If you’re anything like us, the name Lucille Ball makes you think of a kooky, clumsy redhead that took Hollywood by storm thanks to her comedic genius on I Love Lucy. But behind all the cue cards and laugh tracks lies the harsh reality of the actress’ real, unscripted life. Read on to find out more.
Born in Jamestown, New York on August 6, 1911, actress Lucille Ball was a bundle of energy as a child. In fact, Ball’s unstoppable energy caused her mother to put a leash around her while doing laundry. This was meant to keep a close eye on the boisterous child, who frequently wandered away from home.
While her wandering left her parents in a state of panic, it proved to have a positive outcome for Ball herself, as it was from wandering to the local butcher shop that she was able to give her first performance ever. The counter of the local butcher shop acted as Ball’s first ever stage – it was there that she danced and twirled for both visitors and passersby. Though she discovered her knack for performing at a young age, her life growing up wasn’t easy.
When Ball was just four years old, her father unexpectedly fell ill and passed away from typhoid. This proved to be a very trying time for her and her mother, who was pregnant with the actress’ younger brother at the time. In fact, the pain from her father’s death would have a lasting effect on the young Ball, who would remember the day for the remainder of her life.
Ball allegedly recalled a bird hitting the window in the kitchen and knocking down a picture frame shortly after receiving the grim news, which caused her to develop a phobia of birds that spanned her whole lifetime. Unfortunately, her family’s struggle didn’t end there.
Following her father’s death, Ball’s mother remarried a Swedish-American man. The actress was 11 years old when he became her stepfather and while she said he “was never mean or abusive,” she claimed “his presence in the house was shadowy.” But the fact that her new stepfather wasn’t paternal wasn’t Ball’s greatest challenge at this time.
Ball’s mother and stepfather struggled with finances so much so that they didn’t have enough money to buy her pencils for school. Their poverty had a lasting impact on the future star and she began collecting pencils from different studios she worked in. As an adult, Ball was even reported to have had a closet full of unopened packages of pencils. Would performing provide an outlet for the hardships in Ball’s life?
Though Ball was destined to become a star, it didn’t necessarily come easily. At the age of 15, she convinced her mom to enroll her in a New York City drama school but despite being rambunctious and full of energy as a kid, she claimed to be nervous and tongue-tied on stage.
According to reports, her drama school teachers didn’t believe she was fit for the program and even sent a letter to Ball’s mom, saying, “Lucy’s wasting her time…and ours. She’s too shy and reticent to put her best foot forward.” After receiving such harsh criticism from her teachers, she had another plan for herself.
After drama school didn’t go as planned for the actress, Ball decided to stay in New York City but instead try her hand at modeling and singing on Broadway. During this time, the future star actually changed her name to Diane Belmont, saying, “I always loved the name Diane and I was driving past the Belmont race track, and the names seemed to fit together.” But while this was a happy change in her life, we can’t say the same about everything.
Ball unfortunately began to suffer from rheumatoid arthritis and was fired from four Broadway shows. Similar to her drama school mentors, she was told she didn’t have what it takes to make it big. She clearly wasn’t discouraged by the skepticism of others and alongside one very important person, Ball went on to become the influential star we all recognize her as today. But how did it happen?
That very important person was Cuban actor, Desi Arnaz. He and Ball met on set of George Abbott’s 1940 film, Too Many Girls, which they both starred in. Desi and Lucille, now back to her real name, immediately hit it off and ended up tying the knot on November 30, 1940 after only six months of knowing each other.
While they were confident about their unique bond, their friends were doubtful that their marriage would last given they both aspired to build a career in entertainment. Despite their friends’ skepticism, however, the couple managed to stay together for nearly twenty years. Though they had some incredible highs in that time, their marriage wasn’t without its obstacles.
At the time Ball and Arnaz got married in 1940, it was socially unacceptable for a woman to marry a younger man. This social norm posed a problem for the newlyweds, as Ball was nearly six years Arnaz’s senior: she was 28 years old while he was only 23.
To avoid the controversy created by a marriage between an older woman and younger man, the two lovebirds lied about their ages by both listing their birthdays in 1914. Well, we suppose that’s one way to rectify the situation! And though they did cunningly solve this issue, it wasn’t the only challenge the two encountered in their marriage.
Together, Lucille Ball and her husband, Desi Arnaz became the first interracial couple on TV. As a matter of fact, before I Love Lucy began production, the actress demanded that Arnaz be her on-screen husband. Producers at CBS were opposed to this for a few reasons. Firstly, they didn’t believe his Cuban accent would translate well on screen.
Secondly, they were doubtful the American public would “accept Desi as the husband of a red-blooded American girl.” Ball’s response? That CBS could either cast both of them or neither of them. It was this tenacity that she displayed off-screen (and on-screen!) that we can attribute Lucy’s success to.
Believe it or not, Ball didn’t get her big on-screen break until she was 40 years old. Starring in I Love Lucy at this age was a big deal back in 1951 when the show began, as it was much harder for older women to find work in Hollywood than it was for younger women.
Ball many credit her success to her unique humor, saying ‘beautiful girls’ wouldn’t want to do the same things she did to make people laugh. Taking a different – more humorous – approach to her performances wasn’t the only thing she did differently to stand out and gain both notoriety and praise for her role as Lucy.
Lucy’s iconic, red(ish) up-do wasn’t easy to maintain. A natural brunette, Ball dyed her hair especially for her television career. Finding the perfect color proved to be a tough feat and her hairdresser admittedly struggled big-time with creating the right “apricot gold” mix. So how, then, did she manage to do it?
According to her hairstylist at the time, Irma Kusely, Ball met a wealthy sheikh while performing in Vegas, who caught wind of her color problem. In response, he gifted her a lifetime supply of the ‘apricot gold’ color and Kusely kept the formula secured under lock and key. Talk about getting yourself out of a pickle! Although Ball ended up keeping her trademarked hair color for over four decades, hunting down the perfect hair dye wouldn’t be the only time she showed extreme dedication to her role.
Ball showed extreme commitment to I Love Lucy when she agreed to see fewer zeros on her paycheck for the sake of improving its quality. After the show’s pilot was produced as a Kinescope, resulting in very low-quality imagery, Ball insisted that the remainder of the series be produced using more expensive film.
This was something a few producers in Hollywood had begun to do, and to Ball’s dismay, CBS refused to budge. As a result, Ball agreed to take a $1,000 a week pay cut to make it happen, but also demanded that she and her husband retained all rights to the show in return. With such negotiating prowess, Ball was definitely a force to be reckoned with. But this wasn’t the only time the seemingly-goofy Ball demonstrated her business acumen.
Whoever said funny women can’t be taken seriously? Our favorite silly, clumsy redhead was actually the first woman in history to own a television production studio. *A round of applause for Lucille Ball, please* Together with Arnaz, Ball founded Desilu Productions in 1950. (Fun fact: if you look closely at the production name, you’ll see if combines the couples’ first names).
Following the couples’ divorce in 1960, Bell managed to finagle full ownership of Desilu Productions through buying out all of Arnaz’s shares for a whopping $2.5 million. And while this was regarded as one of her greatest accomplishments, not everything was smooth sailing around the time of her divorce.
In 1953, a few years prior to her divorce from Arnaz, Ball was being closely watched by the FBI. According to the Los Angeles Times, this happened because she had registered under the Communist Party at the same time the government started to crack down on their said ‘witch hunt.’ This lead to her family’s investigation by the House of Un-American Activities Committee.
When Ball was called to testify in court, she explained to the committee that her and her family’s reason for registering under the Communist Party was only to appease her dying, socialist grandfather. Thankfully, the court believed that Ball and her family didn’t have actual ties to the party and they were rid of all suspicion. Ball’s actions to pacify her grandfather clearly show dedication to her family. But she was devoted to more than just her family.
Ball was also extremely committed to her role as Lucy – so much so that she almost withstood a nose break while filming the famous chocolate conveyor belt scene in the “Job Switching” episode. In the scene, Lucy sits next to a stone-faced woman who was not an actress, but an actual candy chocolate-dipper at See’s Candy. The memorable scene concludes with the woman slapping Lucy in the face.
Ball was apparently worried during filming – not because of the ominous slap – but because the candy-dipper refused to slap her during rehearsals. This all changed in the actual filming of the scene, as the woman ended up giving Ball a big slap across the face. Though she was admittedly in a lot of pain (and even thought she broke her nose!), Ball refused to yell “cut” and continued on with the scene until it ended. If you think that’s harsh, wait ‘till you hear the next one.
In another well-known episode titled “Lucy’s Italian Movie,” Ball again faced something she wasn’t expecting. Let’s just say the episode’s grape-stomping scene didn’t go as planned, as Ball was nearly drowned during its filming on set. In the scene, Lucy is chosen to stomp grapes in the vat alongside another feisty Italian woman, Teresa.
When Lucy gets tired and tries to leave, Teresa pulls her back into the vat and the two get into a full on brawl. Apparently, the actress who played Teresa was an actual Italian grape-stomper who didn’t speak any English. Somehow directions got lost in translation, and she ended up holding down Ball’s head underneath the grape juice. According to Ball herself, she thought it would be her “last moment on earth.” But that’s not all Ball had to deal with while filming.
Remember that funny episode, “Lucy Does a TV Commercial,” where Lucy tries to sell a product called Vitameatavegamin and becomes increasingly more intoxicated as the commercial goes on? While it was hilarious for viewers to watch, it was Ball’s least favorite episode to film.
Why? Because she was justifiably nervous that she’d mess up the tongue-twister. We don’t blame her! You try saying that word three times in a row… it’s a tough one! To help calm her nerves, Ball had cue cards set up near the cameras just in case she forgot her lines. But Ball was more than capable, and had to take extreme measures to prove it to the rest of the world.
Leave it to Lucille Ball to create another first for women. This goofy goober became the first actual pregnant actress to also play a pregnant woman in her TV role. This was all thanks to the fact that her pregnancy with her second child, Desi Arnaz Jr., perfectly coincided with Lucy Ricardo’s pregnancy on the show. In fact, Ball gave birth to Desi Jr. just 12 hours before Lucy Ricardo gave birth to her baby on television.
But because it was the ‘50s and televising a pregnant woman was considered scandalous at the time, producers of the series tried to hide Ball’s pregnancy. They avoided the word “pregnancy” altogether by substituting it with the word with “expecting.” Still, viewers caught on to the fact that Ball was going to have a baby and her pregnancy made history in the most unexpected way.
With I Love Lucy fans catching on that Ball was also pregnant in real life, it’s no wonder the entire pregnancy became a huge sensation both on and off screen. But no one could anticipate quite how big of a following – and impact – the pregnancy would really have. In the episode titled “Lucy Goes to the Hospital,” the mama-to-be gives birth to her son, Little Ricky.
The episode was televised the day before the presidential inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower, and while Lucy brought in 44 million viewers, Eisenhower only brought in 29 million. This means a whopping total of 71.9% of homes in the US tuned in to watch Lucy! *Gasp*. Her pregnancy also leads us to our next point.
Being a mama seems hard enough, but being a mama who is as committed to work as Lucille Ball was committed to her role on I Love Lucy seems even harder. A working mother of two, Ball had daughter Lucie Desiree Arnaz at the age of 40 (when she started working on the popular series) and son Desi Arnaz Jr. at the age of 42.
Hmm, we wonder who her kids were named after. Just kidding! Jokes aside, Ball was definitely considered a rarity during the 1950s: a working mother with an awfully successful television career. While seemingly a committed mother to her two little ones, Ball’s own mom also did something special for her.
Watch one episode of I Love Lucy and we can guarantee you’ll pick up on a background track full of “Uh-oh”s and “Oh no”s. They’re pretty hard to miss considering they’re exclaimed after each time Lucy finds herself in a pickle…which is a lot.
But who was actually the voice was behind all those? None other than Ball’s very own mother, DeDe. Ever the proud mother, she apparently attended every single taping of her daughter’s series. That’s a lot of sound effects to make after each time your daughter does something funny. And boy, was Ball record-breakingly funny – so much so that she accomplished something never done on TV before.
Given the fact that Lucille Ball was considered by many to be the “Queen of Comedy” of her time, its not hard to believe that she was responsible for holding the record for one of the longest documented audience laughs in history. The record-breaking laugh can be heard on the episode titled “Lucy Does the Tango” and spans a total of 64 cheerful seconds!
Now if you’re anything like us, Lucy’s uncanny ability to make you laugh made you feel like you were one of her friends. But apparently, Ball and one of her co-stars, besides husband Desi Arnaz, shared an even closer bond in real life.
In the hit sitcom, I Love Lucy, actress Vivian Vance plays Ethel Mae Mertz, Lucy’s middle-aged landlady. But despite being landlady and tenant, the two women strike up a unique friendship and become the best of friends, supporting one another through various hardships and gossiping… a lot.
The characters’ close friendship transcended the boundaries of the screen, as Vance was also Ball’s best friend off camera. Ball said the two never wanted to go home after a day of filming and claimed she would never star in another series without Vance. But what really happened behind the scenes of Ball’s other productions?
Following the end of I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball welcomed the idea of retirement. Or so she thought she did. The actress claimed to have accepted that it was time for the curtain to fall and for her to hang up her Hollywood hat. But when it came time to step out of the spotlight, Ball couldn’t leave behind her passion for acting.
In true workaholic fashion, Ball went on to appear in television once again. She starred in Here’s Lucy between 1968 and 1974 and even encouraged her own kids to get into showbiz. Not only did her time in television influence her children to give the same profession a shot, but it also led to great success for the actress herself.
As if being a consistent pioneer for women in television, a working mother, and a record-setter wasn’t enough, Lucille Ball is also a four-time Emmy Award winner. Her wins include: Best Comedienne in 1953, Best Actress in 1956, and Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actress in a Leading Roll in a Comedy Series in both 1967 and 1968.
But that’s not all. Ball also received 13 other nominations over the years for accolades such as Golden Globes. While we could say her awards represent our appreciation for all the laughs, that’s not the only thing the actress deserves recognition for.
It’s pretty difficult to imagine Hollywood without the Star Trek franchise, but that would’ve been a reality if it weren’t for Lucille Ball. That’s right – we can practically thank our favorite chocolate-scarfing, grape-stomping, Vitameatavegamin-selling lady for Star Trek‘s entire existence.
After CBS initially passed on the production of the series by claiming the budget that was needed to produce the beloved sci-fi series was too hefty, Ball overruled the decision from the board of directors. She ensured that the pilot was produced by providing the financial support it needed through her own Desilu Production Company. Now can we please raise a toast to this incredible woman!
Sources: She Knows, Scribol, Ranker