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When They Trod the Boards: "I Love Lucy" Edition
This series is designed to showcase the often little-known stage background of popular TV and movie stars. In this installment, we'll explore the Broadway origins of the cast of I Love Lucy, including the secret life of Ethel Mertz!
Who didn’t grow up with Lucy? I Love Lucy, one of the most popular television programs of all time, has been in continuous syndication since it premiered in 1951. Ever since the first television signals of Lucy began to leak out of our atmosphere, now heading towards distant star systems 60 light years away, here on earth the show is in permanent re-run heaven.
Lucille Ball had an extensive career in Hollywood before the pilot season of I Love Lucy, appearing in numerous RKO films. Her only notable stage work was well after Lucy ended, when she headlined the 1960 Broadway musical production Wildcat to mixed reviews.
Desi Arnaz started as a musical performer on stage, much like his persona on the TV show. He is best known for Too Many Girls (1939).
While Lucy's top-billed stars had their brushes with the stage, it was Fred and Ethel who were the real Broadway workhorses (ironically, they portrayed washed-up former Vaudevillians in Lucy), displaying their chops throughout the 1930s and 40s in legitimate theater.
William Frawley had a substantial, albeit unremarkable, career on stage, often playing tough-guy supporting roles in comedies and farces in the 1920s and 30s on Broadway.
As it turns out, in the theatrical sphere at least, Ethel was the real star of I Love Lucy. On stage, Vivian Vance, an elegant and attractive contralto, was anything but the frumpy has-been she portrayed on Lucy. Vivian got her start singing on stage in the early 1930s and soon earned progressively larger roles, appearing in big musicals like Anything Goes (1934), Let's Face It (1941), and The Cradle Will Rock (1947). Who knew?
We think it's high time Ethel had her due, so the lovely Vivian Vance gets her own mini-gallery, starring on Broadway with the likes of Ethel Merman, Bob Hope, and Danny Kaye.
All photographs derive from the photograph collection of the Billy Rose Theatre Division at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Please visit the Library's Digital Gallery for more pics or contact us for more information!
Borrow all seasons of I Love Lucy on DVD free at NYPL, as well as books about the making of the TV show and biographies about Lucy, Desi, Fred, and Ethel. Fred fans can also listen to his album Bill Frawley Sings the Old Ones at LPA! Researchers may also want to go deep and explore our archival collections, namely the A. J. Antoon Papers (unproduced musical project based on I Love Lucy) and the Marco Rizo Papers (musical compañero of Desi Arnaz who composed and performed and wrote about his work on I Love Lucy). We even have the FBI file on I Love Lucy (yes, you heard right!).