From Penniless to President

Sunday, March 11, 2018

If you tuned in to CBS on the night of October 15th, 1951, you'd hear a catchy tune signaling not just the start of a new show, but the beginnings of a nationwide tradition. "Telephone calls across the nation dropped sharpy during that half hour, as well as the water flush rate, as whole families sat glued to their seats." (Love, Lucy, 1996). But how does a starving model in New York become a household name across America?

Early modeling years
Since a young age, Lucille Ball always had an interest in performing and making people laugh. As a teenager, she decided to pursue acting as a profession, and moved into the city to attend the John Murray Anderson-Robert Milton Theater School. There, she was ignored by her peers and dismissed by her professors as having no potential as an actress. She was told she was unphotogenic and lacked any valuable talents. Desperate to make her dreams a reality, Lucille stayed in the city, despite not being able to afford a cup of coffee for a nickel, eventually finding work as a model at Hattie Carnegie's famous dress shop. After being featured in a billboard ad for Chesterfield cigarettes, she was noticed by theatrical agent Sylvia Hahlo, who was in town scouting for a last minute replacement for Eddie Cantor's upcoming production Roman Scandals.

Lucille arrived in Hollywood for the first time in 1933. She didn't know what to expect, but she knew she was just glad to be there. She was ready to take on any acting job, even if it meant being chained under sizzling stage lamps for hours at a time during a scene, or going blind for two days after having talcum powder accidentally blown into her eye.
Lucy in 1936

"I took the slapstick parts the other starlets spurned, and never whined about the siphon water and pies in the face. I considered myself lucky to be paid while learning a business I adored."

Despite dangerous working conditions, Lucy quickly started building up her filmography. By 1948, she landed an important role in a radio series with Richard Denning titled My Favorite Husband. In it, she played the zany wife of a bank executive, constantly getting herself into trouble. Sound familiar? This would soon become the foundation for the most celebrated television show in America.

I Love Lucy was originally slated to star Richard Denning, however Lucy vigorously campaigned for husband Desi Arnaz. Initially, executives at CBS did not accept the idea of a Cuban being married to an All-American redhead; but after a successful vaudeville routine, CBS agreed to pay for the show's pilot with Lucy and Desi in the lead. I Love Lucy became an instant success, reaching the number one spot on the top 10 Nielsen ratings just four months after the show first aired, and for Lucy, this was an enormous personal victory. Twenty years after being overlooked by her instructors as a girl with big dreams but no talent, Lucille Ball had finally reached the recognition she fought so hard to achieve.

Lucy and Desi in 1954

At the end of her Lucy years, she decided to take her experience as an actress and use it to mentor others. She created the Desilu Workshop, a place for aspiring actors, writers, and producers, and dedicated her time to coaching them. Lela Rogers had been one of the few people who saw her potential as a rising star, and Lucy was passionate about offering that same guidance to others as she had once received from Lela.

Two years after her 1960 divorce from Desi, and after a $3 million deal, she became the first female owner of a major television studio. Lucy had purchased Desi's controlling interest in Desilu Productions, making her president of the company.

Once a starving model from the East Coast with barely a few pennies to her unknown name, Lucille Ball conquered Hollywood, and now her name will never be forgotten. Nearly seven decades after the first episode of her show aired, everybody still loves Lucy.

Lucille in 1962

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