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Lucille Ball: Path to Stardom

Caroline Hemphill, Writer

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Born Lucille Desiree Ball on August 6, 1911, she and her mother, DeDe, made their home with her grandparents in Celoron, near Jamestown, New York. Her father died in 1915 of typhoid fever, a sometimes deadly disease that spreads through milk or water. Along with her brother, her mother and grandparents brought her to the theater and encouraged participation in her school plays.

Lucy’s mother also strongly encouraged her daughter’s love for the theater. Lucy and her mother had a close relationship, and viewers can hear DeDe’s laugh in almost every I Love Lucy soundtrack. However, from Lucy’s first unsuccessful foray in New York, New York, where she lost a chorus part in the musical Stepping Stones, through her days in Hollywood, California as “Queen of the B movies, reaching stardom remained a struggle.

In 1926, Lucy enrolled at the John Murray Anderson/Robert Milton School of Theater and Dance in New York. Her participation there, unlike star student Bette Davis, resulted in a horrible failure. The school’s owner even wrote to Lucy’s mother that she wasted her money, and Lucy returned to high school in Celoron.

After a brief rest, Lucy came to New York City with the stage name Diane Belmont. She appeared  in Earl Carroll’s Vanities for the third road company of Ziegfeld’s Rio Rita and for Step Lively, but none of these performances appeared. She then found employment at a Rexall drugstore on Broadway, and later she worked in Hattie Carnegie’s elegant dress salon, while also working as a model.

Lucille Ball’s striking beauty always set her apart from other comedian’s. At age seventeen, Lucy experienced rheumatoid arthritis, a severe joint swelling and returned to Celoron yet again, where her mother nursed her through an almost three-year struggle with the illness.

Determined, Lucille found more success in New York afterwards when she worked as the Chesterfield Cigarette Girl. In 1933, she won a role as a last-minute cast replacement for one of the twelve Goldwyn girls in the Eddie Cantor movie Roman Scandals.

Favorable press from her first speaking role in 1935 and the second lead in That Girl from Paris (1936) helped win her a major part in the Broadway musical Hey Diddle Diddle, but after the male lead’s premature death, the studio dropped the show. It would take roughly another fifteen years for Lucille to achieve stardom.

Lucille first acquired her flaming red hair in 1943, when MGM officials signed her to appear in a film opposite Red Skelton in Cole Porter’s  DuBarry Was a Lady.

On a small film set Dance, Girl, Dance, Lucille Ball first met her future husband, Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz . Married in 1940, they lived separate for much of the first decade because of Desi’s travels. The marital union, also plagued by Arnaz’s work schedule, alcohol abuse, and outside affairs, dissolved in 1960.

Determined to work together and to save their marriage, Ball and Arnaz developed a television pilot, but studio executives ignored the work. The duo, forced to take their act on the road to prove its potential, borrowed five thousand dollars and founded Desilu Productions. Afterwards, they introduced the legendary “I Love Lucy” sitcom.

Television viewers  saw Lucille as a downtrodden housewife, but compared to other situation comedy wives, she did not have any regular household duties. The show’s producers promised  she would share the showbiz limelight with her performer husband and they would eliminate the housewife image. A later series featured Lucille as a single mother and as a working woman conflicting with her boss.

Following her retirement from prime time in 1974, Lucille made many television guest appearances. Broadway patrons saw her starring in Mame in 1974. Her last role showed her as a bag lady in the 1983 made-for-television movie Stone Pillow.

Sadly, on April 26, 1989, Lucille Ball died from aortic dissection.

To this day, viewers still can watch her excellent work on television and appreciate her true talent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lucille Ball: Path to Stardom