This Is The Rarely Told Story Of Beloved TV Legend Lucille Ball

For most of us, Lucille Ball will always be remembered as the lovable star of the iconic 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy. However, behind the kooky character, the actor hid her fascinating backstory. And in real-life, things weren’t always as carefree as they appeared in the show.

Ball was born in August of 1911, to parents Henry and DeDe in New York State’s Jamestown area. However, as an adult, she would sometimes claim she’d been born near to her grandparents in Butte, Montana. Gossip columns would later suggest that the star made up this claim as she felt New York wasn’t as romantic a place of origin as Montana.

However, there was some truth in Ball’s statement. Her family did, for some time, reside in Anaconda, M.T., while Henry briefly worked there. But as a lineman for the Bell Telephone Company, his job meant that the family moved around a lot. As a result, they also settled in the Michigan town of Wyandotte, and New Jersey’s Trenton area for a while.

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But when Ball was just four years of age, disaster struck the family. In February of 1915 Henry passed away aged just 27, after contracting typhoid fever. The day of her father’s death would have a lasting impact on the future star, who remembers that a bird flew into the house amid the tragedy. As a result, she developed a lifelong phobia of birds.

Following Henry’s death, his wife, DeDe – who was expecting a second baby – headed back to New York state. Ball’s brother, Fred, was born in 1915 and the siblings spent the rest of their childhoods there, where they lived with their mom and her parents. And it was there that the little girl got her first taste of show business.

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Ball’s childhood hometown boasted the popular Celoron Park, at the time one of the country’s premier amusement attractions. It featured a ballroom, bandstand, roller coaster and theater area, where plays and vaudeville shows often took place. So, needless to say, it was one of the future star’s most beloved locations.

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However, Ball’s childhood wasn’t all fun and games. In 1919, the little girl’s mother remarried. And when her new stepfather, Edward Peterson, went in search of work away from home, his wife went with him. As a result, the couple put both of DeDe’s children into the care of Peterson’s parents.

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Ball’s step-grandparents were puritanical in their beliefs and even banned mirrors from the household, bar one, situated in the bathroom. As a young girl, they once caught the future star admiring her reflection in it. Consequently, they disciplined the youngster for her vanity. She later revealed that this period in her life had a profound effect on her.

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Peterson, however, didn’t appear to share his parents’ puritanical views. He was a Shriner, a sect of the Freemason organization with an emphasis on brotherhood, but also fellowship and fun. So when the group were looking for female chorus line entertainers, Ball’s new step-father prompted the 12-year-old girl to audition.

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Ball very much enjoyed her first stint on stage, and soon realized performing could bring her the praise and attention she craved. As a result, it was easy for her mother to exploit that desire to perform when, at the age of 14, the future star embarked on a relationship with 21-year-old Johnny DeVita, a local bad boy.

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DeDe disapproved of her daughter’s relationship. So when it showed no sign of fizzling out after a year, she somehow managed to pull together enough money to send Ball to New York’s prestigious John Murray Anderson drama school. She enrolled in 1926 and was a classmate of Bette Davis. However, the future star’s experience at the school wasn’t a positive one. Indeed, her tutors believed she’d never make it in show business.

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Nevertheless, Ball refused to give up her dream. As a result, in 1928 she began working as a model for fashion entrepreneur Hattie Carnegie. Carnegie then convinced the future star to go from brunette to blond. And, as she later put it, “Hattie taught me how to slouch properly in a $1,000 hand-sewn sequin dress and how to wear a $40,000 sable coat as casually as rabbit.”

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Soon, Ball’s career was in full swing. However, she experienced a major set back when she contracted rheumatoid arthritis. The illness prevented the young star from working for two long years. Never one to be defeated, though, in 1932 she went back to work for Carnegie, while trying to establish herself as an actress.

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Under the stage name Diane Belmont, Ball enjoyed a brief stint on Broadway as a chorus girl. Around this time, she was also the Chesterfield cigarette girl. The actor, however, later left New York and headed west to the bright lights of Hollywood. Here, she gained a number of small film roles throughout the 1930s while under contract at RKO Radio Pictures.

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One of Ball’s most high profile auditions from this period was for Scarlett O’Hara in 1939’s Gone with the Wind. However, she ultimately lost out to Vivien Leigh, who would later win an Oscar for the part. The future star did, however, go on to gain the leading role in the 1940 musical Too Many Girls. And it was on the set of this movie that she would meet one of the loves of her life.

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Indeed, the actor starred in Too Many Girls alongside Cuban-born bandleader Desi Arnaz, who played a bodyguard in the film. The pair soon fell in love and eloped within a year of meeting. And while Arnaz spent the majority of the war years entertaining wounded GIs, Ball continued her rise through Hollywood, signing to MGM during the 1940s.

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But despite MGM’s influence, Ball’s movie career floundered. Indeed, it was during this time that she earned the nickname “Queen of the B’s.” So, in order to make extra money and increase her exposure, the actor would also take radio jobs, and it was one of these roles that proved her big break.

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In 1948 Ball began starring as Liz Cooper in My Favorite Husband on CBS Radio. The audio show proved a hit and the network approached the actor to develop the program for TV. She accepted the offer, but had one condition. She wanted to star alongside her real-life partner and husband, Arnaz.

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At first, CBS was reluctant to cast Arnaz. For some reason, they thought that audiences wouldn’t accept American girl-next-door Ball with a Cuban husband. The network’s concerns were exacerbated when a pilot for the show, produced by the couple’s company, Desilu Productions, failed to impress. So that’s when Ball and Arnaz took matters into their own hands.

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The couple then went on the road with their very own vaudeville act, featuring Ball as a kooky housewife desperate to get into Arnaz’s show. The tour was a hit. And as a result, CBS snapped the pair up for I Love Lucy. The show would run for almost six years between 1951 and 1957. In addition, it became one of the most cherished TV shows ever produced.

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I Love Lucy first aired in 1951, the very same year that Ball and Arnaz welcomed their first child, Lucie Désirée Arnaz. However, all was not well in the couple’s marriage. In fact, the star had already filed for divorce from her husband in 1944, but they reconciled before the decree was finalized.

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With that in mind, I Love Lucy not only served as a vehicle to make Ball a star, but it also helped the pair salvage their marriage. Their relationship had suffered over the years, partly as a result of their busy work schedules. However, the biggest obstacle to the couple’s happiness was reportedly Arnaz’s wandering eye.

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And it appeared that I Love Lucy did help to heal the couple’s relationship, at least for a while. In 1953 the couple welcomed their second child, Desi Arnaz Jr. And in a groundbreaking move, the pregnancy was depicted on the hit sitcom, after CBS gained approval from a number of religious figures.

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Nevertheless, the title character’s pregnancy on I Love Lucy proved controversial. CBS was not allowed to show a pregnant woman on-screen, nor could the show use the word “pregnant” in the script. As a result, the term “expecting” was used in reference to Lucy’s pregnancy.

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The I Love Lucy episode in which the title character welcomed her child, Ricky, aired in January of 1953. And the landmark piece of television drew an impressive audience of 44 million. What’s more, that very same day in Los Angeles, Ball welcomed Desi Jr. via a scheduled cesarean section.

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I Love Lucy was, by this point, already dominating American ratings. As a result, Desilu Productions was now a major company. And as the success of the show grew, Ball and Arnaz were pressurized into relocating from their home in L.A. to New York, in order to suit the East Coast prime time slot. However, the couple refused.

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Instead, Ball and Arnaz agreed to smaller salaries in order to fund filming on the West Coast. But in return, they wanted Desilu Productions to have the rights to I Love Lucy episodes after their initial broadcast. This proved a shrewd business move for the couple. Indeed, in 1957, following the success of the sitcom, CBS handed over $1 million to company to get the rights back – a sum equal to just under $9 million today.

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However, the success of I Love Lucy and Desilu Productions only put more strain on the couple’s marriage. On screen, Ball and Arnaz continued to function as a double-act, even starring in two movies together, shot during breaks from their sitcom. But in real life, things were starting to fall apart.

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I Love Lucy ended its run in 1957, while still at the height of its popularity. Since then, the sitcom has been translated into tens of languages and still attracts a total of 40 million viewers a year in the U.S. The show is widely regarded as one of the most influential of all time. And it was named the “Best TV Show of All Time” in 2012.

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Moreover, throughout I Love Lucy’s run, the Emmys honored it with five wins. It also wracked up a number of other nominations, accolades and honors. Furthermore, in 1990 the sitcom received the distinction of being the Television Hall of Fame’s very first inductee. And it’s safe to say that the show made a superstar out of Ball.

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After I Love Lucy wrapped, Ball and Arnaz went on to appear together in The Lucy–Desi Comedy Hour. But the couple filmed their last scene as a double act in March 1960, after which Ball filed for divorce. In the papers, she claimed that her marriage was “a nightmare,” in stark contrast to the happy union audiences saw portrayed on their iconic show.

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The couple divorced in May 1960, but remained friends until Arnaz’s death in 1986. However, the split would have a lasting impact on Ball’s career. Indeed, from then on, she found herself typecast as a single woman. The actor, however, did tie the knot again in 1961, this time to comic Gary Morton.

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Following Ball’s split from Arnaz, she bought out her ex-husband’s share of Desilu Productions. This shrewd move made the star the first ever female head of a television studio. Extremely active in the running of the business, she is credited with pioneering some of the production methods still used in television today.

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Indeed, filming before a live studio audience is one such innovation Ball is responsible for. To do so, production teams must use multiple cameras and adjacent sets. Furthermore, I Love Lucy was the first ensemble-cast TV show. With that in mind, it’s hard to imagine moderns shows like The Big Bang Theory without the star’s pioneering vision.

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After I Love Lucy, Ball starred in Wildcat, a Broadway musical, for a brief period in 1960. She also presented a chat show for CBS Radio called Let’s Talk to Lucy between 1964 and 1965. Furthermore, the star enjoyed success with two more sitcoms, The Lucy Show, which ran from 1962 to 1968, and Here’s Lucy, which aired between 1968 and 1974.

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Ball continued to star in comedy television specials up until around 1980. After that, she tried to revive her sitcom career. But by the end of the decade, though, her health was diminishing. And in April 1989 the star underwent an aortic transplant at Cedars-Sinai hospital after experiencing chest pain.

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The surgery went well, but a week later, Ball lost consciousness after experiencing severe pain in her back. She sadly passed away that same day, April 26, 1989, following an aortic aneurysm, which doctors determined was not directly linked to her surgery. The star was 77 years of age at her time of passing.

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Though Ball was gone, she left behind a rich legacy. Throughout her career, the star received an impressive 13 Emmy nominations, bagging four of them. She also received not one, but two Hollywood Walk of Fame stars for her work in TV and film, respectively. What’s more, she received the Cecil B. DeMille Award from the Golden Globes and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences bestowed upon the actor the Governor’s Award.

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And the accolades didn’t stop there for Ball. Following her death, she was awarded a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom by George H. W. Bush. Meanwhile, in Jamestown, N.Y., there is a Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum and Center for Comedy. And Time magazine named the star one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century.

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A month prior to Ball’s death, in March 1989, she made her final public appearance at that year’s Oscars ceremony. She co-presented with fellow comedy legend Bob Hope and both Hollywood greats received a standing ovation from the audience. With that in mind, the star’s last moments on stage were spent how she’d have hoped – accompanied by a chorus of applause.

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