Vivian Vance: The Ultimate No.2
In 1951, a new comedy sitcom T.V. show was launched that focused on the antics of a “Screwball Redhead,” her “Dishwater Blonde Sidekick,” along with their husbands.
I Love Lucy produced some of the most memorable moments featuring Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance who somehow would always wind up in some wacky misadventures and find themselves entangled in “Schemes Gone Wrong.”
Vivian Vance’s comedic timing and talents rewarded her with four Emmy nominations which one of those turned out to be a winner for “Outstanding Supporting Actress” in 1954.
Growing up and watching I Love Lucy, I remembered Vivian Vance and the way she would complement each comedic routine with her uncanny wit and reaction to Lucy. Although the writers produced some of the funniest scripts for the show, it was the delivery and the influence of the actor behind the lines. Vance was the perfect example of what it takes to deliver!
Vance was born Vivian Roberta Jones on July 26, 1912, in Cherryvale, Kansas.
With her love for acting and singing, Vivian would take acting classes at an early age first studying in Kansas. Vance’s mother was very religious and her beliefs clashed with Vivian’s love for acting. So when Vivian was 18 years old, she left Kansas and journeyed her way to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and because of her rebellious nature, she would change her surname to Vance (after folklorist Vance Randolph). Shortly after the name change, Vance would pick up and move to Albuquerque, New Mexico to find work as an actress.
Vance became the founding member of the Albuquerque Little Theatre. There she played in several plays including The Cradle Song and This Thing Called Love. This helped Vivian pay her way to New York to further her studies.
In the early 1930’s, Vivian began working in a theatre and 2 years later landed her first Broadway role in the musical comedy Music in the Air. More musical comedies would follow, including Let’s Face It with Danny Kaye and Eve Arden and Anything Goes with Ethel Merman.
In the late 1940’s, Vance suffered a nervous breakdown from all the stress place upon her and went back to New Mexico for some needed rest and to recuperate. After taking some time off from acting, she decided to move to California and return to acting on the stage there.
Vance landed a role in The Voice of the Turtle at the La Jolla Playhouse in La Jolla, CA.
A friend of Vance's, director Marc Daniels, had brought two special guests to one of her performances to see her perform. His guests were producer Jess Oppenheimer and Desi Arnaz. Arnaz and his wife Lucille Ball were looking for someone to play the part of Ethel Mertz on their new television show, I Love Lucy. Daniels had recommended Vivian for the part and after seeing her perform, Desi was convinced that she was perfect for the role. However Lucille Ball was not as convinced as her husband was. She envisioned Ethel Mertz to be much older and a lot less attractive. But Vance was very attractive and was also close to Ball’s age. With much persuasion, Vance was offered the role on the new comedy program which would debut on October 15, 1951.
Vivian Vance’s character, Ethel Mertz was dressed in old-fashioned and frumpier clothing to make her look older and less attractive than she actually was. However, no matter what she was dressed in, I always could see the Vance beauty. She had one of the most memorable and gorgeous faces in Hollywood and the theatre. It was not a secret that Vance’s and Ball’s friendship started out very mild and reserved, however, Ball overcame her resistance to Vance and their friendship grew to form an everlasting close friendship.
A Woman of Many Talents
Vivian Vance had a wide-spread career that included theater, movies and television.
Some of her Broadway credits would include:
Music in the Air, Anything Goes, Red, Hot and Blue, The Cradle Will Rock, My Daughter, Your Son, It Takes Two, and Hooray for What!.
Her film credits were few but were instrumental in her career as well. They would include:
Take a Chance on Me (1933)as she played a Dance Hall Girl and The Great Race (1965) where she would play Hester Goodbody.
Of course, her most memorable work will be Ethel Mertz on the I Love Lucy sitcom. She established her place in our hearts magnificently and it continued after I Love Lucy was cancelled and she began her role as Lucy’s best friend in The Lucy Show (1962-1965). After appearance with the Lucy Show, Vance would continue to make guest appearances on Lucy’s third sitcom, Here’s Lucy (1968-1974).
Another Star in Heaven
In 1973, Vance would be diagnosed with breast cancer and in late 1977, she would suffer a stroke that would leave her left side partially paralyzed. On August 17, 1979, Vivian Vance died of bone cancer, secondary to the breast cancer.
Desi Arnaz stated after her death, “It’s bad enough to lose one of the great artists we had the honor and pleasure to work with, but it’s even harder to reconcile the loss of one of your best friends.”
In 1991, Vivian Vance was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her achievements in the field of television.
Ethel to Tillie
Madam Ethel Mertzola!
One of my favorite episodes from I Love Lucy wasThe Séance season 1: Episode 7, where Lucy and Ethel have taken up the art of Numerology. When Ricky and Fred scoff, Lucy arranges for a "spirit" to show up at a séance that evening. Problems arise when Ricky and Lucy have the same idea! Ethel dresses up and portrays Madam Ethel Mertzola and when Lucy introduces her to Mr. Merriweather, she says, “I’d like to present Madam Ethel Mertzola. She’s going to be our Medium tonight. She’s psychopathic!” That had to be one of my favorite lines.
Pinching the Chocolates
One of the favorite Classics from I Love Lucy is from Season 2: Episode1, “Job Switching”
Both Ricky and Fred think that doing housework is so much easier than earning money. However, Lucy and Ethel fell differently. So the challenge is on between the men and women. The boys try doing the housework while the girls try their hand at a real job at a candy factory.
The problems and the craziness happen at both ends as the boys cause a whopper of a mess back at the apartment with getting food all over the kitchen, burning clothes with the iron and starching Lucy’s stockings so stiff you could use them as a baseball bat! Meanwhile, the girls have exhausted their warnings and have one last chance to hold onto their jobs.
Ethel got kicked out of the boxing department because she kept pinching the candies to see what kind they were. Now Lucy and Ethel are teamed up in the wrapping department and find themselves competing with a speedy belt of chocolates!
"A Star is Born"
“Ethel’s Hometown” from Season 4: Episode 16 has my vote on one of the funniest moments for Ethel.
On their drive out west to California for Ricky’s new movie he’ll be starring in, the Ricardos and the Mertz’s stop over in Ethel’s home town: Albuquerque, New Mexico. Ricky, Lucy and Fred are completely shocked and taken aback when the town folk give a huge welcome to Ethel because she has mentioned to them on more than one occasion that she is an aspiring star. They ask Ethel to put on a show. The other three refuse to support her, until Lucy gets one of her brainy ideas. The results are hilarious. Although the antics are in the three behind Ethel, pay attention to Vivians amazing voice and her expression as things unfold.
Longest Laugh in Television History
This final scene that I’d like to share with my readers is (in my opinion) probably the funniest scene in the history of the “I Love Lucy” run, and rightfully so! In season 6, Episode 20, “Lucy Does the Tango” there is the scene where Ricky wants to rehearse the “Tango” one more time before the school benefit. Nothing wrong with that, right? The episode starts out with Ricky threatening to get rid of the chickens that they bought to start their “Egg Business” with if they didn’t start producing eggs immediately.
To help boost the egg production along, Lucy and Ethel buy several dozen eggs, but are forced to hide them in the clothes that they are wearing to sneak pass Fred who is hanging out by the chicken coop so they can "plant the eggs" under the hens before Ricky comes home. Just as they finish stuffing their shirts and pockets, Ricky comes home unannounced to rehearse their tango number. The result is one of the longest sustained audience laughter in the history of sitcoms.
The Ultimate #2
July 26, 2012 will have marked Vivian Vance’s 100th birthday had she lived. It is hard to believe that she has been gone for nearly 33 years. We see her every day in reruns of the I Love Lucy show. Her pictures are as vivid as the day they were taken. The ever-loving side kick of that famous red head will forever be in our hearts and memories. She was the purest of comedy that ever graced the stage and television and she definitely made her mark in the life of entertainment.
In June of 2009 Entertainment Weekly voted Vivian Vance as “Ethel Mertz” the #5 spot on “The 50 Greatest Sidekicks Ever.” There were only two voted in the Top 5. Jason Alexander who played “George Costanza” on Seinfeld was voted #3.
Entertainment Weekly quoted the following regarding Vance:
"Without Ethel to bail her out of trouble each week on I Love Lucy, original desperate housewife Lucy would have been nothing more than an overbearing harpy. But as cannily played by Vivian Vance, Mrs. Mertz — whose spats with hubby Fred hinted at dysfunction when TV rarely even acknowledged marital discord — was a perfectly exasperated partner in crime: happy to play along, even happier to put the kibosh on her pickle-prone friend's worst impulses."
A little "Vance" pop quiz
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About the Author
Lisa has directed and acted in musical theatre for nearly 30 years. Her musical upbringing allowed her to pursue her career in teaching and directing and continues to direct shows today. As the owner of 2 online Home Décor sites, Lisa’s passion for Rustic Living all begins with her love for the home, outdoors, and her many hobbies. Lisa loves to laugh, and she share’s that love through her comedic hubs centered on her MOM. Lisa’s passions include writing, directing, acting, photography, singing, cooking, crafts, gardening, and home improvement, including decorating. Lisa also writes under her penned name, Elizabeth Rayen.
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