Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Remember Her?

     She was born in Jamestown, in far western New York state, in 1911. Her father worked for the telephone company, so the family moved a lot, first around New York, then to Montana and Michigan. Her father died when she was four, and she moved back to upstate New York with her mother and younger brother.

Jamestown theatre named for her
     She was introduced to the theater by her grandfather, who brought her to vaudeville shows and encouraged her to take part in school plays. Later, her mother remarried. Her stepfather was a Shriner, and he arranged for her to appear in a couple of their local productions.

     When she was 14, she started going out with a local hood. Her parents tried to put a stop to that, and when they failed they sent her to New York City to study at the John Murray Anderson School for Dramatic Arts. She was a schoolmate of Bette Davis, but apparently she failed to impress her teachers. She later said, "All I learned in drama school was how to be frightened."

     She nevertheless scrounged a few jobs here and there, and found some success as a fashion model. But just as her career was starting to blossom, she fell ill with a mysterious rheumatic-type disease. She went home to convalesce; it was two years before she was finally healthy and energetic enough to return to New York.

     She went back to modeling. She took the name Diane Belmont and tried to work in the theater, for the Ziegfeld company and the Shubert brothers, but she was fired as quickly as she was hired.

As Diane Belmont
     In 1933 she moved to Hollywood and became a contract player for RKO pictures. She appeared in a movie with the Three Stooges and another with the Marx Brothers. She also appeared in several films with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and then in the 1940s she went over to MGM where she found a career in a string of B movies. She became known as "Queen of the Bs."

     In 1940 while filming one of her B pictures, Too Many Girls, she met her husband, a band leader six years younger than she was. They hit it off immediately and got married the same year. Her husband was drafted into the army, but because of a knee injury was restricted to limited service. He stayed in Los Angeles and performed in USO shows for GIs returning from the Pacific.

     In 1942 she appeared opposite Henry Fonda in The Big Street, and the following year she starred in Dubarry Was a Lady, a film for which the natural brunette dyed her hair the flaming red that would become her trademark.

     In 1944, she filed for divorce, but she and her husband reconciled. A few years later, she was cast as the wacky wife in a radio comedy. The show was successful, and CBS asked her to develop the show for what was then the next new thing: television. She wanted to cast her real-life husband as her TV husband, but apparently CBS executives were not agreeable. Instead of appearing on TV, she went on the road to perform the act in live shows -- she played the zany housewife with no talent but plenty of ambition, who wanted to sing and act in her husband's shows.

     The comedy act became a hit with live audiences -- surely, you've guessed who she is by now -- and so CBS executives changed their minds and put I Love Lucy into their weekly lineup. The show debuted on TV in October 1951. It pioneered several new TV techniques, including performing and producing in front of a live audience. The comedy quickly rose to the top of the ratings where it remained for most of its run, up until 1957.

     Lucille Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz formed their own production company Desilu. They agreed to take a pay cut to help with the expenses of filming the show; in return they retained the rights to the film after it was aired. In 1951, no one thought about reruns. But I Love Lucy was syndicated to TV stations for years, with the proceeds going not to CBS, but to Desilu.

     The hectic schedule further strained the marriage, and in 1960 the couple again filed for divorce. This time it was for good, although Lucy and Desi remained friends for the rest of their lives. They had two children, Lucie in 1951, and Desi, Jr., in 1953. Ball's second pregnancy was written into the show -- but due to the standards of the time, they could not use the word "pregnancy"; it was said that she was "expecting" instead.

     After their divorce, Ball bought out her ex-husband's interest in Desilu, and she stepped up as the first woman to head a major Hollywood studio, which produced several movies and TV shows including Star Trek, The Untouchables, Mission Impossible and Ball's own follow-up series The Lucy Show and Here's Lucy. (Desilu was later sold to Gulf & Western, which became Paramount, and ironically the rights to the early shows ended up back in the hands of CBS.)

     In 1962 Lucille Ball married fellow comedian Gary Morton, who remained her husband until her death in 1989 at age 77.

     Lucille Ball has been heralded as one of the most successful stars in Hollywood, with two stars on Hollywood Blvd. -- one for her work in TV and one for motion pictures. She won numerous awards, including four Emmys, and appeared on the cover of TV Guide more than any other person. She was voted the greatest TV icon of all time, and later Time magazine named her one of the hundred most influential people of the 20th century.


Olga said...

I remember Lucy but have to say I did not know anything about her apart from the show.

rosaria williams said...

I had no idea!

MerCyn said...

Did not at all recognize her as Diane Belmont. Great post!

Stephen Hayes said...

I remember being lost in Athens years ago, prowling the streets looking for a place to spend the night. In the distance i heard the theme to "I love Lucy." I followed the sound to a pensione and was able to rent a room for the night. Lucy has always provided me with a sense of "home."

Dick Klade said...

What a great success story. Only in America!

Linda Myers said...

I didn't recognize the picture of Diane Belmont. She was quite a woman!

thea mia said...

I've never heard of her before. But thanks anyway for the information. Now that I've read her bio I've learned something about her. Thanks.
Ecommerce Australia