Lucille Ball (Getty Images / Hulton Archive / Silver Screen Collection)
There was a time when everyone loved Lucy.
Lucille Ball, who starred as a dizzy housewife with dreams of stardom in the groundbreaking sitcom I Love Lucy, was the "queen of comedy … noted for impeccable timing, deft pantomime and an endearing talent for making the outrageous believable," noted her obituary in The New York Times. A legend in her lifetime, she remains one today, 25 years after her death April 26, 1989.
With husband and co-star Desi Arnaz at her side, Ball and her signature red hair dominated the small screen for decades.
"She's an icon. She was so revolutionary on so many different levels," said Steve Neilans, communications coordinator at the Lucy Desi Museum & Center for Comedy in Jamestown, N.Y., Ball's hometown. "Modern television wouldn't be anything without Lucy and Desi."
In addition to her onscreen career, Ball was a savvy businesswoman, serving as an executive for two Hollywood businesses, Desilu Productions and Lucille Ball Productions. She was the first woman to head a major Hollywood studio.
Born Aug. 6, 1911, as Lucille Desiree Ball, the future queen of comedy went to Manhattan at age 15 and enrolled in the John Murray Anderson School for the Dramatic Arts, where Bette Davis was a student. Her teachers there discouraged the shy teenager from pursuing acting, but Ball persisted, winning jobs as a model and a Chesterfield Cigarette Girl. In 1933 she was tapped as a chorus girl in the movie Roman Scandals. When Ball volunteered to take a pie in the face during filming, she caught the attention of the legendary choreographer Busby Berkeley, according to Lucy A to Z: The Lucille Ball Encyclopedia.
In the 1930s alone, Ball appeared in 43 films, "sometimes a nurse or a dancer, sometimes a flower clerk or a college girl, but always there," according to her biography on the American Masters website on PBS.org. By the end of the decade she was known as "Queen of the B Movies."
Ball met Arnaz on the set of 1940's Too Many Girls and the couple married six months later, according to People magazine.
In the late 1940s, Ball took on the role of a zany housewife married to a Midwestern banker on the CBS Radio show My Favorite Husband. The program ended in 1951, and CBS wanted to repackage it for television.
Ball was game, but insisted Arnaz play her husband on television. When CBS opposed the idea, Ball and Arnaz took the show on the road in a vaudeville-style revue, with Ball as an obsessed wife who wanted a part in her bandleader husband's show. It was a great success, and CBS agreed to air I Love Lucy.
The sitcom, featuring Ball and Arnaz as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, was the most-watched television show in America for four of its six seasons. "The Ricardos were the best-known, best-loved couple in America," The New York Times said.
The program also proved "the perfect home for Ball –– a place where she could return to the physical comedy she was master of, while working alongside the man she loved," according to the American Masters website. "This love, of the work and the people, came through and created a unique, more personable kind of star, one unknown before television. For many Americans, tuning in every week was a way of seeing what an old friend was up to. Each new show looked at a different aspect of everyday life, finding humor in our dreams and frustrations."
When Ball was pregnant with the couple's second child, her television character was pregnant, too. On Jan. 19, 1953, Lucy gave birth to Little Ricky on the air on the same night Ball gave birth to her son, Desi Jr. With 44 million viewers, "Lucy Goes to the Hospital" was the most-watched episode in television history at the time.
I Love Lucy broke new television ground. Arnaz saw the opportunity to record a show so it could be aired again later, basically "inventing the idea of syndicated television," Neilans said. The show also was the first to use multiple camera angles.
And the show challenged social mores. Ball and Arnaz were allowed to be shown as married, "which in itself was breaking barriers," Neilans said. Ball also was the first pregnant woman shown on television, although the word "pregnant" was never mentioned, he said. "They said she was expecting."
Ball and Arnaz divorced in 1960. She continued to act, helming three other television series. While running her own studio, she brought shows like Mission: Impossible and Star Trek into American homes.
But perhaps her biggest legacy is laughter. Her show continues to air in re-runs, and an annual festival in Jamestown that bears her name encourages aspiring comedians to take the stage. "Everybody likes to laugh," Neilans said. "Everybody likes to feel happy. Who better than Lucy and Desi to do that for people?"
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."