By: Helen Gilore | Photoplay - February, 1942
The buzz in the RKO commissary rose a good octave as the girl with the hair like a tossed salad of gold paused in the doorway.
"Hi, Lucille!" a table of wagsters hailed her. "Join the comedy club. All you have to do is tell the funniest thing that ever happened to you!"
The girl moved over to the group with a lithe casualness, her long-lashed blue eyes measuring them. "Well, the funniest thing was when Desi and I were on our honeymoon. She grinned suddenly and sat down. "He was filling an engagement at a night club in Miami when the Presidential Birthday Balls were taking place and Miami asked him to be master of ceremonies for theirs with me as guest star. The Governor of Florida was to be there, the Mayor of Miami and a slew of dignitaries. I went into a dither memorizing titles so I wouldn't muff the event.
"The big night came. I draped on the white furs over my favorite pink evening dress with eighteen yards of fluff around the bottom and off we went with motorcycle police escorts, sirens, spotlights - super premiere stuff.
"Everything was wonderful. Desi was going like a house afire. Then he introduced me."
At this point Lucille jumped up to give an imitation of herself. "I approached the microphone daintily - oh, so daintily - got through my little speech of your excellencies and your honors without a miss, then bowed my way backwards during the applause to my seat. That is, almost to my seat. Because just as I got there, my heel struck the chair, both feet went up in the air - but air, I'm telling you - and me and the eighteen yards did a reverse spread eagle right on the back!"
To the vast amusement of the commissary Lucille proceeded to fall over the chair at the next table and sprawl on the floor, smart slacks, polo coat and all.
"What did Desi do?" someone laughed. "Do?" She scrambled up, snatched a fork from the table and held it with both hands in front of her to represent a microphone. "He just hung on to the mike with both hands, practically paralyzed with laughter. So was the whole auditorium. When he finally got his breath, he pointed at me where I was still on the floor with four men trying to hoist me and said helplessl , 'Ladies and gentlemen - my wife' - and went off into another gale."
Lucille dusted herself off vigorously. "That's the time Ball got a bigger laugh than Hope or Bergen ever did!"
There you have the side of Lucille Ball that Hollywood sees. But there's another girl who walks behind the seemingly assured star - a desperately shy girl whom Lucille has had to thrust aside ruthlessly to make her place in the world. This second self, who really came first in Lucille's life, had her roots in a strange and unhappy childhood where tears were her constant companion, instead of the laughter which is now the Ball stock in trade. And in her conquest of tears lies the solution for many a misfit life.
When Lucille was two years old the sudden death of her father, who was an electrical engineer in Butte, Montana, broke up the Ball home. Her health shattered by the blow, Mrs. Ball returned with Lucille and her baby brother Fred to her people in Jamestown, New York. Lucille was sent to live with a relative, a woman well along in years whose old-fashioned background of starched self-discipline did not equip her to handle the high-tensioned, imaginative youngster with whom she found herself sharing her home. The child was frowned upon for having her nose constantly in a book and upbraided when she was caught m the extravagant play-actings which in her loneliness took the place of companions. Nevertheless, she contrived to create two imaginary playmates who were her refuge through the years, Bob and Sassa Frassa - the latter, a horse, if you must know.
The child's appalling sense of isolation began to affect her school work. Called upon to recite in class, her eyes, like teacups of blue china that are too full, would brim over and not a word she could she utter of a lesson she knew by heart. Her teacher tried to bridge the gap by organizing a birthday party for Lucille at school. Word of this got to Lucille's guardian who in what she meant to be kindness told the youngster of the surprise party. She ended by saying flatly, "I thought you'd better know so you would be prepared."
This precipitated another storm of weeping and the two looked at each other in despair across their separate worlds. Even today. Lucille bears the scar of this habit when, confronted by bafflement, or any of the old frustrations, she seeks quick escape in tears which as quicklypass.
Release came to the child when Lucille's mother, who had married again in the meantime, sent for her daughter now that she could once more offer her a happy home. In Jamestown, where the Hunts, her mother's French-Irish family, have lived so long that a street bears their name, the tall girl, whose grace was yet only a promise, came into her own. Under the warm understanding hand of her mother, whom she has always worshipped, Lucille became a leader of the younger set. She was jumping center of the girls' basketball team. Her horseback riding was good enough to win her a spot on a woman's polo team. She became an excellent shot with a gun, drove cars and even flew a small private plane, this girl who was too timid to recite in a classroom.
After a year at the Chautauqua Institute of Music in an effort to follow in the footsteps of her mother, who is an accomplished pianist,Lucille prevailed upon the family to let her attend John Murray Anderson's school of dramatics in New York. For the years of damned-backchildhood were crying for expression. But somehow the school didn't seem to turn the trick. Alone in the biggest town in the world, she found that all the old fears were returning - fear of people, fear that they didn't like her, fear of failure.
Bette Davis was the bright and shining student there. Not so Lucille, who gazed at her with envy and despair. Once again fright rosein her throat and tears in her eyes as she mumbled through diction classes and hugged the backdrop whenever she was given bits to play inclass dramas.
At length the whole tear psychology came to an abrupt climax. Discouraged with her progress at the dramatic school, Lucille answered a chorus call for Ziegfeld's road show of "Rio Rita" and agonized through weeks of the show when the stage manager would yell at her, "Hey, you, why don't you open your mouth and sing?" Terrified, she would make hermouth go, pretending to be singing with the others.
Finally the day came when she was handed her notice. The world went black. Crying softly, she walked along the street to her hotel room. Would it be poison or just a quiet dive out the window? As you may ha vesuspected, it was neither. Sensibly enough, she tried to get her job back, haunting the stage manager for two days without daring to spea k tohim until he finally shouted, "No, you can't have your job back! Nowwill you stop following me?"
Lucille stood on the curb and wept some more. Then something occurred which has happened in the lives of so many of us. A chance meeting, a chance word and suddenly thrust into our hands which opens the door to a totally different life. In this instance, a friend of Lucille's happened by. He asked what was the matter and after she had blurted out her story, he said:
"Don't be that way. Crying doesn't pay off." He scribbled down an address on a card. "Here. If you need a job, go down to this company. They'll give you a job modeling a coat for twenty-five dollars." Andhe was gone.
LUCILLE stared at the card. What had he said? "Crying doesn't pay off." Brother, was he right! Maybe she'd better try laughing. At least if she laughed at herself first, she could beat the rest of the world to the punch - maybe save herself the punch. And from that moment she began to build her armor of comedy.
Flinging the tears out of her eyes, squaring her shoulders and her chin, the future female comedy riot reported at the address on the card. And one of America's most famous models was born, the girl who was soon to become a mannequin in the famous Hattie Carnegie salon, the Chesterfield Girl and finally be chosen as one of the famous poster models imported by Mr. Goldwyn for the Eddie Cantor picture, "Roman Scandals."
Lucille was anything but agog over the prospects of going to Hollywood. The wounds of her drama school and "Rio Rita" experiences were still too fresh. But she was badly in need of a rest. Six weeks in the celebrated California sunshine with all expenses paid there and back - not bad.
But what with one thing and another, the "back" didn't take place for almost as many years. First, because the girl with the sultry mouth and the little-girl eyes seemed to have caught on luckily to one of the rings of the Hollywood merry-go-round. Then, when the ring slipped out of her hand for a time, she didn't have the money to go back. And finally, after she was definitely established at RKO, they worked her like a steam shovel. So much so that when, after many cancelled New York vacations, someone tried to commiserate with her, she got off her now classic crack:
"Oh, but I am getting a vacation, hadn't you heard? They let me sit down now between scenes!"
Under the department of Lowest Moments, Lucille says: "Mine was the day Mother, Fred and Dad (as she calls her grandfather) came to live with me out here. Sounds inhospitable, doesn't it? But you see, I'd just been fired and we were all supposed to live on the fruits of my first contract. As soon as Columbia had given it to me, I had wired for the family. But the studio closed down its stock company and we were all out - Ann Sothern, Gene Raymond, a bunch of us. I had to go and borrow some money before I could meet the family at the train."
Luckily RKO decided to put on "Roberta" with a promising new dance team, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and Lucille bagged herself a bit as a dress model, her Hattie Carnegie technique making her a natural. This resulted in her first RKO contract - "Fifty bucks a week," she will tell you without batting one lush eyelash.
The RKO ladder hasn't been a dizzying one in point of speed. It took a lot of pictures to win her her first good comedy break in "That Girl From Paris" in which she got a chance to take a couple of high kicks winding up in a split, all done by the aid of soaped shoes. Came "Stage Door" and a few more well timed sock lines and presently - if you could call two years later "presently" - "Dance, Girls, Dance." Unquestionably the role of the burlesque queen in that picture has been Lucille's best to date, though there is much bating of breath around the lot these days over the picture they whisper will make her a full-blown star, "Passage From Bordeaux," the film on which William L. Shirer of "Berlin Diary" fame is acting as technical director. Meantime she's doing very all right in "Valley Of The Sun."
BUT Lucille wouldn't tell you that "Dance, Girls, Dance" or "Valley Of The Sun" or even "Passage From Bordeaux" was her greatest break. Because it was on "Too Many Girls" that she met Desi Arnaz. And a rare meeting it was. They had their first look at each other in the studio commissary and the moment was one of instant and mutual dislike.
Asked if Lucille considers herself a hunch girl, one of those creatures who has an infallible first impression of her fellow man, Lucille says, "I should say not! Look at Desi. I did just that - gave him a look - just one good long one - and said to myself, 'Am I normal or can this really be the Cuban sensation that has knocked New York night life out of its floor show seats?"
In all justice Desi was looking like anything but a glamour boy at the moment. He was dirty and perspiring in a greasy old leather jacket. The immaculate ebony hair comb was aimed in all directions. In fact, Desi had been rehearsing some football tricks for "Too Many Girls."
On the other hand, Desi matches Lucille for off-the-beam first impressions. He took one look at her as she breezed into the room in an evening gown, burlesque style, with a white fox coat to the ankles in the best Broadway bad taste, her hair a mess, her face scratched up with one eye prominently blacked - a too perfect make-up job - and said "Caramba!" or its Havana equivalent. Lucille, you see, had been staging her battle with Maureen O'Hara in "Dance, Girls, Dance."
Three hours later, bathed and groomed, they met on the steps of the RKO Little Theater where George Abbott had issued a call for the cast of the picture in which they both were to be. Desi, looking every inch the Latin Launcelot, flashed a smile at the apparition of peaches and cream and gold. ''Haven't we met somewhere?"
FROM that point they continued to meet with ever-increasing frequency. The picture was finished. Desi was scheduled to go back to New York for personal appearances and a winter's job at Miami. Lucille was tied down with picture commitments. They knew they wouldn't see each other for a year. Miserably they pulled up at a drive-in stand one night and tried to comfort each other by recounting all the reasons that a marriage between them simply wouldn't work.
So Desi left for Manhattan and Lucille was sent out by the studio on a personal appearance tour. Then the wires began to hum. More specifically, they began to explode. Desi was distinctly unhappy with Lucille so far away from him. At length George Schaefer, head of RKO, picked his Cupid's bow and arrow and the long distance phone and called Lucille where she was playing in Milwaukee. "Why don't you take a run down to New York," he suggested. Just as if he didn't know Desi wasappearing at the Roxy Theater there!
The result was a morning dash by Lucille and Desi to Greenwich, Connecticut, and a marriage license. There was no time to get a regular wedding ring, so Desi tore into a Woolworth's and bought his beautiful bride a ten cent ring. Lucille wears it to this day, along with the stunning square-cut diamond band he gave her on their second honeymoon.Oh, yes, they're having a series of honeymoons because each one has been interrupted prematurely, according to their notion of time. They've had five so far and they seem in a fair way to be celebrating a permanent one on their new North Ridge ranch in San Fernando Valley.
THE house is California ranch style and they chose it because the five acres on which it stands were virtually unplanted, even to the swimming pool, now a dream come true. This gave them an opportunity to leave thestamp of the Arnaz personalities in developing the flora and fauna. Regarding the latter, three canines have figured prominently, the Duke of North Ridge, Pinto the Great and Sir Thomas of Chatsworth (the name of the street on which they live). Then one night what might be called an alley cat, except that a cat would have to go a mighty long way to see an alley in those parts, barged into the menage and promptly becamethe Duchess of Devonshire, to be augmented later by Queenie, another peregrinating feline.
Prize poultry has been installed, a hundred or more birds, and the Arnaz breakfast table now sees its own homegrown eggs at a mere twenty cents a crack.
As for the flora, Desi and Lucille planned to kill two birds with one rock by giving a housewarming consisting of a tree party (each guestbrings a tree) in honor of the dogs. But tragedy struck. The Duke of North Ridge sickened and died, so the party had to be postponed. So did the trees.
Contrary to the usual Hollywood story of the men who make a star's career, it is to four women Lucille is especially grateful. Two of these are Ginger Rogers and her mother Lela who, in her capacity as head of the studio dramatic school at that time, taught Lucille most of what s heknows about acting. Lela Rogers never had a more ardent student. When other glamour kids were making up excuses to cut classes because of atoo-late party the night before, the Ball girl was there with eyes aglow, thankful for the chance.
Claudette Colbert is the third. Lucille has never more than met Miss Colbert on social occasions. Yet again and again, word has come back to her that her right ear should have been burning because at dinner the night before, at the Zanucks, for instance, Claudette was singing her praises as one of the most promising younger stars. Or at a premiere with the Sam Goldwyns. Or when she was visiting Louis B. Mayerat Metro. Just one of those things that re-established your faith in Hollywood.
Last but not least is Carole Lombard. Their first encounter was when Lucille had wandered over to a friend's for dinner in her favorite article of apparel, slacks, when who should walk in but the Gables. After one startled gulp the RKO comedy bombshell - and we mean Lucille - froze up like a Nesselrode pudding, too scared to open her mouth. Not s o Carole. She plopped herself down beside Lucille, told her what a futureshe believed she had and exactly what she should do about the next steps in her career. Lucille followed that counsel to her everlasting gratitude.
Then shortly after Desi and Lucille returned to Hollywood as newlyweds, they were having dinner at Dave Chasen's and spied the Gables at another table. Not wishing to intrude, the two Arnazes gaped and grinned at their idols like two dumbstruck fans. Presently the Gables waved gaily at them and before they could catch their breath over came a case of champagne as a wedding present from Clark and Carole.
So perhaps you can understand why Lucille has decided it's a swell world if you keep on laughing.
No Right Click