When 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
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
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.
In 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
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.
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.
Information for this article was taken
from the following sources:
Lucille. Love, Lucy. Berkley Publishing Group. 1997
Learning & Research Encyclopedia Article – Ball, Lucille
Biography: Lucille Ball
Movie Musicals Website
Internet Movie Database
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?