Records show that Lucille Ball was born on Aug. 6, 1911, and died on April 26, 1989, at age 77. But her fans know otherwise. The “Lucy” of I Love Lucy, the classic sitcom that ran from 1951 to 1957 and all but invented one of TV’s most durable forms, has never left us. There she is, daily on the Hallmark Channel; there she is again, streaming on Amazon, Hulu, and CBS.com, the Internet offshoot of her original network; and there she is some more, available in “ultimate” packages of crystalline high-definition Blu-rays. She’s so everywhere that Gillian Anderson, as the goddess “Media,” appeared as Lucy in the first of her many guises on Starz’s fantasy series American Gods. Who Was Lucille Ball? asks one of the newest entries in the popular series of kid’s books. If your kids ask, give them several reasons why she’ll never be forgotten.
She Was Funny…
Mention “Vitameatavegamin” to someone you know and chances are they’ll get the reference to one of the show’s more famous episodes, “Lucy Does a TV Commercial” (1952). “Candy Factory,” from the same year’s “Job Switching” episode, is another of Lucy’s greatest hits, all carefully scripted, never ad-libbed. She was meticulous about her comedy.
…But She Was More Than Funny
Lucy headlined I Love Lucy, The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour (1957-1960), The Lucy Show (1962-1968), Here’s Lucy (1968-1974), and Life with Lucy (1986). Lucille Ball, however, had a more dramatic pedigree at the movies, appearing with Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers in the Broadway adaptation Stage Door (1937), the jungle adventure Five Came Back (1939), and as a selfish, mean-spirited nightclub singer tormenting lovelorn busboy Henry Fonda (a former boyfriend of hers) in her favorite big screen credit, The Big Street (1942). Stuck as the “Queen of the Bs” (B-movies), she and husband Desi Arnaz turned to TV, and, at age 40, she found the enduring fame that had eluded her. Returning to her roots, she played it straight as a homeless person in her last TV movie, 1985’s Stone Pillow.
She Was the Boss
Ball was the first woman to head a production company, Desilu, and after her 20-year marriage to Arnaz ended in 1960 she bought him out and continued to run it until 1967, when she sold her shares to Gulf+Western and Paramount Studios. The sale netted her $17 million. Desilu’s hits included Star Trek, Mission: Impossible, and The Untouchables. (One notable talent she spotted on the job was the late Robert Osborne, an aspiring actor in the early 1960s. He said she told him that he’d never be happy as a performer and encouraged him to write, and eventually he merged the two talents as Turner Classic Movies’ avuncular host.)
She Pushed the Envelope
Pregnant with their second child, Desi Arnaz, Jr., in 1952, she and Arnaz used their clout to make their “expecting,” as it was called, a plotline. CBS was skittish about her delicate condition, but her real-life pregnancy, depicted over seven episodes, was a smash with viewers. “Lucy is Enceinte” (the word “pregnant” was a no-no, so the French word was used) launched the groundbreaking arc, and an audience of 44 million tuned it to watch the finale, “Lucy Goes to the Hospital.”
She Doesn’t Scare Easily
A 400 lb.-bronze statue of Ball unveiled in her hometown of Celoron, NY, in 2009 startled the public. It also upset its artist, Dave Poulin, who as controversy mounted over the years admitted to The Hollywood Reporter that his well-intentioned likeness was “by far my most unsettling sculpture, not befitting of Lucy’s beauty or my ability as a sculptor.” By 2015 it was clear that the gargoyle dubbed “Scary Lucy” by the press had to go, and on Ball’s 105th birthday last year another sculptor, Carolyn Palmer, replaced it with her more cheerful handiwork, which she called “New Lucy.” (But “Scary Lucy,” who has her own fan club, remains in the same park, more discreetly displayed.)
She Was Quotable
“I’m not funny. What I am is brave.”
“One of the things I learned the hard way is that it doesn’t pay to get discouraged. Keeping busy and making optimism a way of life can restore your faith in yourself.”
“The secret of staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly, and lie about your age.”
She Keeps on Giving
The National Comedy Center’s long-running Lucille Ball Comedy Festival is being held July 31-August 6, Ball’s birthday, in her native Jamestown, NY. Guests will include Jim Gaffigan, Robert Klein, and Lisa Lampanelli. Last year, the center’s Lucy-Desi Museum Board director, Cindy Aronson, explained her appeal. “I like what Lucie Arnaz said and I’m paraphrasing this but she said ‘my mom made a tonic that never expires. You can drink of it and always feel better.’”