Lucille Ball's Humility & Pride
Lucille Ball. Yes, we all love Lucy in black & white or maybe rich 60s color. Together with her husband Desi Arnaz, a Cuban-born musician, they leveraged all their drive, creativity, business acumen and occasionally life savings, to set high standards and create processes for the budding television industry. Without Lucy and Desi and their company DesiLu Studios, TV may not have taken as many risks in the early days.
Lucille Ball was born in 1911 and died in 1989. When the show I Love Lucy hit its high mark in the mid-50s, Lucy was north of 40. This installment of Advanced TV Herstory is a brief look into how this woman handled her fame, via the rare video clips housed online. It’s not a biography, though there’s one I’ve relied on to frame the context of some of these clips I highly recommend.
Stefan Kanfer’s Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life & Comic Art of Lucille Ball, published in 2003 is very well written and thoroughly researched. As a pioneer in the television industry who rose quickly to a high profile, Lucille Ball’s TV appearances reveal a little more than the game face she honed to perfection over the years. We will listen to clips from the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s that remind us that she successfully navigated the scrutiny applied to celebrities. She came from a hardscrabble background and worked very hard to achieve success. Women of that generation tended to keep their private lives and emotions, private.
By the time of her death in 1989, Lucy knew she was loved. She had received every recognition and award within the television industry and American culture. Here’s part of a tribute paid to her in 1986 when she was recognized at the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C. This clip is available on YouTube.
Kennedy Song Tribute
What make this Kennedy Center Honors tribute so important? A few things. First, it’s long been a practice that the President of the United States attends this Washington D.C. based night of entertainment. So we see cut-aways to Ronald and Nancy Reagan, whom Lucy had known for decades from Hollywood.
If you read any Lucille Ball biographies, you learn about her rocky marriage to Desi and how even upon their divorce, their lives intertwined running DesiLu Studios and raising their children.
In his book, Kanfer gives ample coverage to the period, after Lucy had become a national icon, when the waning days of the House Un-American Activities Committee chewed on a fact that at one point, she registered in a California election as a Communist. Her public statements at the time do not deny the fact and she offered the explanation that she did so to appease her grandfather. As her father had died at a young age, her grandfather, whom she transplanted along with the rest of her family from upstate New York to California once she had established her career in Hollywood, was an important figure in her life up until his death.
Lucille Ball knew just how grave these allegations could become. Similar charges waged by conservative Washington politicians, based in far less truth than what Lucy readily admitted, had ruined Hollywood careers. This dark cloud hung over her head off and on for years but eventually passed quietly. She was an All-American star at that point and the claim was too small and discreet for anything more to be made of it.
But I am sure that when Lucille Ball was escorted into the reception room to visit with President and Mrs. Reagan, not a word was said about his role in blacklisting and feeding the anti-Communist fervor that threatened the creativity and independence of the motion picture and television industry. Lucy had more on her mind.
Five days before the Kennedy Center Honors event, Desi Arnaz had passed away from lung cancer. Following their divorce, they had collaborated on projects and stayed in touch. But the divorce, chronicled in Kanfer’s book, revealed the worst side of fame and success. Desi’s bad habits became worse. Lucy struggled to begin learning the business side of DesiLu as his judgment faltered. They had built a major Hollywood powerhouse together – it was split 50/50. A few years after the divorce, she bought out his share.
The Kennedy Center Honors producers had received a statement from Desi before his death which was read at the event by actor Robert Stack. It’s respectful, filled with admiration and love. Cut-aways to Lucy – in the public eye at such a public event – show her doing all she can, seated next to husband Gary Morton, to maintain composure.
So, when Bea Arthur, Valerie Harper and Pam Dawber (remember, this was the mid-80s) come out singing Lucy’s praises, she must have welcomed the relief and release.
While there are many women in comedy who credit Lucy with inspiring them, by virtue of timing and the form Lucy’s late career took, few actually had the opportunity to work with her or even meet her. Her second and third major series, The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy aired from 1962 to 1974. Those shows readily featured big name guests enjoying a cameo appearance with the First Lady of Television – Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Tallulah Bankhead. One of the few young performers to emerge from a little Lucy exposure was Carol Burnett.
A legend in her own right and 22 years younger than Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett in my view delivered a respectful but candid recollection of her time working with Lucy.
Carol Burnett 1
When Carol said Lucy said they put an “s” on her name, that was her way of saying that the crew had given her the nickname Lucille Balls – now that Desi was out of the picture.
It’s pretty cool to think of the overlap of these shows on prime time, since the Carol Burnett Show premiered in 1967 and pressed on for more than a decade and that Carol had Lucy on as a guest. Carol’s read of Lucy’s frankness can readily be found in Lucy’s guest appearance on the Dick Cavett Show. By the way, she’s wearing a big brown coat with trim that looks like poodle fur on the neck, cuffs and down the front.
Based on how cranky she sounds – it’s 1974 so she’s only 63 years old, you get the feeling she’s waiting for someone to ask her better questions. If not, she’ll do the probing.
As much as no one would’ve considered Dick Cavett or his writers fools, you get the impression from Lucy’s tone that she – as the saying goes - didn’t suffer fools gladly.
The professionalism of which Burnett speaks is a theme throughout later Lucy biographies. You also learn from those books that she was deliberate, strategic and serious about her craft – acting – and the business side of the industry – DesiLu Studios.
It’s just that when given the opportunity to dig deeply into those areas, either the interviewer was told not to go there or didn’t think the audience would be interested --- I don’t know. My point is that even Barbara Walters, in a big fancy Barbara Walters 1977 interview, couldn’t extract more from Lucy than the sort of canned, cursory reflection one might call “guarded.”
It’s just sort of “game face” – telling only as much as is necessary and not getting too personal – that Kanfer alludes to in his extensive bibliography of his book Ball of Fire. I appreciate Kanfer listing and providing a brief comment about the books written about this famous couple. Lucy and Desi both wrote autobiographies and there are nine biographies written throughout the decades.
About Lucille Ball’s autobiography, published in 1996 – seven years after her death – Kanfer observed “A posthumously published, less-than-frank exercise in nostalgia. The tone is clearly that of a woman who would rather not bear any grudges – in print – but who is withholding a lot from the reader. Nonetheless, a valuable item because Lucy wrote so little about herself.”
Fortunately for us, YouTube offers up video – apart from all the TV series – that helps us see a little more inside Lucy than she was willing to write.
She was, however, incredibly consistent in giving credit to her shows’ writers, producers, directors and Desi over the years. In answering Barbara Walter’s question, she immediately credited the writers for their brilliance and groundbreaking approach to TV comedy. One was a woman – Madelyn Pugh Davis, who along with Bob Carrol Jr. – wrote episodes for all of Lucy’s series and others that were DesiLu products. Late in her life Madelyn Pugh Davis wrote her own autobiography - Laughing with Lucy: My Life with America's Leading Lady of Comedy. I haven’t read it yet, but I bet Treva Silverman, the first woman writer of the Mary Tyler Moore Show and profiled in an installment of Advanced TV Herstory did – the minute it hit the bookstores!
Laughing with Lucy was published in 2005 and Madelyn Pugh Davis passed away in 2011. There is also a great interview of her online at Emmy TV Legends.
Okay, why is it important that we know about Madelyn Pugh Davis? Well first of all, Lucille Ball gives Madelyn and this core team SO much credit for her success. Lucy maintained her brain didn’t think funny, but she could “do” funny if it was given to her. Living a career in the spotlight and celebrated as Lucy was, THAT’S the definition of humility.
In fact, it goes clear back to 1953, when I Love Lucy won its first Emmy as Best Situation Comedy. The show had premiered only two years earlier.
Lo and behold, in 1954, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences debuted the award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series. THAT, ladies and gentleman, is power exercised for good.
Did you hear how earnest Lucy was in her remarks? Some of her most revealing moments came when she had no time or expectation to prepare. In 1967, she emerged from her seat stunned and unprepared to accept one of her four career Emmys.
This was the real Lucille Ball. Classy, humble, delivering a heartfelt thank you to her peers.
But Lucy was as decorated a TV hero and veteran of rubber chicken dinners. In this clip from a 1969 Johnny Carson Tonight Show appearance, you get the sense she knew a good awards show when she saw one – or had to sit through one.
Carson Ladies Room
Who’s idea was it to have continuous spotlight? Telling this story on national TV may have been Lucy’s way of providing feedback to the event planners at the Academy.
Like Carol Burnett tells us, Lucy’s commitment to quality was her hallmark.
Burnett Lucy craft
Lucille Ball lived an incredible life and had a tremendous sense of humor. She surrounded herself by hard working people who were hugely successful at making others laugh. It’s just that there are so few people left to tell those stories.
Call us fortunate and turn the channel back to YouTube, where you can find a 1975 episode of Dinah’s Place, hosted by Dinah Shore. Lucy and her long-time co-star Vivian Vance were reunited for what would turn out to be one of their last public appearances together. In her later years, Vance suffered strokes and passed away in 1979.
But in 1975, she’s got stories to tell and Dinah’s place was the haven for women storytellers. Dinah Shore, celebrated singer from the 40s and 50s ran her talk shows through the 70s. Fashion (think bright red slacks – they were slacks back then not pants – and a white blouse with a white v-neck vest that might have a red v on it ), lively banter among women, Dinah was always so nice and bubbly…
Anyway, Vivian brought her A-game with these two stories. Lucy didn’t say much throughout Viv’s bit, she nodded occasionally, added some color commentary and laughed. This is a rare appearance when Lucy was in her natural hair color phase – a scary blend of white/gray in the front and otherwise black/gray toward the back. It’s important you know that because Vivian mentions it, as well as Lucy’s trademark henna treatments.
Lucy Viv Contract
It’s hard to tell who else was sitting on Dinah’s couch that day. It looks like Lucie Arnaz, daughter of Lucy and Desi, maybe is seated to Dinah’s left. But Vivian came loaded for laughs.
Lucy Viv King
Lucy, Viv, Jack Benny. They were all just hanging out, all just a bit surprised that they had made it in their chosen profession. In the early days of TV, you brought your best act and prayed for a break. In this clip from that same Johnny Carson tonight show where she complained about the awards show, Lucy revealed that she too could be awed by genius, by “presence.”
That bit is cool and fun. So imagine my delight when, digging a little deeper on the interwebs, I found this exchange between Oprah and Bette Midler. Come to think of it, there’s something – almost therapeutic – about the TV talk show couch. Dinah, Johnny, Oprah…
The much celebrated, successful Divine Ms. M had her moment of awe as well. Storytelling is a skill we as women are losing all too quickly. Our weekends aren’t filled with highlight reels of great things other women did all week and the number of talk shows – I think we’re down to counting on one hand only. Late night sort of counts, but I’ll feel better once we have a late night show hosted by a woman.
So we can feel good that more information has been shared about Lucille Ball than she was willing to reveal in her own biography or to Barbara Walters. But there are still some questions that only Lucy could have answered, as a woman, as a pioneer in the TV industry.
Here’s what I’d ask Lucy: Shortly after your divorce from Desi, you bought out his share of DesiLu. As CEO, reviewing potential TV shows in development, you were presented with Star Trek. What was it about Star Trek that caused you to pull it out of the waste basket and green light it?
Or to set up this question, I’d quote Kanfer’s book, page 126, about some early decisions to film I Love Lucy before a studio audience (it had never been done before) and how to get it distributed nation-wide. Kanfer wrote:
In 1951, when only 8 million Americans owned TV sets, shows were carried city to city via coaxial cable. It failed to reach even halfway across the country. Some 85 percent of viewers were located in the East and Midwest. Instead of seeing I Love Lucy live, they would be forced to see a kinescope made earlier – a blurred and indeed cheesy version of the show.
So I’d ask, Lucy, you and Desi were assuming daunting risk to shoot the episodes before a live audience and put it on 35 mm film (this is why it was so well preserved for reruns). What were those conversations like? Was there ever a moment when either one of you wanted to back out?
Or, about a hundred other questions. The quality of the film product IS what made I Love Lucy the first and most venerable sitcom in reruns. Those reruns are as responsible for building Lucille Ball’s legacy as anything.
Quality through and through – from the writing to the production process. Lucille Ball was a fairly humble, detail-oriented professional. What’s not to love?
As we roll the credits on this installment of Advanced TV Herstory, I’ll recommend Stefan Kanfer’s book Ball of Fire from 2003 as a real good read about Lucy. If you’re more interested in DesiLu’s pioneering role in the TV industry, I’d suggest Coyne Steven Sanders and Tom Gilbert’s DesiLu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz from 1993.
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Thanks for listening. I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams