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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.


Paula Stewart with Lucille Ball in the musical Wildcat, 1960.Paula Stewart with Lucille Ball in the musical Wildcat, 1960.

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).

[Diosa Costello (Pepe) and Desi Arnaz (Manuelito) in Too Many Girls], Digital ID ps_the_cd46_712, New York Public LibraryDiosa Costello as Pepe and Desi Arnaz as Manuelito in Too Many Girls, 1939. Lucy herself would portray Pepe with Arnaz in the movie version a year later.

The Mertz's

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 in the stage production The Ghost Writer, 1933.William Frawley in the stage production The Ghost Writer, 1933. 


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.

Vivian Vance in the stage production Let's Face It, 1941.Vivian Vance in the stage production Let's Face It, 1941.Ethel

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!).


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Let's hear it for Fred and Ethel

Thanks for the post, Jeremy! Actually William Frawley does have an important role in the history of musical theatre: He introduced the song "Carolina in the Morning" - which he recreated with Vance in one of the I Love Lucy episodes, and which he recorded for his 1957 album "Bill Frawley Sings the Old Ones" <>. Vivian Vance was also in the original cast of the musical "Take a Chance" (which starred Ethel Merman). Many people believe she's also in the film version, and can be seen singing a few lines seconds (at 5:44) in this clip:

wha- !

Wow, thanks Bob, I had no idea, NYPL really does have the best staff. Vivian must have been in the chorus, but I can't spot her in any of the Take a Chance photos. It looks like good old NYPL has a copy of Fred's album of old ones:

Lucy on stage

Lucy did make a small dent in the theater before Wildcat in 1960. Hollywood director Gregory La Cava was instrumental in getting her cast (ironically, as an aspiring actress) in the 1937 comedy Hey, Diddle Diddle, which closed in Washington, D.C., before it got to Broadway, due to the illness of its star, Conway Tearle (who died the next year). La Cava also cast Lucy in her first "A" picture, Stage Door. And in 1947 Lucy had great success in a national tour of Edgar Rice's Dream Girl. It reinforced her feeling that she performed best in front an audience, a concept she took to radio the next year (My Favorite Husband), which, of course, led her to TV. You can read all about it in my book, Lucy A to Z: The Lucille Ball Encyclopedia, as well as the stage careers of the other I Love Lucy principals.

I will always remember Fred

I will always remember Fred most from his brief appearance in 1947's Miracle on 34th Street.

I Love Lucy

One show that I really loved on television was,"I Love Lucy." I even watched re-runs for as long as they were on. As well as having Lucy, who was a brilliant comedienne, it had Ricki Ricardo, a popular musician, whose autheritative and sometimes arrogant ways really twarted Lucy's wild antics and impossible dreams. I have never seen a female comedy star who could leave an audience hysterically laughing, and so spellbound by her very extraordinary presence. The Mertz's were also a breath of spring in that fabulous show. That comedy show was one of the most wonderful of that particular era. It was rivalled only by The Jackie Gleason show, another show about male chauvenism, disgruntled wives and the most endearing, unconditional love!

I Love Lucy

"I Love Lucy" is still on TV. It has never been off TV to my knowledge.

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