“I’d rather regret the things I’ve done than regret the things I haven’t done.”
— Lucille Ball
Lucille Ball was known as America’s favorite redhead, but she was much more than that. She proved herself an innovator, risk-taker, and uncompromising leader. At age 22, she became a Chesterfield cigarette girl and her face was splashed across ads, billboards, posters and window displays promoting cigarettes. She also modeled fashionable outfits for wealthy clientele.
In 1933, Lucille moved from New York to California to pursue an acting career. Her first role was a nonspeaking part in Roman Scandals. A year later, she had appeared in ten films but failed to attain a single screen credit. Wanting more, she attended acting school run by Ginger Roger’s mother. There Lucille learned the importance of elocution, how to dress, speak, carry herself, and act.
At age 24, she’d appeared in 15 movies and earned herself the title of “queen of the B films.” During the Golden Age of Hollywood, B films were lesser-known pictures that played during the second half of a double feature.
Two years later Ms. Ball landed her first big role for MGM in Du Barry Was A Lady. This was also her first film shot in color. Upon the studio’s insistence, the actress dyed her hair strawberry blond so she could “pop” on screen. In the meantime, her husband had been drafted into the Army.
When she was 37, Lucille got the lead role in the radio comedy show, My Favorite Husband, CBS decided to turn the series into a television show. The actress insisted Desi play her husband but the studio refused, stating that the audience would never believe the actress was married to a Cuban bandleader. Lucille’s response to their rejection was simple. “If no one will give us a job together, we’ll give ourselves one.” The couple embarked on a 12-week vaudeville tour about a wacky housewife who tries desperately to land a part in her husband’s show. The act was so successful, that CBS acquiesced and gave Desi the role as Lucille’s on-screen husband.
In 1950, the couple formed Desilu Productions and a year later Lucille found out she was pregnant. That’s when she decided the only way for the family to be together was to get Desi off the road, as a traveling bandleader, and create an opportunity where they could act together. CBS secured a sponsor for I Love Lucy and Lucille decided to take the gamble and give up acting in films. She was in, all or nothing.
Three and a half weeks after their daughter, Lucie was born, I Love Lucy was scheduled to premiere. Unfortunatley the couple had no cast, crew, or location to shoot the show. Panicked by the realization, CBS gave Desilu complete control of producing the show. With only nine days left before shooting began, Desi rented an unused movie studio where they built two soundstages and a set showcasing the Ricardo’s bedroom, living room, kitchen, and Desi’s nightclub, The Tropicana Club.
It was Lucille, however, who insisted they film the show before a live studio audience, something that had never been undertaken. But if there was one thing the comedic actress knew, it was that she would perform better surrounded by the energy and reactions of the live viewers.
With no time to spare, the couple hired their crew, editors, actors, make-up artists, and cameramen a mere six days before shooting began. An hour before the audience arrived to shoot the show’s pilot, the last nail was hammered into the set. But the gamble paid off. The pilot rated in the top 10 shows in the country and twenty shows later, it ranked number one. Over time I Love Lucy was watched by 40 million views and became the highest rated show on television. In fact, the show was so popular that Marshall Field’s closed its doors early on Monday nights because shoppers were home watching their favorite red head attempt to convince her husband to give her a part in his show. There was no use trying to hail a cab in New York during that time either, as the drivers were glued to nearby televisions, as well.
By this time, Lucy has eliminated any barriers keeping from her dreams. She was shooting a weekly comedy show with her husband and was enjoying the benefits of motherhood. But that didn’t take the vigor out of this spitfire. When she became pregnant with her second child, she turned Hollywood on its ear again by portraying a pregnant character on television while also being pregnant. It wasn’t an easy road. The studio wouldn’t allow the actors to refer to Lucille as “pregnant” onscreen. She was “expectant.” The couple partnered with a priest, a minister, and a rabbi. This may sound like the start of a joke, but all kidding aside television stars asked the clergy to read the scripts to ensure they didn’t offend anyone. Lucille’s impending birth resulted in worldwide hysteria.
Eight days after their son, Desi Arnaz, Jr. was born, I Love Lucy won the Emmy for Best Situation Comedy and Lucille scored the award for “Best Comedienne.” By the close of the 1952-53 season, the series remained the top-rated show for eleven consecutive months.
In 1955, the show went into reruns and the couple earned $30K an episode. That’s the equivalent of $284K by today’s standards. On top of which Lucille and Desi licensed I Love Lucy merchandise so avid fans could fill their homes with everything from I Love Lucy pajamas and aprons, to bongo drums, dolls, tile, furniture, and wallpaper. In fact, the actress purposely wore dresses on the show that came from the I Love Lucy clothing collection and were sold in 3,000 stores around the country. She also sold her share of Desilu Productions for $17M. Amazing abundance for a woman who stockpiled pencils her whole life as a result of her challenging financial upbringing.
But if there was one thing about Lucille Ball, she never let hardship, obstacles, or lack of imagination get in her way. Take a lesson from this legendary trailblazer; “The more things you do, the more you can do.”
Kanfer, Stefan, Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball. Alfred A. Knopf, 2004
Pollack, Pam and Belviso, Meg, Who Was Lucille Ball, Penguin Workshop; Dgs edition, 2017
Sanders, Coyne Steven and Gilbert, Tom, Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, William Morrow, 1993
Harris, Elenor, The Real Story of Lucille Ball, Literary Licensing, LLC, 2012
Gina D. (August 6, 2015). "Google Doodle pays charming tribute to Lucille Ball on her 100th". Whatthedoost.com. Retrieved March 21, 2019.
Desi Arnaz & Lucille Ball, Entrepreneur. Retrieved March 31, 2019.