940s, Desi had gone into the Army and Lucy had returned to Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios. MGM had recently implemented a new technology called Technicolor that enabled them to film their pictures in color rather than black and white. Lucy decided to dye her hair red for the new color pictures, which became her immortal trademark and earned her the nickname “Technicolor Tessie”. During her engagement with MGM, Lucy made several more pictures, including Du Barry Was a Lady with Red Skelton and Easy to Wed with Van Johnson. She also made appearances on Abbot & Costello and The Ziegfeld Follies.

In 1947, Lucy accepted a co-starring role on a radio comedy show called My Favorite Husband. Lucy played the part of Liz Cooper, a scatterbrained housewife who was continuously getting herself into trouble, much to the dismay of her unsuspecting husband George (played by Richard Denning). The show was enormously successful and eventually CBS decided to turn the storyline from a radio show into a television sitcom. Lucy’s hilarious portrayal of Liz automatically won her the title role for the sitcom, but she said that she would only sign on if they agreed to cast her real-life husband, Desi Arnaz, as her husband on the sitcom. The producers were hesitant, thinking that audiences wouldn’t believe a beautiful, young American girl being married to a Cuban bandleader. But Lucy wouldn’t budge on the deal. Fearing that the show wouldn’t be successful without her, the producers reluctantly agreed. Lucy and Desi both signed on and I Love Lucy premiered on television sets across the nation in 1951. The rest is history.
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Tennille K. Langille lives with her husband in Honolulu, Hawaii. She is a student at the Institute of Children’s Literature and is a recent graduate of Education Direct's freelance writing course.
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Resources
Information for this article was taken from the following sources:

Ball, Lucille. Love, Lucy. Berkley Publishing Group. 1997
•MSN Learning & Research Encyclopedia Article – Ball, Lucille http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761579653/Lucille_Ball.html
•A&E’s Biography: Lucille Ball
•Classic Movie Musicals Website
www.classicmoviemusicals.com
Hollywood.com
•The Internet Movie Database
www.imdb.com

Other Lucille Ball Pages:
A Tribute to Lucille Ball A salute to Lucy, who became the queen of television following a very active movie career. Who doesn't love Lucy?