Behind the laugh track and gags, there was something wonderful and innocent in the world of “I Love Lucy.” But not everything was cued for applause in the life of Lucille Ball.
Behind the set was the harsh reality that saw as much prejudice, heartache and strife as success. This isn’t scripted, this is Lucille Ball’s unedited reality.
1. TV’s golden era will never be the same
Gone is the generation of “Leave it to Beaver” and “The Lone Ranger.” But there is still one television show that is hard to shake from TV’s golden age, and that’s “I Love Lucy.” The spunky redhead with a heart of gold touched the heart of America and even gifted future generations with timeless laughs.
Her television presence influenced a generation of viewers and set high expectations for the entertainment industry that has since failed to compare. Though we know the show and its beloved characters, who was the real Lucille Ball? She wasn’t all gimmicks and cued laughs. However, through her highest highs and lowest lows, her story gave America what we all want — a happy ending.
2. She was born with a ‘pep in her step’
Born on Aug. 6, 1911, Lucille Ball was born in Jamestown, New York, to a hard-working electrician father and young mother. The oldest of two, Ball always saw herself as a tomboy rather than a girl who fancied ribbons and frills. A daddy’s girl, she loved how her father would rough-house with her, which nurtured her rowdy and boisterous behavior.
With all that energy, her mother often found herself at a loss. She would wrap a leash around Ball in order to keep her close while she was doing laundry. Though it was meant to keep her mother’s mind at peace, Ball would often beg to be released when strangers walked by. She knew how to work a crowd before the age of four.
3. Her first performance was on the butcher’s counter
Full of imagination and an abundance of energy, Lucille would often wander away from home leaving her parents in a nervous wreck. Luckily, her mother struck a deal with her local butcher to allow Ball to run up and down the street between her home and the butcher’s shop. It was on the butcher’s counter that she made her first entertainment debut.
In her autobiography, Ball recalled taking the butcher’s counter as her personal stage and performing for the patrons who came into the shop. She would dance and twirl — but her favorite performance was her rendition of a jumping frog. She would stick out her tongue and croak, and her fans would give her pennies or a sweet treat.
4. Her father died when she was young
One winter, when Ball was no more than five and her mother was pregnant with her younger brother. Her father caught a bad case of grippe. A storm rolled in. Her father was a telephone lineman and was sent out to fix damaged telephone wires from the storm. Her father did what he had to do — but this time, it would come with a price.
After returning from his shift, her father returned to bed with a high fever. Instead of getting better, his illness took for a turn for the worse and slowly evolved into typhoid. He died shortly after and Ball remembers the day clearly. She recalls a bird hitting their kitchen window knocking down a picture frame. Since then, Ball can’t stand to look at pictures of birds or stay in hotel rooms depicting birds.
5. Her step-father was tolerable, but not paternal
After some time, her mother remarried. At age 11, a Swedish-American man named Ed Peterson became Lucille’s stepfather. Though Ball looked forward to having a father figure, Ed wasn’t as thrilled with the familial connection and insisted that Ball called him Ed. “Ed was never mean or abusive,” she recalled in her autobiography. “But his presence in the house was shadowy.”
She grew into a young adult and found something that would fuel her true passion: acting. When she turned 15, Ball convinced her mother to enroll her in a New York City drama school. Her mother was extremely supportive and helped her apply. Even though she was destined to be a star, it didn’t come easy.
6. She was painfully shy
Though she was rambunctious and full of spirit, Ball found herself tongue-tied and nervous when on stage. Her natural light didn’t quite shine through, and her mentors began to notice. “I was a tongue-tied teenager spellbound by the school’s star pupil, Bette Davis,” recalled Ball. The school sent a letter to her mother with some hard-to-swallow news.
Returning from school, Ball’s mother received a letter from her teachers stating that Ball was just wasting her time. “Lucy’s wasting her time…and ours. She’s too shy and reticent to put her best foot forward.” Though the words stung, she wasn’t ready to give up on her dreams.
7. She changed her name
After receiving the hard criticism from her teachers, Ball decided to stay in New York and became a model. She changed her name to Diane Belmont, and in 1927, she was having her picture taken for fashion designer Hattie Carnegie. She was young, beautiful, and had a face that belonged in front of a camera.
Though all looked well on the outside, Ball began suffering from rheumatoid arthritis starting in her late teens. Despite her condition, she continued modeling. With newfound confidence, Ball felt like she was slowly conquering the world. A short time later, she ditched her natural chestnut brown hair and turned herself into a blonde bombshell.
8. She was trying to make it on Broadway
Along with modeling, Ball tried to juggle her acting career. She thought she could try her luck on Broadway as a chorus girl, but that too would end in complete and utter failure. She was ultimately fired from four different shows. Like the mentors of her teenage years, coaches and various other acting teachers repeatedly told Ball that she didn’t have enough talent to make it big.
Still, even with this second wave of criticism, Ball wasn’t deterred. She felt something deep in her gut motivating her not to give up. So instead, she kept pushing and try harder and harder until she forced her foot in the proverbial door.
9. She was on hiatus for two years
Deep in her gut, Ball knew she was destined for something great. She knew the cost, but still pushed forward. However, though her mind was tough, her body needed time to recover from the hustle. After trying her best efforts in modeling with department stores and perfume ads, her body finally said enough was enough.
Though she wasn’t feeling all too well, she was determined to get back on her feet. Two years go by and Ball returned to New York, but no longer as Diane Belmont. She re-branded once again, back to herself: Lucille Ball — the one and only. She had her first taste of success of life in the limelight, and she wasn’t going to quit.
10. Chesterfield Cigarettes opened the doors of opportunity
When she returned from a long hiatus, Ball went back to modeling. After posing for pictures, she soon had the opportunity to become a Cigarette Girl for Chesterfield Cigarette’s national advertising posters in 1933. Afterward, she was presented with an opportunity that would push her into stardom — she was offered her first role.
Though the role was small, it was the first one she landed. She was cast as a Goldwyn Girl in “Roman Scandals.” Finally! She had gotten the break she had been waiting for her whole life. She later landed a role as an extra in a Ritz Brother’s film “The Three Musketeers.” With stars in her eyes, she proved all the people that had doubted her wrong.
11. Lucille Ball would be known as the “Queen of B Movies”
Things started looking up and by 1937, she was acting alongside Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers in “Stage Door.” Between the 1930s and 1940s, Ball would play multiple parts in a total of 72 movies. Yes, you read right — 72 movies. However, most of her films weren’t big-name blockbusters, which led to her nickname as the “Queen of the B movies.”
But all of that was going to change when she played a role in the movie “Too Many Girls.” On-set, she met Cuban singer Desi Arnaz who played the bongos and made some sweet music that made Ball’s heart dance. She was instantly drawn to his charisma and confidence. Soon, Ball began to develop feelings for Desi.
12. She felt connected to Desi Arnaz
Ball was never one to fawn over men. In fact, Arnaz was the opposite of who she usually dated. She gravitated toward older men, but Arnaz was much younger. He was 23 and she was 28, and as they got close, they became inseparable. Over time, Ball’s personality began to change for Arnaz.
If Arnaz wanted something, Ball wouldn’t hesitate to get it for him. If they were sitting on a couch and he needed more room, she would scoot over to make him feel more comfortable. Their friends found it a bit odd because Ball had been known as an independent, headstrong person.
13. Arnaz was a lady-killer
With rose-colored glasses in place, it was clear that Ball had strong feelings for her co-star. It was a passionate relationship. They couldn’t keep their hands off each other, and Arnaz appreciated that Ball was a woman of her own: independent, smart, and funny. It was hard not to fall in love with her.
Arnaz’s family was from Santiago de Cuba, and after a revolution broke out in the 1930s, he found himself in Miami. While there, he found a career in music. When he first met Ball, he was sure he had found his match. However, their relationship did have its challenges.
14. They got married six months later
Ball and Arnaz had a unique bond — this was clear to many. But many of their friends thought they were an odd pairing. It came as a big shock to friends when they announced their marriage just six months after they began dating. They both craved a career in the entertainment industry, and many in their close-knit circles didn’t think their marriage would last.
In fact, many speculated the couple would last a year before it would all go up in flames. But contrary to their initial assumptions, their marriage would last for almost twenty years. In that time, they had some incredible highs and some dark lows.
15. She was acting, he was performing
Their marriage was not easy. Ball was at the peak of her career. Though she wasn’t yet swarmed by fans and paparazzi, her name did ring in Hollywood. While she was taking Hollywood by storm, Arnaz was traveling the country making a name for himself through his music.
It seemed that Arnaz was everywhere but home. He was often out playing with his band until two or three in the morning. Though he and Ball created a life together, Arnaz had the habit of drinking and being a little too flirtatious with other women. Ball felt lonely and out of touch with her husband.
16. She took a big risk
While Arnaz was out on the road, Ball busied herself in the world of radio. She landed a spot as a lead on the radio show “My Favorite Husband,” with co-star Richard Denning and together, they played a role that will later evolve in Ball’s famous persona: Lucy. Unlike the movies, Ball had to perform before a live audience, not just the mic.
She catered her performance to a live audience and relied on her facial expressions which would get the audience rolling with laughter. The boys at CBS caught wind of her performance and proposed to make a live portrayal of the show which would be about the shenanigans of a married couple. Ball agreed — under one condition…
17. She insisted Desi be her husband on the show, despite the producers’ concerns
She wanted Arnaz to play the role of her TV husband. The network was beside themselves. Who would want to watch an interracial couple? In the early ’50s, discrimination against the Latino-American community was tense. They didn’t think a Cuban singer with an accent was going to appeal to an audience. But Ball didn’t budge.
Her real goal was to bring Arnaz to Hollywood and have him settle there, abandoning his life on the road. She was tired of “meeting in the Sepulveda tunnel.” She hoped having her husband with her on the show would not only keep him close but also boost his career. To prove her husband would be an excellent fit, she went on an “I Love Lucy” Vaudeville act.
18. They were too good to pass up
The boys at CBS could not ignore the rave reviews for the “I Love Lucy” vaudeville. The network caved and agreed to Ball’s demands. After all, they couldn’t do the show without Lucille Ball. She was funny and clumsy; Arnaz was charming and good looking. They quickly became the most beloved couple in America.
Ball and the “I Love Lucy” crew had no idea what to expect after the first episode, but after seeing the live audience roll in laughter, it was clear they were onto something good. The best part? Ball was the only one who could deliver, which gave her leverage in the studio.
19. She realized the show had influence over the culture and leveraged it
The show was destined for success but probably would have been nothing without the redheaded star. She was mindful of what she portrayed on her show, cognizant of the fact that Hollywood influences culture. The show featured positive female friendships and the first pregnancy shown on TV. What made the show so funny and mesmerizing was Ball’s uncanny facial expression and how her body language catered to her character.
Other than her sense of humor, she was known for her facial expressions and body language — a universal language that translated globally to any family. However, it wasn’t all fun and games on the show, sometimes humor can go too far, including a real fight between an Italian grape stomper.
20. She got in a fight with an extra on “I Love Lucy”
We all get a little carried away from time to time, but what happens when you’re being strangled on live television? In “Lucy’s Italian Movie,” Ball was scripted to stomp grapes with an extra named Teresa Tirelli. English was not Tirelli’s strong suit and needed a translator to relay the scene, but something got lost in translation.
They began to wrestle and to the audience, it was comedy gold, but for the actors? it turned into a real grape wrestling match. It got so bad that Ball nearly drowned in a vat of grape juice. Ball easily recovered, but not without a fist full of grapes in Tirelli’s face. Satisfied and with the show becoming a success, Ball and Arnaz decide to do something drastic.
21. They created their own network
“I Love Lucy” was such a success, that Desi Arnaz decided to establish his own production studio: Desilu. With Ball as vice president and him taking on a whole new side of the Hollywood industry, the Arnazs were blessed with success after success. They even bought the rights to “I Love Lucy” from CBS studios and made millions.
Shortly after, the couple welcomed their son Desi Jr. on the “I Love Lucy” show. Coincidentally, the episode of his “TV birth” coincided with his real birth. Ball gave birth the same night the episode was aired! Everything was as it should be. They were a real American family that everyone could relate to — the type of American family that many aspired to be.
22. Her iconic red hair isn’t red
As mentioned before, Ball was not a natural redhead, she was a brunette through and through and dyed it for her television career. Even the color dye wasn’t considered red but an “apricot gold” by her hairdresser. According to her hairdresser on emmytvlegends.org, she had trouble perfecting the color.
When doing a show in Vegas, Ball supposedly met a wealthy sheik who had heard of her little problem. So what did the sheik do? Gifted her a lifetime supply of henna, the dye used to make that shade of red we know and love. She hid the formula under lock and key, but that was the least of her problems.
23. She thought having kids would settle Arnaz’s bachelor lifestyle
It was no secret that Arnaz was a charmer with the ladies. Often enough, Ball and her husband would argue about his flirtatious demeanor with other women and his drinking habits to boot. She thought that having children would curb his bachelor-like antics. And it worked…for a while at least.
Before the show was aired in 1951, Ball had given birth to their first child: their daughter Lucy Arnaz. Ball believed that having children would open her husband’s eyes to the bigger picture. He did…for a while. But old habits die hard. Though he loved his children and his wife, soon, things began to unravel.
24. It all seemed so perfect…on TV
One thing Lucille Ball can honestly say is that both she and Arnaz were happy on set. They had to be. They had to portray a loving American family whose problems could be fixed within half an hour. It was in those moments that Ball was truly happiest, and where her anger against Arnaz diminished.
But even the illusion of marital bliss didn’t last long. As soon as the director called “cut,” they were at each others’ throats. Between his alleged alcohol consumption, infidelity, and the stress of managing Desilu, the relationship was unraveling. Soon, their perfect illusion of marriage would shatter.
25. “I Love Lucy” came to a bitter end
All good things come to an end, and “I Love Lucy” didn’t end as nicely as it started. Ball was the kind of person who believed that an audience should always get the satisfaction of seeing and believing in a happy ending, no matter how glum or bitter reality may be. The show aired its final episode in 1957.
After the show ended, the couple tried running a spin-off called “The Lucy-Desi Show.” Unfortunately, that too did not last, nor did it even come close to the level of success of “I Love Lucy.” It ended when the couple announced their divorce in 1960. The public was absolutely crushed when America’s most beloved couple separated.
26. Lucille had a dark period
The first few months after their divorce was the darkest period in Ball’s life. She had been married to Arnaz for almost twenty years, and she never thought she would become a divorcee. What killed her the most was believing she not only disappointed herself but also disappointed the American people. She couldn’t give them a happily ever after in real life.
As time progressed, she started questioning herself, her identity, and what was to become of her family and her career. There was one thing Ball could say with confidence, however: No matter how angry she was toward her ex-husband, she never blamed him. She would later know his internal battle.
27. The FBI were not fans of Lucille Ball
Before their divorce in 1960 Ball was under serious heat with the US government. How? Well, good old Lucy went and signed up with the communist party, and was summoned before Congress at “the height of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch hunt.” If you remember, the 1950s wasn’t a great time to be anything other than democratic (the system, not the party).
However, when appearing before court Ball assured Congress that she signed up solely to appeal to her socialist grandfather, but no one was convinced. They released Ball “believing” her story, but really, they had no substantial evidence suggesting she was actively a part of the Communist Party. That didn’t stop the House Un-American Activities Committee.
28. They continued to keep tabs on her, even after her death
Once she was released, the FBI continued to keep tabs on her. Secret files with “confidential” stamps were sent to J. Edgar Hoover who made it his personal duty to follow the Arnaz family. The FBI was even convinced they were catering events as a front to hosting Communist meetings.
According to the Washington Post, “In February 1946, Arnaz appeared in a show sponsored by the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions, a group the FBI said was a communist front.” If that wasn’t enough, a Hollywood writer claims to have attended a Communist Party meeting at the couple’s house. Conspiracy, paranoia, or truth? You decide.
29. We can thank Lucy for Star Trek
Though the era of “I Love Lucy” was over, Desilu was taking Hollywood by storm. They produced a number of successful TV shows such as “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Mission: Impossible,” and “Star Trek.” Yas… “Star Trek.” For years, Ball had acted as not only wife, mother, and entertainer, but also a partner in Desilu.
She bought out the Desilu studio and was running the show, and with it, space exploration. CBS initially turned down the first “Star Trek” pilot, saying the budget needed to produce it was too exorbitant. But Ball gave the crew the financial backing they needed, the pilot was produced. Now, Star Trek is one of the biggest media franchises in history. May you live long and prosper Lucille Ball!
30. She found love again
Though Ball and Arnaz had a nasty divorce, they still managed to remain friends. It turns out they were better friends than they were husband and wife. Instead of hiding in the dark recesses of her failed marriage, Ball would soon find love again. In 1961, a year after their divorce, Ball found love and trust in the laughter of comedian Gary Morton.
In an interview with Barbara Walters, Ball confided how patient and loving Morton was toward her. She discovered a friendship she thought she’d never rekindled with another man. In return, Morton found Ball tender, funny, and energetic. They were together for over 25 years.
31. She was the first female to own her own studio
If you believe funny women aren’t taken seriously, then you would be sorely mistaken. Ball was one of those women that were not only funny and talented, she was also quite business savvy. Rumor has it she was one tough cookie to work for. She was a perfectionist and appreciated the small details in her work.
Her entrepreneurial experience pushed her to become the first woman to run a major television production studio (you can start clapping now). After being the head honcho of her own production company, she later sold Desilu to Western-Gulf in 1967 for $17 million dollars. Just when you thought she was finished with television, she’s hustling to the next big thing.
32. She didn’t think she’d keep acting after “I Love Lucy”
After “The Lucy-Desi” show, Ball thought she’d find the light at the end of the tunnel and find comfort in retirement. But it was easier said than done. She instead continued acting and thought it would be a good idea to involve her children in the Hollywood spotlight. Soon, Ball would appear once more on television in “Here’s Lucy” with her children in tow.
Ball firmly believed in nepotism: It’s not so much in what you do, but who you know. Ball had friends in high places. As her children came of age, they were able to spread their wings and take off in their own careers. Ball had done her job. Now it was really time to settle.
33. She was a true workaholic
At first, Ball welcomed retirement — after all, she didn’t see herself working passed the “I Love Lucy” show and figured she would have been out of Hollywood long before “Here’s Lucy.” But she just couldn’t quit. It’s hard not sticking to the same routine, especially if you’re as passionate about what you do as Lucille Ball was.
However, she understood when it was time for the curtain to fall. When it’s time to hang your hat and coat, it’s best to follow your intuition. Though she was still America’s most treasured television icon, she understood that Lucy’s time had come and gone. She stepped away for the next generation. Her last public appearance was at the Academy Awards, pictured above, in 1989.
34. She will always be a legend
Eventually, Ball found comfort in the solidarity of retirement. She had her husband George Morton at her side to comfort her when she was feeling blue, and she had the love of her children and her grandchildren. What more could she ask for? She had her memories and had paved the path for future comedians to come.
Television would never be the same and no one could ever recreate what Ball had created: It’s simply impossible. She paved the way, for female comedians in particular, but also for women in business and production. She passed away in 1989. She left behind more than a legacy of comedy — she gave us joy and laughter that continues to this day.
35. What made Lucille Ball so memorable?
Aside from her killer sense of humor, Lucille Ball was a woman who could hold her own. From flunking drama school to being one of the funniest female icons in history. However, what about the Lucille Ball behind the camera? After all, she was “Lucy” for six years, what went on behind the scenes?
Well, it wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies, in fact, there are some things about the 50’s sitcom that would surprise us. For instance, did you know that Ball’s least favorite episode was “Lucy Does a TV Commercial?” Do you know? The one where she fudged up the Vitameatavegamen commercial. Yeah, you know that one.
36. Ball couldn’t appreciate the Vitameatavegamin episode
Despite how hilarious it was to watch Lucy slowly become intoxicated with Vitameatavegamin, the actress was rightfully nervous to perform the scene. Why? Because there’s only so many times you can say Vitameatavegamin without worrying about a tongue twister. Imagine (We dare you to try saying the word three times and fast)!
Every slur was written in the script, from “blittle lottle” to “megavitamin.” She even had cue cards set up in case she forgot her lines. However, being a perfectionist, Ball took her role to heart and performed with flying colors, and of course, the audience was in love with the bit.
37. Producers wanted to hide Lucy’s pregnancy, by not saying “pregnant”
Ladies, we can all agree that each and every one of our bodies is different, especially when it comes to pregnancies. However, for Lucy, being pregnant was a problem. We all know coming into the show that Ball was pregnant with her second child, and just in time for the second season!
Unfortunately, it was the 50’s and having a pregnant woman was completely scandalous at the time. it’s an obvious biological declaration that they did the thing that mommies and daddies do when they really love each other. So, to compensate for what they believed would be a national scandal, producers decided to hide her pregnancy by avoiding the word and replacing it with “expecting.”
38. Arnaz refused to act out a fraudulent scene
Desi Arnaz was the kind of guy who completely believed in the American dream. Forced to flee to Miami in 1933 due to the Cuban Revolution, Desi and his family didn’t have a dime to their name. Arnaz would find odd jobs like cleaning out canary cages to make ends meet until he was able to become a full-time musician.
So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Arnaz would reject a scene in the episode “Lucy Tells the Truth” where his character fudges some numbers on his taxes. In the end, Arnaz didn’t want the audience to believe that Ricky was a distrustful person, someone who would take advantage of his adopted country.
39. It was the first TV show to use the three-camera format
It was common for television shows to use a single-format camera, it was also common to use laugh-tracks, but not “I Love Lucy.” Instead, the TV show creator Jess Oppenheimer wanted a live studio audience and add three cameras. It was considered efficient, that way the same scene didn’t have to be re-done and tire-out the audience.
With three cameras working, scenes could be performed with three different shots. If any editing needed to be done, it could easily be pulled from one of the three cameras before the episode’s release. Did you also know that none of the actors ad-libbed, too? It’s all a part of the show!
This article was originally published on History101: Lucille Ball influenced more than you think
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