After almost 70 years of I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball is still one of the most recognizable faces in entertainment. But behind the red curly hair and bright blue eyes, there’s a lot people don’t know about this iconic woman. From childhood tragedies to business milestones, here are some fascinating facts about Lucille Ball.
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A Difficult Childhood
Born in Jamestown, NY, Lucy suffered tragedy at a young age. Her father died of typhoid fever when she was only three, leaving her mother alone without a job and five months pregnant. DeDe, Lucy’s mom, was only 23 and wasn’t sure how she’d survive.
After living with her grandfather for a few years, DeDe got remarried and left. Though she claimed at the time it was to help her stepdad find work in other cities, DeDe later said that the new man didn’t like kids much and wanted his wife to himself. Lucy was forced to live with her new step grandparents, a puritanical couple that didn’t care for Lucy’s talents. It was an unhappy home and Lucy just wanted her family back.
Thankfully, DeDe left her second husband, came back to Lucy and her brother, and they formed a home in Jamestown with her beloved grandfather, Fred Hunt.
DeDe Encouraged Lucy to Start Acting...To Get Away From a Boy
Lucy started performing at local shows at an earlier age and clearly loved the stage. She wanted to pursue acting, but was temporarily side tracked...by a boy. When she was 14, she started dating a 21-year-old ne’er do well. DeDe did not approve and as the relationship got more serious, she decided to stop it.
DeDe offered to pay for acting school in New York City, partially in hopes that the distance would cool the new relationship. Lucy’s teenage love couldn’t beat the chance to get into show business, so she left town and left her older boyfriend behind forever.
Acting School Did Not Love Lucy
In her autobiography, Lucy talks about her complete failure at acting school. The teachers all praised a big-eyed blonde in class, yet never cared for her. That blonde turned out to be Bette Davis, so at least they got one thing right.
They said she wasn’t photogenic. They said she didn’t have talent. After a few months, Lucy was kicked out. The school was so sure she would never be an actress, they said it was a complete waste of money for her to continue her studies.
Lucy's Family Was Sued Into Ruin
Lucy returned to Jamestown, but wasn’t beaten down. Her expulsion from acting school was only a temporary setback. Unfortunately, her family was about to experience something much worse.
One afternoon, a few kids gathered in Lucy’s backyard to shoot at a target. Her grandfather Fred was very careful about gun safety. He told all the kids to only aim at the target and if anyone was sitting around watching, they had to be perfectly still and not distract the person with the gun. Though tweens playing with guns may still seem overly dangerous, this was a different time and the grandfather took many precautions.
Sadly, one of the children heard his mom calling him from next door and he ran across the lawn...just as they fired the gun. The boy was shot in the spine and paralyzed for life. Fred offered to take care of the child’s medical bills, even though it was an accident, but the parents sued. As the only adult supervising the children, he was held liable and Lucy’s family lost all their money, their house, everything.
Lucy Started Her Career As A Model Named Diane
With her family in financial ruin, Lucy was even more determined to make it in show business to take care of her family. In 1928, she moved back to New York City and quickly found work as a model. Lucy modeled fancy fur coats, dyed her hair platinum blonde, and changed her name to Diane Belmont.
Her ongoing modeling work greatly helped the family, but Lucy wanted to do a lot more than stand around in fur coats.
Arthritis Almost Ended Her Career
Out of the blue, Lucy started feeling extreme pain in her legs. She could barely walk and she certainly couldn’t stand for hours for her modeling job. She returned home to Jamestown and discovered she had an extreme bout of rheumatoid arthritis — in her early 20s! After she recovered, one leg was severely shortened. Lucy had to wear a 20 pound orthopedic shoe to stretch it back out. Thankfully, she fully recovered, went back to New York, and continued her path to stardom.
Just Another Chorus Girl
At a modeling gig, Lucy got offered a small chorus girl part in a film, so she headed off to Hollywood. This led to a string of small chorus girl roles at RKO and she made enough money to move her family out to California.
Lucy was just as beautiful as the stars of the 1930s, but her willingness to be silly made her stand out. Whenever they needed a girl to do a gag, get covered in mud, or do a pratfall, Lucy was the first to volunteer. She was glamorous and ridiculous, a combo that would soon come in handy.
For one of her chorus roles, Lucy was told to shave her brows. “Don’t worry, they’ll grow back” the makeup artist insisted. Unfortunately for Lucy, they never did! Lucy had to draw on her brows for the rest of her life. According to her daughter Lucie Arnaz, Lucy would wake up and draw on her eyebrows in bed before her husband woke up. She got so good she could do it in the dark, on her side, or in a hurry — but she never went out without brows!
Ginger Rogers’ Mom Gave Lucy A Film Career
Lela Rogers, mother of Ginger Rogers, ran a school for young actors at RKO and she picked Lucy out of the bunch to come train with her. She taught Lucy more than she ever learned in her New York acting school and gave her valuable tips to survive in the industry.
Lela frequently recommended Lucy for roles, even when others wouldn’t give her a chance. But eventually, people came around. Lucy appeared in anything the studio put her in and never said no. In her autobiography, Lucy said she didn’t even know she was in Broadway Through the Keyhole until she saw a rerun of it in the 80s!
Desi and Too Many Girls
Lucy worked regularly and came to be known at the “Queens of the Bs,” for appearing in so many small, “B” pictures. It was on another B picture that her life changed.
Too Many Girls was based on a Broadway show starring a new Cuban musical sensation — Desi Arnaz. In 1940, Lucy was cast in the film version and met Desi for the first time. “It was not love at first sight. It took five minutes,” Lucy said. They fell madly in love and got married shortly after filming. Unusual for the time, Lucy was 30 when she got married and Desi was only 24!
On TV..In 1947!
Though I Love Lucy debuted in 1951, Lucy’s first appearance was in 1947 on The Pantomime Quiz. According to The Lucy Legacy:
The show was a version of the game charades and it ran from 1947 to 1959 on four TV networks. 1947 was a busy year for Lucy - filming the movies Lured and Her Husband's Affairs and performing in her tour de force stage play Dream Girl all across the country, but somehow the busy actress was able to sneak away to shoot this program when TV was in its infancy, and most people were still listening to their radios!
No One Loved Desi
After they were married, Lucy was constantly working in Hollywood on films and radio, while Desi toured the country with his band. When CBS wanted to turn Lucy’s radio show My Favorite Husband into a television program, Lucy thought it was the perfect way to work with her husband (and keep them in the same city for more than few days at a time!).
But nobody wanted Desi to play Lucy’s husband. Producers felt it was too unbelievable for an “All American” like Lucy to be married to a Cuban immigrant. Even though they were married in real life! Also, Lucy was about to turn 40. Even today, women on the verge of 40 usually don’t get their big break as the star of their own TV shows.
Lucy was determined to work with Desi, so they wrote themselves an act and took it on the road. This stage production was a massive hit, so the studio finally gave in and cast Desi in the lead.
A Ghost Made I Love Lucy Possible
Even after all her work to make her new sitcom happen, Lucy had some reservations about moving into television. For most actors, TV was considered a step down from film and could possibly ruin her career.
After mulling this over, Lucy went to sleep one night and dreamed of her good friend Carole Lombard. Lombard was killed in a plane crash years before, but according to Lucy Arnaz, Carole’s spirit spoke to Lucy in a dream and told her to go forward with the show. Thanks to Carole, I Love Lucy began filming in 1951.
I Love Lucy Changed Everything
I Love Lucy was an instant hit and had a lot of firsts in the world of TV. Lucy was on the first cover of TV Guide. It was the first show to show a couple of mixed heritage. Lucy and Desi were the first stars to start their own TV production company - Desilu. She also fought to give credit to her hair and makeup department. Irma Kusely, who did Lucy’s hair for much of her life and was in charge of the signature “golden apricot” color, was one of the first people to be listed in the credits for her beauty work.
Plus, the show invented the 3-camera sitcom, reruns, syndication, and performing in front of a live audience.
Famously, I Love Lucy was the first show to feature a pregnant woman. During the pilot, Lucy was pregnant with her first child. Since the series hadn't officially started, they were able to schedule things around Lucille's "condition." In season 2, Lucy got pregnant again but this time they couldn't stop production for nine months.
Instead, they wrote Lucy’s pregnancy into the show. From eating ice cream with hot fudge and sardines, to Ricky, Fred, and Ethel’s disastrous attempts and taking Lucy to the hospital, to the moving episode when she first shares that she’s expecting, some of I Love Lucy's most memorable moments came from allowing Lucille to share her pregnancy on screen.
Though Lucy was allowed to be visibly pregnant on the show, they weren’t allowed to actually say “pregnant.” Instead, they settled for “expecting.” In the episode “Lucy is Enceinte,” Lucy tells Ricky she’s expecting during a number at his club. Though Desi was supposed to acted thrilled and surprised, he suddenly welled up with tears. The director had to prompt him with “sing the baby song” to move the scene along. Though they redid the take, everyone agreed that the genuine outpouring emotion was too sweet to cut. It became one of the most popular episodes in the history of TV.
Desi Jr. and Ricky Jr. Were Born on the Same Day
Since Lucy was able to write her own pregnancy into the show, they decided to have Little Ricky have the same birthday as Lucy’s actual child. So, she scheduled a cesarean for the same day when Lucy Ricardo would give birth.
Though they knew the timing, they didn’t know the sex of the baby. Desi was desperate for a boy and made Lucy Ricardo have a boy on the show, just in case it didn’t work out the same way in real life. But Lucille Ball followed her script perfectly and had a baby boy (Desi Jr) just like her fictional counterpart.
Fun Facts About Eggs and Bread
I Love Lucy is full of memorable moments. Like when Lucy accidentally destroys a dozen eggs during a tango with Ricky in the episode “Lucy Does the Tango.” The unexpected egg smash made the audience laugh for 65 seconds! That may not seem long, but count to 65 and imagine a full audience roaring with laughter the entire time. The editors had to cut down the studio’s real reaction because it was so over the top.
Or what about Lucy’s bread baking disaster? Lucy tries baking a loaf of bread and winds up with a yards long monstrosity. That wasn’t just a prop. That giant loaf of bread was made in a nearby bakery and slices were served to the audience after filming.
I Love Lucy was sponsored by cigarette manufacturer Phillip Morris. As part of the deal, they required characters to smoke every episode. Lucy hated their cigarettes, so she filled Phillip Morris packs with Chesterfields and the sponsors were none the wiser.
At the height of her success, Lucy nearly had it all taken away. In the 1930s, her grandfather Fred became active in the labor movement and joined the Communist Party. He was passionate and asked the rest of his family to join. So, Lucy briefly became a member before switching her political affiliation to Democrat a few years later. She never went to Communist meetings and did it only to appease Fred.
When the House of Unamerican Activities found this Communist connection, Lucy was forced to testify. Though she was never an active member of the communist party, many actors' careers were ruined by any affiliation with communism.
Desi, the studio, and her fans all stayed by her side. “The only thing red about her is her hair...and even that’s not legitimate!” Desi said. Luckily, the HUAC committee exonerated Lucy and her career continued to thrive.
From Chorus Girl to Owner
With I Love Lucy a success, Desilu began to produce other programs. Desi wanted to expand the studio portion of his career, so he and Lucy bought RKO studios. After Lucy and Desi divorced, Lucy bought Desi’s share of Desilu and she became the first female studio head. She started as a chorus girl and wound up running the place.
All The Awards
Over the course of her life, Lucy had 13 Emmy nominations and won four... but almost had five. When Red Skelton won “Best Comedian” at the 1952 Emmy Awards, he announced “You gave this to the wrong redhead” and tried to hand it to Lucille. She said no, of course and later got many awards of her own.
Also, she has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. One in honor of her film work and one for TV!
Breaking Boundaries After I Love Lucy
After I Love Lucy, Lucy starred in The Lucy Show. Lucy and Vivian Vance (who formerly played Ethel Mertz) starred as a widow and divorcée sharing an apartment and trying to make a life for themselves without the help of husbands. This marked the first time a show would star two women as a buddy comedy and set up a formula that worked for years to come.
Aaron Spelling Produced Her Last Sitcom
In an odd coincidence, Aaron Spelling appeared as an actor on I Love Lucy and over 30 years later, he produced her final show. Though Life with Lucy in 1986 wasn’t a success, it wasn’t because Lucy lost her touch. The live audiences at the sitcom taping were thrilled with her performance (at age 75 no less!), but sitcoms had changed and it never caught on with viewers.
As a model, chorus girl, actress, radio star, TV pioneer, and business women, Lucy was a success every step of the way. Lucky for us, we have hours of entertainment to remind us why the world loves Lucy and always will.