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1911 – 1989
We Love Lucy
In all probability, red-headed comedienne Lucille Ball will never be dethroned as the queen of television comedy. Yet her path to stardom was not easy and would have most certainly deterred others with thinner skins and less determination. When she enrolled in drama school at age 15, she was told she had no talent. In Hollywood, beginning in the 1930s, she was miscast in dozens of films. Only when she turned to radio comedy in the late 1940s did her potential begin to emerge. The character she played – the scatterbrained wife of a Midwestern banker – showcased Ball’s comedic genius and impeccable timing and inspired her to turn her concept into a television series.
With television in its infancy, Ball saw an opportunity to sell I Love Lucy to CBS. The series would chronicle the madcap marriage of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, a Cuban bandleader with a distinctive Latin accent and would star Ball and her real-life husband, Desi Arnaz. The couple walked away from the deal when network executives objected to Arnaz’s involvement. To prove that the public was ready for the show, Ball and Arnaz took their act on tour and financed a 30-minute pilot that ultimately convinced the network to move ahead. With similar determination, she insisted on using film rather than less expensive kinescope, performing before a live audience, and owning the program herself. When the deal was struck, Ball became the most powerful woman in television.
With a hand in writing, directing and editing the show, she was instrumental in shaping the Lucy character into television’s first physical comedienne – one who reflected the frustration women were having as housewives. Lucy Ricardo was forever scheming to break into show business or get a job, despite her husband’s objections. When Ball found out she was pregnant, she insisted that her condition be written into the script; it was the first time a pregnant woman had been depicted on TV. Little Ricky’s birth on January 19, 1953 drew an estimated 44 million viewers, breaking all records.
Ball’s performances were must-see TV between 1951 and 1974 in three different series and numerous specials. She perfected her timing, elastic facial expressions, adroit pantomime and husky-voiced delivery during hours of rehearsal. Almost nothing was ad-libbed. Her brand of comedy paved the way for the likes of Carol Burnett, Penny Marshall and Mary Tyler Moore.
When Ball’s marriage to Arnaz ended in divorce in 1960, Ball bought out his share of their joint production company with a $3 million bank loan, making her the first woman to run a major television studio and setting the path for others, including Oprah Winfrey. She sold the studio five years later for $17 million.
In the end, Ball demanded of herself what she demanded of others – hard work and a focus on opportunity. Her insistence that I Love Lucy be on film resulted in high-quality prints that were fit for reruns. That decision made her a fortune.
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