Written By: Daniel S. Levy
The 64 members of the St. Lucy’s Cadets drum-and-bugle corps made a formidable sight. Marching with their trumpets, tubas, drums, and flags, the Newark, New Jersey, band blazed through the Hollywood, U.S.A., section of the New York World’s Fair. But the fire-engine red wigs they wore hinted that there would be more to the show than just music on that August day in 1964. For behind them, seated atop a white convertible, rode Lucille Ball, the redheaded centerpiece of “Lucille Ball Day,” the fair’s daylong fete for America’s most beloved comedienne. Lucy waved and threw kisses, delighting the throngs snapping her picture. “People were so thrilled to be in her presence. And she thrilled to a crowd,” says Kathleen Brady, author of Lucille: The Life of Lucille Ball.
The TV star pressed her hands in wet concrete at a replica of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, visited a Lucy Luau at the Hawaiian Pavilion, and changed outfits a number of times during her visit to the World’s Fair. “That was the thing about Lucy. She always needed people,” says Brady. When popular CBS News anchor Jim Jensen asked the star if she planned to snag one of the wigs donned by the high school marching band, she responded without missing a beat. “Gosh, no. Do you think my hair is really that color?”
Nearly seven decades later, Lucille Ball’s audience still thrills to the comedian’s outrageous pratfalls and deftly planted punch lines. She has been called “a Marx sister,” a madcap sibling of Groucho, Harpo, and Chico, and a comic genius in the company of Chaplin, Keaton, and Laurel and Hardy. She touched audiences and cracked them up by portraying Everywoman with pathos. When Lucy Ricardo, the middle-class housewife who yearned for glitzy fame, debuted in the 1950s, most women on TV were primly dressed, deferential moms. American society back then largely frowned on women who pursued careers and sought to make a spectacle of themselves.
Even on I Love Lucy, the main character’s husband, played by Lucille Ball’s real spouse, Cuban-born bandleader Desi Arnaz, longed for a wife who would stay at home and care for the kids, not one who brimmed with ambition and could never accept a life of cooking and cleaning. Instead, Lucy seemed genetically programmed to tilt endlessly at societal constraints in her restless search for fame. While viewers knew that every one of her schemes to make it big would come crashing down, it didn’t matter. They just couldn’t stop cheering her on, laughing and having a ball.
Yet that show and several Lucy sequels proved to be both groundbreaking and stealthily feminist. They presciently included story lines dealing with issues like marital tension, pregnancy, parenthood, women in the workplace, and the commonly felt angst of suburban life. Lucy and her neighbor Ethel presented a humorous yet realistic and loving female friendship. “She showed that female buddies like Lucy and Ethel were just as important and appealing as male buddies like Bob Hope and Bing Crobsy,” says Brady.
Lucy Ricardo, though, was not Lucille Ball. Whereas one was a starry-eyed optimist, the other was a clear-eyed striver. The actress with the baby blues, dyed Raggedy-Ann hair, and infectious laugh was a by-your-bootstraps performer who paid her dues by taking whatever parts Hollywood studios doled out. Her furious work ethic, intelligence, and vision could not be contained. Ball’s timing and masterly wit—which she unveiled in her movies and polished to perfection on TV—were unique. There has never since been a character or show quite like hers. Even so, traces of Lucy’s comic DNA can be detected in such programs as Three’s Company, Everybody Loves Raymond, Seinfeld, Ellen, and Will & Grace.
Beyond her on-air brilliance, Ball was the cofounder with Arnaz of Desilu Productions, which revolutionized television. I Love Lucy introduced the use of the multiple-camera format for filming and the live studio audience. Both of these innovations became industry standards without which such sitcoms as The Honeymooners, Cheers, The Big Bang Theory, and countless others would have been very different shows. Desilu also pioneered another staple of TV as we know it: the rerun.
Soon after Lucy split from Desi in 1960 and assumed the controlling interest in Desilu, she crashed through another ceiling. As the studio president, she became the first woman to own and run a major modern Hollywood production studio, and she succeeded though gumption and smarts. She ignored the advice of others and gave the green light to what would become such enduring and influential TV shows as Mission: Impossible and Star Trek. Personally and by example, her career in front of and behind the cameras in movies and on television has inspired generations of female performers and business women, from Carol Burnett, Lily Tomlin, Candice Bergen, Gilda Radner, and Sherry Lansing to Debra Messing, Tina Fey, Amy Schumer, and Greta Gerwig. As her friend Burnett noted, “She opened those doors for women to be accepted as executives.” On that summer day in 1964 when Lucy visited the World’s Fair, the star watched a compilation of her work dubbed in Japanese, French, German, and Spanish that vividly demonstrated the global appeal of her 1950s hit show and its sequel, The Lucy Show, which could then be seen in 44 countries. Today, 32 years after her death and seven decades after I Love Lucy first aired, Lucille Ball’s work is still omnipresent, available online and on TV for devotees to enjoy and neophyte viewers to joyously discover. As one fan said, “Every minute of the day, somewhere, someone is watching I Love Lucy.” And why not? She’s easy to love.
Here is a selection of photographs from Lucille Ball: Her Life, Love and Legacy.