Important Women Who Changed Business Forever: Lucille Ball
Before Oprah or Barbara Walters, there was Lucille Ball, who paved the way for women in not only show business but also the business world. She was a tough cookie who exhibited control over her environment with grace and style. She knew men of the business world were watching her, and she had to succeed. Partner and husband Desi Arnaz was co-owners with her in Desilu Productions, but Ball ran the show.
Ball's Early Life
Ball was born in 1911 in Jamestown, NY. She came from poor, humble beginnings. When she was 15, she convinced her mother to allow her to go to the New York Drama School. Today, we would not suspect that she was shy and quiet with all the zany antics she performed on radio and film. The administrator of the school, not seeing past the shy girl, wrote to Ball's mother telling her not to waste her money and the school’s time with this shy, awkward young lady. Ball obviously overcame her shyness and went on to become an actress, model, dancer, and eventually the first woman to own and run her own film studio.
The First Couple of Show Business
Her climb to the top was full of B movies and physical comedy. She even tried out for the role of Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. In the '40s, she met young Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz, and eventually their romance took off and they married. Desi supported Lucy in her career rather than holding her back.
The Beginnings of I Love Lucy and Desilu
Lucy landed the main role in the radio show My Favorite Husband. CBS liked the show so much they wanted Lucy to take it to television. Lucy insisted that Desi play her husband for the television version. CBS said no to Desi playing her husband in the new show. So, rather than go on without Desi, she and Desi took the show to vaudeville with a version of the radio show, and they renamed it I Love Lucy. Seeing the success of the vaudeville road show, CBS relented and brought Lucy and Desi onboard for the television version of I Love Lucy that we know and love today.
Desi Arnaz, constantly one to try new things, wanted to tape live performances, which was risky and expensive during the '50s. Again, CBS said no to them. Desi and Lucy, once again, did not take "no" for an answer. They negotiated to get their way with the show and even agreed to less money if they could film the show, retain all rights to the show, and begin their own productions company, Desilu—and so it began.
The Show Is a Hit
The couple's physical comedy and Lucy's role as a housewife trying to break into show business, which usually caused hot-tempered Desi's blood pressure to skyrocket, created skyrocketing ratings—I Love Lucy was a hit. Its success brought them fame and fortune beyond everyone's wildest dreams. The show made Desi and Lucy the first couple of television. Households around the nation tuned in to watch Lucy get herself into one fix after another, trying to break out of her housewife shell.
Working at the Chocolate Factory
Breaking Ground for Women
I Love Lucy with Lucy’s genius broke ground for women in television and in the homes. Even though it was a 1950s comedy, there were subtle issues addressed about marriage and possible jealousies the wife of a nightclub bandleader might experience with other women. Lucy's comical yet serious women's rights issue, the portrayal of women working outside the home, was a main theme running throughout the years of the show. Also, Lucy was the first woman to ever appear on television pregnant.
On the show, Desi, unlike his real-life role as supportive husband for the business, was the husband who wanted his wife to stay home and never enter his show, but Lucy was always up to something trying to get out of the home. He always caught her and she was always repentant—for the time—and he always forgave her—for the time—at least until the next show. They provided one gut-busting laugh after another each week with this "run amok" housewife theme.
Portrayals of Women Working Outside the Home
Who can forget Lucy and Ethel working at the chocolate factory? Lucy and Ethel are supposed to be wrapping chocolates and are told they will be fired if even one chocolate gets passed them. Of course, they try to keep up and end up hiding the chocolates at first in their pockets. The supervisor sees what a “wonderful” job they are doing and shouts for the conveyor belt to be sped up so they can wrap more chocolates. They start stuffing pockets and mouths and are over taken by the chocolate. A hilarious scene, but how true would it have been for a woman at the time to work harder to keep her job?
Another noteworthy time that Lucy tries to work outside the home is when she gets the job as the Vitametavegamin Commercial Girl. The concoction tasted as "good" as is sounded. Lucy’s physical comedy and facial expressions steal the scene. With most “health products” at the time, it was laced with an alcohol base. As the commercial went on, Lucy became hilariously more inebriated. Again, she is in a struggle to hang onto a job.
The Show Mirrored the Struggles Women Faced in the '50s
These classic works of young women wanting to make it in a male dominated world were being brought to the forefront of America’s living rooms. Although these are extreme scenes filled with humor, the underlying message is the desperation women felt in order to keep a good job in the '50s. Many women of this generation had worked outside the home during WWII when it was necessary for workers of either gender to step in. When the men came back from the war, the women were sent back to the home.
Lucy’s constant fight and frustration to work and be in the limelight mirrored many women’s thoughts. Lucy had the spunk and smarts to show it on screen and was living her dream in her real life. What seemed subtle in the story lines of each show were just fanning the flames for the woman's movement. Lucy was a success and was, in her way, passing it on to America's female audience.
"We're Having a Baby, My Baby and Me"
Lucy's Pregnancy on the Show
Lucille Ball did not stop breaking ground with her antics to work outside the home; she was the first woman to appear on television pregnant. The episodes with a very pregnant Lucy carrying real life son, Desi, Jr., known as Little Ricky on the show, gained some of television’s highest ratings. Lucy took a great risk for women of this time period by showing her pregnancy on television. She broke the 1950s stereotyped housewife and made television history by appearing on the show in all her pregnant glory.
Pregnancy was not a subject openly discussed back then because it implied sexual relations, which was taboo on radio, on television, and in many tradition-bound homes across the nation. Women of America were ready for these subjects to be brought to the forefront. Already well into her pregnancy, I Love Lucy aired the show of Lucy telling Desi she was pregnant. He received an anonymous request from a woman to sing “We’re Having a Baby, My Baby and Me.” It is one of the most beautiful scenes in television history.
When Lucy acted out going into labor on the show, ratings were the highest ever for that one episode. Everyone wanted to see Little Ricky brought into the world. Again, television history was made with the birth of a baby. Lucy dared to be real.
After having Desi, Jr., Lucy was ready to share their son with the world and went back to work on the show. Another piece of show business trivia is that the first copy of TV Guide premiered with Lucille Ball and Desi, Jr., on the front cover. Hmmm . . . a woman and a baby on a television magazine cover? Television history in the making.
The End of a Marriage but the Beginning of a New Age for Women
Lucy and Desi worked together on Desilu Productions during the 50’s. During their amicable divorce in the 60's, Desi sold his shares of Desilu to Lucy, making Lucille Ball the first woman to ever own and run a film production company. She was the one at the reigns and was beginning her new show, The Lucy Show. With Lucille Ball at the helm, Desilu went on to produce more big television shows such as The Dick Van Dyke Show, Star Trek, and The Untouchables. Desi continued to give her moral support even though their famous marriage had ended.
Lucille Ball Opened Many Doors for Women
Lucille Ball opened doors for women on television, in the board room, on the factory assembly line, in the office, and at home. Creating a character who diligently tried to work outside the home while juggling being housewife and mother was a new concept for the majority of wives and mothers in the 50’s. Being a woman who owned a film production company in the 60’s was unknown for women of the time. She is and will continue to be an American icon who shared her successes with women around the world then and now.
"I Love Lucy" Is Still Popular Today
How many of you still watch "I Love Lucy" reruns?
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2012 Susan Holland