Queen of Comedy
Time to celebrate National I Love Lucy Day! It comes once a year, on October 15, the anniversary of the legendary sitcom's 1951 debut. Here, to put you in the mood, are 50 fun facts about the actor, comedian and studio executive we knew simply as Lucy.
Because She Was Courageous
"I'm not funny; what I am is brave," Lucille Ball once said. She was right about the second part. When Lucy was starting out, drama teachers bluntly told her she didn't have what it would take to succeed as an actress. She ignored them and forged ahead.
Because She Didn't Worry About How She Looked
"I didn't mind getting messed up," Lucy told People magazine. "That's how I got into physical comedy."
Because, to Her, Age Was No Barrier
"I Love Lucy," the show that made her one of the biggest stars on television, premiered on October 15, 1951, two months after Lucille Ball turned 40.
Because She Had It
"You cannot teach someone comedy," Lucy maintained. "Either they have it or they don't."
Because Nothing Was Handed to Her
Lucy's father died when she was three, about a year after this photo was taken, and then she lived for a number of years with her grandparents. As Lucy told it, her family didn't have enough money to buy her pencils for school.
Because She Overcame a Serious Handicap for an Actress
School authorities sent a letter to her mother (seen here years later) describing Lucy as "too shy and reticent to put her best foot forward." But Lucy got over her shyness when, as she recalled, "it finally occurred to me that people didn't think about me half as much as I gave them credit for. The truth was, nobody gave a damn."
Because She Could Be Glamorous as Well as Funny
This fashionable blonde is Lucille Ball at 23, as she appeared (without credit) in 1935's "Top Hat," an Irving Berlin musical starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
Because She Loved Needlework
That's Lucy on the far right, knitting between scenes on the RKO Radio lot in 1936. She also liked to crochet and continued to do needlework after she became a star.
Because She Held Her Own With the Marx Brothers
Comic geniuses unite. Lucille Ball (far right) co-starred with the Marx Brothers in 1938's "Room Service"—and in 1955 did the famous "mirror" sketch with Harpo on "I Love Lucy."
Because She Was a Stunner
Just check her out in the 1942 drama "The Big Street."
Because She Loved a Man in Uniform
OK, so their marriage was far from perfect. But here's a sweet story: In 1944, four years after Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz tied the knot, Desi became USO director at a military hospital. Noticing that wounded soldiers often asked for a glass of cold milk, he brought in Hollywood starlets to pour the milk for them. There are reasons Lucy loved him.
Because She Was a Born Optimist
Lucy's credo: "I believe that we're as happy in life as we make up our minds to be."
Because She Knew How to Rumba
Although she claimed she wasn't much of a dancer, Lucy learned to rumba from Desi on their first date.
Because She Reinvented Herself
A brunette who went blond when she came to Hollywood, Lucille Ball didn't become a redhead until the early '50s. Her hair dresser called the color—achieved with hair dye followed by a henna rinse—"golden apricot." We call it red, and it became Lucy's trademark.
Because Her Show Was Groundbreaking
"I Love Lucy" was the first scripted TV series to be filmed in front of a live audience—and that's just for starters.
Because She Broke Social Barriers
Lucy and Ricky Ricardo were the first couple with different ethnic backgrounds to appear on a television series. When Lucille Ball first told CBS she wanted to her real husband to play her TV husband, she met strong opposition. The network execs doubted that viewers would accept the idea of an American housewife being married to a foreigner.
Because She Wouldn't Take No for an Answer
To show the executives that her idea would work, Lucy hit the road with her husband and developed a comedy bit that involved interrupting performances by Desi's rumba band. It was such a success that CBS agreed to the casting of Desi—and the sketch was included in a first-season episode of "I Love Lucy."
Because She Was a Straight Shooter
"How 'I Love Lucy' was born?" Lucy said. "We decided that instead of divorce lawyers profiting from our mistakes, we'd profit from them."
Because She Rolled With the Punches
In "Job Switching" (aka "the chocolate factory episode"), Lucy's co-worker was played by Amanda Milligan, a real-life candy factory worker. After Lucy swats a fly on the co-worker's face, Milligan was supposed to hit back, but in rehearsals she couldn't bring herself to really do it. When the scene was shot, however, she smacked Lucy so hard that the star thought her nose might be broken. But she was delighted with the way the scene turned out.
Because Other Classic TV Shows Reflected Her Influence
A variation on the chocolate factory scene showed up years later on "Bewitched."
Because Her Show Became a Cultural Phenomenon
The original series aired from October 15, 1951, to May 6, 1957—a total of 180 episodes. It was so popular that department stores began to close early on Monday nights.
Because She Made It All Seem So Natural
"I Love Lucy" often seemed spontaneous, as though the dialogue was ad-libbed. It wasn't. In fact, Lucille Ball was a perfectionist who believed in rigorous rehearsal and never deviated from the script.
Because She Introduced Actual Pregnancy to TV
Although she wasn't allowed to use the word "pregnant" (TV censors preferred euphemisms like "expecting"), Lucy was the first pregnant woman to play a pregnant woman on television.
Because She Was More Popular Than a Very Popular President
Some 29 million viewers tuned in to watch the presidential inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower on January 20, 1953. A day earlier, 44 million watched Lucy Ricardo go to the hospital to give birth to Little Ricky—just 12 hours after the birth of Lucille Ball's actual child, Desi Arnaz Jr., seen here. (This episode of "I Love Lucy" had been filmed in November 1952.)
Because She Won Four Well-Deserved Emmys
Lucy picked up her first Emmy Award, for Outstanding Lead Actress, in 1953. She was eventually nominated for 13 Emmys, as well as seven Golden Globes.
Because She Insisted on Quality
In the early years of television, shows were usually recorded on low-quality kinescope. Producing their own series, Lucy and Desi (seen here at home doing the dishes) volunteered to take a $1,000-a-week pay cut to make up for the cost of 35 mm film.
Because She Came Out a Winner
When she and her husband took the pay cut, they got 80 percent ownership of the film as part of the deal. In 1957, CBS bought back the film for $1 million (a lot more money in those days than it is today) and, with that capital, Lucy and Desi bought property previously owned by RKO Pictures, which they turned into Desilu Studios.
Because She Was Protective of Desi
Between his drinking and his philandering, there were times when Lucy stopped talking to Desi on the set. But she never allowed anyone else to make fun of his accent.
Because She Believed in the Magic of Childhood
When George Reeves appeared on "I Love Lucy," his name was left out of the credits because Lucy wanted kids to think he really was Superman.
Because She Never Felt She Had to 'Splain Herself
"I have an everyday religion that works for me," Lucy said. "Love yourself first, and everything else falls into line."
Because She Didn't Run Out of Steam
"I Love Lucy" was the first TV series to end its run at the top of the Nielsen ratings, an achievement later matched only by "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Seinfeld."
Because She Wasn't the Proverbial Stage Mom
Although Desi Arnaz Jr. appeared as a baby on the cover of the debut issue of TV Guide, he didn't play Little Ricky. Lucy wasn't eager to push him into show business. Even so, at 12, he became a drummer in the band Dino, Desi & Billy.
Because She Didn't Sugarcoat Anything
"I hate failure and that divorce was a No. 1 failure in my eyes," Lucy said of her split from Desi Arnaz. "It was the worst period of my life. Neither Desi nor I have been the same since, physically or mentally."
Because She Learned From the Greats
Lucille Ball acknowledged her debt to Charlie Chaplin. She also trained with Buster Keaton, who recognized her talents back when she was at MGM.
Because She Shattered a Glass Ceiling
As president of Desilu, Lucille Ball was the first woman ever to run a major TV studio.
Because She Had Heroes of Her Own
Of her frequent co-star, Lucy said, "You spell 'Bob Hope' 'C-L-A-S-S.'"
Because She Was Amazingly Supportive
Before she had her own show, Carol Burnett was offered a chance to do a CBS special, but she needed to bring in a major guest star. Although she didn't know Lucy well at the time—the comedy legend always called her "Kid"—Burnett nervously gave her a call. "I said, 'I'm going to be doing this special for CBS and ...' [Lucy] wouldn't even let me finish the sentence and said, 'When do you want me?' ... We became very close friends."
Because She Loved Animals
Author and pet expert Steve Dale recalled talking with Lucy about how much she loved them, as evidenced by this still from a 1966 episode of "The Lucy Show."
Because She Had Business Savvy
In 1967, having bought out Desi, Lucille Ball sold Desilu to Gulf + Western for $17 million. A year later, she launched Lucille Ball Productions and went to work on a new series, "Here's Lucy," her third highly rated sitcom.
Because She Was Generous
While making the 1968 movie "Yours, Mine and Ours" with Henry Fonda, Lucy became close with the big blended family it was based on. At one point, out of the blue, she gave the entire clan—Frank and Helen Beardsley and their 18 children—a Disneyland vacation.
Because She Inspired Us When She Said This
"Luck? I don't know anything about luck. I've never banked on it and I'm afraid of people who do. Luck to me is something else: hard work—and realizing what is opportunity and what isn't."
Because Richard Burton Didn't Know What He Was Talking About
After he and Elizabeth Taylor appeared on "Here's Lucy," Burton wrote in his diary: "Milady Ball can thank her lucky stars that I am not drinking. There is a chance that if I had I might have killed her." You know the expression, "If everybody likes you, you are doing it wrong"? Let's just say Lucy wasn't doing it wrong.
Because She Came to Understand What Made Her Happy
After her volatile 20-year marriage to Desi Arnaz, Lucy married comedian Gary Morton, who remained her husband until she died in 1989. A reporter once asked her what was the key to her happiness, and Lucy gave a two-word reply: "My husband." On another occasion, she noted, "It's a helluva start, being able to recognize what makes you happy."
Because She Wasn't Bitter
Despite their divorce, Lucy and Desi (seen here with daughter Lucie Arnaz) stayed on good terms. His last words to her before his death in 1986 (after the debut of "Life With Lucy," her fourth sitcom): "I love you too, honey. Good luck with your show."
Because She Was Ahead of Her Time
In a 1980 People magazine interview, Lucy was asked what she thought of the gay rights movement. "It's perfectly all right with me," she said. "Some of the most gifted people I've ever met or read about are homosexual. How can you knock it?"
Because She Had Long Friendships
Lucille Ball and Betty White were close pals from 1956 until Lucy's death in 1989—and their mothers were best friends. Ann Southern and Lucy appeared on each other's TV shows in the 1950s and '60s. In real life, they had a friendship that dated back to the '30s.
Because She Had a Certain Wisdom
"The secret of staying young," Lucy said, "is to live honestly, eat slowly and lie about your age."
Because She Was a True Friend Right Up to the End
Lucille Ball died on April 26, 1989—which happened to be the day Carol Burnett turned 56. The younger comedian learned of Lucy's death when she watched the morning news. Several hours later, a bouquet of flowers arrived at Burnett's home, along with a note: "Happy Birthday, Kid. Love, Lucy."
Because She Broke Records
Lucille Ball (seen here on a postage stamp issued in 2001) was featured on the cover of TV guide 39 times, more than any other actor. The magazine named her the greatest TV star of all time.
Because She Loved Us
"I am a real ham," Lucy admitted. "I love an audience. I work better with an audience. I am dead, in fact, without one."
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