Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Famous New Yorkers: Lucille Ball

Location:   Jamestown, New York
Year:   1911-1989

Lucille Ball is one of the most beloved comediennes in the history of American media. Born in Jamestown, New York, in 1911, during her childhood Ball's maternal grandfather often took her to vaudeville shows, and to the nearby town of Chautauqua for the entertainments available there. She was captivated by stage performances from early on in her life. Her grandfather, Fred Hunt, was a Progressive and a Socialist, and imbued Lucy with concern for the less fortunate. 

In 1915, Ball's father died suddenly. Although she claimed to have few conscious memories of the day, she did always recall that a bird accidentally flew into the family home and that the terrified creature could not find its way out. This left her with a lifelong ornithophobia. 

When her mother remarried in 1919, young Lucy became a caretaker for her stepbrothers and stepsisters under the disapproving eye of her stepfather's parents who were extraordinarily puritanical and treated her in a stereotypical "Cinderella" fashion. This only increased Lucy's dislike for injustice. 

When Lucy rebelled at age 14 and began dating a local boy who had had trouble with the police, her parents sent her to New York City to attend acting school.  Bette Davis was one of her classmates. She struggled with bit parts for several years (including being the "Chesterfield Cigarette Girl" in ads of the time), until she moved to Hollywood in 1933 to concentrate on film work. 

She had small roles in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers classics, "Top Hat" (1935)  and "Stage Door" (1937), and the Marx Brothers'  "Room Service" (1938). As the 1940s dawned she inherited the title "Queen of the Bs" from Fay Wray, appearing in dozens of forgotten minor motion pictures.  For one of these roles she had to dye her hair flaming red, and this became her trademark.   

In 1940, she met and married Desi Arnaz, the Cuban-born bandleader. Classified 4-F, Arnaz spent the war years with Lucy acting in USO shows. Lucy, who was six years older than her husband and much more mature and experienced in the ways of Hollywood,  had problems with Desi's drinking and near-compulsive womanizing. She filed for divorce in 1944, but they reconciled. 

I Love Lucy was born in 1948 as the radio show My Favorite Husband, in which Lucy and Desi played the Cugats. Although CBS executives balked at the idea of an American being married to a Cuban, the show's success quickly silenced their absurd objections, and My Favorite Husband was developed for television as I Love Lucy. 

Since most television programming was produced in New York City in the early 1950s, Lucy and Desi were forced to move from Los Angeles to New York. As part of the deal to lure them back to the east coast, CBS sold the rights to I Love Lucy to the Arnazs' production company, Desilu, which is still making millions of dollars per year in syndication fees for the show. Untrammelled by studio control, Desilu pioneered the  use of adjacent sets, the live studio audience, the three-camera shoot, reruns, and the use of film rather than kinescopes for show preservation, all innovations which are standard in TV production to this day.  It was also the first TV show to feature a pregnant character (Lucy herself), even though the censors of the time insisted that the word, "expecting" be used rather than "pregnant."  

I Love Lucy dominated television in the 1950s. Lucy herself became the first female head of a television studio. Such was her power and national popularity that she was largely immune to the "Red Scare" of the 1950s. Even the normally rabid House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC)  chose not to attack Lucy, though  when Lucy had registered to vote in 1936, she registered as a Communist, a choice she made in honor of her Socialist grandfather.   Desi Arnaz later joked, "The only thing red about Lucy is her hair, and even that is not legitimate."

In 1960, Lucy and Desi divorced amicably. In 1962, Lucy remarried, to Gary Morton, a Borscht Belt comedian. They remained married until her death. 

Lucy continued to produce TV shows in which she starred  (The Lucy Show), and other popular and memorable programs (Star Trek, Mission Impossible), and to appear on TV regularly. 

She died of an aortic aneurysm in 1989 at age 77, and is buried in the family plot in Jamestown, New York.

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