Why you should care
Because life is like a conveyor belt of chocolates: You never know what you are going to get.
Once upon a time, long before reality television or even the Mickey Mouse Club, it could take decades for a young performer’s star to rise. In the age of the instant celebrity, consider this: America’s favorite redheaded TV wife and comedic talent was once neither a redhead nor a wife nor a recognized talent nor on television. Discuss.
Lucille Ball’s career struggles are hard to fathom now, almost 25 years after her death and at a time when I Love Lucy is a revered national treasure with the latest stage version of the show now out on another national tour. But just a decade before the landmark TV show’s first episode aired in 1951, Ball’s life was a lot like the battle Lucy and Ethel would later wage with a candy conveyor belt — a relentless stream of jobs and roles that was quickly turning into a chaotic mess.
Raised in upstate New York, Ball dropped out of high school at 15 to enroll in drama school in New York, studying alongside the likes of Bette Davis. But the acting lessons just didn’t take. “All I learned in drama school was how to be frightened,” she later recalled.
Stage work as a chorus girl on Broadway came next for the long-legged blonde, then a stint as the poster girl for Chesterfield cigarettes. And then she landed a spot, along with other aspiring stage beauties like Betty Grable, as one of the original Goldwyn Girls, appearing in her first film as an uncredited slave girl in Roman Candles (1933).
Ball would do 45 more films in the 1930s, almost all of them B movies that ran before the feature presentation. She was ubiquitous — she was even an Army pinup girl — but never a leading lady. Instead she played smart-mouthed career girls, dancers, a flower clerk or a tough mistress, and occasionally had walk-on parts in larger films with performers like Fred Astaire.
So, by 1940, when she landed her first leading role in Too Many Girls — landing her co-star Desi Arnaz in the process — the future First Lady of Television was known as the Queen of the B movie, a distinction akin to being known as a reality television star today.
How did Lucille go from a struggling actress making $50 a week to a star named Lucy earning over $3,500 an episode and a female studio head worth over $30 million? She had wonderful comedic instincts and unconventional beauty, but what would set her apart was precisely what she had not been taught in drama school: courage.
Ball liked to say that sometimes being funny is really just about being brave, and her bravery went far beyond pratfalls and a willingness to take a pie to the face. From risky career moves such as dying her hair red to personal choices like marrying a Cuban bandleader who was six years her junior, she routinely deviated from the expected path of an aspiring actress.
And Ball’s temerity extended to how she did business. When CBS balked at letting Desi play her husband and yielding creative control over I Love Lucy to the couple, Ball took the show on the road — literally, as a traveling vaudeville — until its popularity made it impossible for the network to refuse. And, following several miscarriages, when Ball became pregnant with Desi Jr. at age 41, she boldly wrote the pregnancy into the script rather than put the new hit show on hold. In fact, she scheduled her cesarean for the same date that Lucy gave birth on the show, an unprecedented move that only endeared her more to her growing legion of fans.
TV viewers loved Lucy because she was rambunctious and she broke the rules — and that audacity made her an icon. The show itself grew out of a daring decision by Ball and Arnaz at a tumultuous point in their marriage. As Ball once remarked when asked how the show was born, “We decided that instead of divorce lawyers profiting from our mistakes, we’d profit from them.”