I thought long and hard about the headline for this page.... "Vivian Vance: Queen of the Second Bananas" was one possibility, but then, I figured, Vance was second to no one when it came to comic reactions and line delivery. So no "second" in the headline of a tribute to her. I tried "Everyone Loves Vivian Vance," but it seemed both too much and not enough. Finally, I settled on the simple "A Tribute." This page will be a changing testament and homage to the power of Vance's many performances and her career, and how she conquered something most people wouldn't even talk about in the 1950s and 1960s -- mental illness -- and became a great supporter and an advocate for mental health, speaking to many people about her own story from the 1960s on. Something she said about her illness in a long-ago article stuck with me, and it bears repeating here:
"I love television and I enjoy the loot, but being successful is such a small drop in the bucket -- compared to feeling good -- that success can never be an obsession with me.... I'd always thought of myself as a calm person, while actually, I was a hysteric. I didn't know. I thought everyone felt this way all the time, the gnawing inside, the constant anxieties and fears. Unless you have been there, nobody can truly understand it. But that's my accomplishment in life, that I made it back. It was a long, agonizing pull, and I made it. Every day of my life I'm just grateful I didn't kill myself."
That's a far cry from Ethel Mertz -- or comedy of any kind. But Vance conquered her debilitating fears with the help of long-term therapy, of which she was also a great advocate. It's one of the many reasons I love Viv (and she was, according to reports, the first to tell a new acquaintance to call her "Viv" or "Vivian"): she spoke her mind, she was forthright, and on top of all that, she was an accomplished stage actresses and remains one of the most beloved TV stars of all time. Oh, and let's not forget how just plain, damn, funny she could be.
Some of the photos in the collage I created above came from a newly "discovered" archive of Vance photos and memorabilia, put online at the San Francisco Chronicle's website, taken from Vance's estate. It's worth a look.
Vance would have been 100 last year, and I celebrated that anniversary all year long on the front page of this website. This is where the celebration continues. Enjoy!
The Vivian Vance Centennial Archives (1909-2009)
Celebrating Vivian Vance's Centennary In honor of the 100th anniversary of Vance's birth in 2009, I featured Viv on the front page of my website throughout the year. Here’s what you might have missed....
It's always fabulous to find a photo of Vivian Vance that you've never seem before. As more photographers take advantage of the Internet to put up archives of their celebrity work, it's becoming almost a daily phenomenon. Keep in mind most of these photos are copyrighted by their owners. This one, of Viv and Lucy, was taken in the late sixties by Michael Leshnov, who notes on his Web site that, "I was privileged to work in the television industry as a still photographer, shooting stills of some of the most famous names of the day, as well as the up and coming stars of tomorrow." Pics at his site include TV actors from Fran Allison and Willie Aames to Jane Wyman and Efrem Zimbalist Jr., film actors, and much more: daytimetvphotos.com/index.htm. Enjoy!
Vivian Vance was to return to Broadway in 1966 in Woody Allen’s first comedy for the stage, Don’t Drink the Water, after a long run on TV co-starring with you-know-who. Unfortunately, she never actually made it to The Great White Way, leaving the show somewhere between its Philadelphia previews and Broadway opening. Producer David Merrick fought for Vance to be cast, wanting a “name” for the show; Allen, though he appreciated her talent, thought she wasn’t right for the ethnic role of a Jewish mother. The real problem was rumored to be co-star Lou Jacobi, a character actor in his first lead, late in life, and very nervous about how he’d be received. But any rancor is nowhere to be found in this rare publicity photo (courtesy of Philadephia’s Walnut Street Theater) showing Jacobi and Vance with Allen during the Philly tryouts. Vance was replaced by Kay Medford, who had most recently played another Jewish mother in Funny Girl. Vance herself later said, in a 1967 interview, that she realized the part wasn't right for her and asked to be let out of her contract. Vance did play Broadway several years later in the comedy My Daughter, Your Son.
Vivian Vance was best known for her roles as Ethel Mertz on I Love Lucy and Vivian Bagley on The Lucy Show. Vance made only a handful of other television appearances for the rest of her career, and exactly one other sitcom appearance: on an episode of Rhoda, in the middle of the show's second season, November 1975, called "Friends and Mothers" (Vance is pictured with Valerie Harper at left). Vance played a woman who moves into Rhoda's building and whom Rhoda befriends, much to the chagrin of Rhoda's jealous mother, Ida (Nancy Walker). It was great to see Vance on TV as always, especially in a new role, and makes one wish she'd done more of them. By the way, her husband was played by Bewitched's Larry Tate, actor David White.
Vivian Vance Entertaining the Troops in WWII
Vivian Vance was an established Broadway and theater star when she embarked on a tour of Europe to entertain the troops with a group of actors that included her then-husband, Phil Ober. Reportedly, it was a very stressful time in her life, and ultimately led a nervous breakdown and semi-retirement for Vance. Through therapy, and the help of friends like actor Mel Ferrer, who urged her to return to the stage, Vance recovered and ultimately was convinced to star in a new TV series called I Love Lucy.
Viv Gets Her "Stamp" of Approval!
How cool, and appropriate, is it that, in the year that Vivian Vance would have been 100, the United States Postal Office has issued a stamp (part of the Early TV Memories series) featuring Viv as Ethel Mertz, with Lucille Ball (as Lucy Ricardo, of course), trying to beat that candy conveyor belt? It's way cool. The stamp (left) is one of 20 saluting classic TV shows of the 1950s, and it's out now. So what are you waiting for?!
Viv made four appearances on Here’s Lucy, the last one in the 1972 episode “With Viv As a Friend, Who Needs an Enemy?” (right). The plot was simple-but-basic Lucy and Viv: best friends get into argument, fight, get out of argument and make up. But when the best friends were Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance, you could count on it being funny, no matter how many times they’d argued and patched it up.
The Lucy Show, Season 1
I don't know about you, but for me, born in the early 1950s, I never watched I Love Lucy (that I can remember) until I caught the reruns in the early 1960s. I fell in love with the show then, and when I heard Lucy and Viv would be returning to TV in 1962 in a new sitcom, I forced the family to watch it every Monday night for the first few seasons (after 1965, as a young teen, my family was not so willing to give up the only TV we had, even for a half hour on Monday). So it's no wonder I love those first three seasons of The Lucy Show, and especially Season 1, which was released by CBS on DVD in July, in all it's black-and-white goodness. (The photo at left is a colorized version of a scene from the show done by artist Dave Woodman.) There's something special and magical about watching Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance clown as they did, better than almost any other comedy team of the 20th century. There are tons of extras, new and old, so what are you waiting for? Go buy it, and laugh your maracas off!
The Great Race
Of all the I Love Lucy principal cast members, Vance made the fewest films: only three, unless you count a very young Vance cameo-ing in the chorus of the 1933 musical Eadie was a Lady (See picture with item, below), or The I Love Lucy Movie, made in 1953 but never released, which was three episodes strung together to capitalize on the series' popularity (it's available on the I Love Lucy boxed set). Vance, in fact, was reluctant to sign on to the series that made her a legend, because she had just finished small roles in two films (1950's The Secret Fury and 1951's The Blue Veil), and thought she might have a film career after 20 years of stage work. Fortunately for us, she was persuaded to do I Love Lucy. Unfortunately for Vance, she submerged herself so well into the character of Ethel that she was forever stereotyped, with Hollywood reluctant to cast her in movie roles; the fear was, people would see her on-screen and, no matter the role, think, "Oh, look, it's Ethel Mertz!". So she returned to the stage after The Lucy Show, and was content with the occasional TV appearance, with one exception: 1965's big, splashy comedy The Great Race. In it, she played the women's-lib-leaning wife of newspaper editor Arthur O'Connell (see Vance's cigar in the pic at right), who ends up taking over the paper after her husband has a nervous breakdown during the race. It's a small role, little more than an extended cameo (of it, Vance laughed, "I had more more costumes than lines"), but as usual she threw herself into the part, and her moments are truly memorable. The Great Race starred Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Peter Falk, and lovely Natalie Wood, to the right of Vance in the pic. The movie was one of the Top 10 films of the year, won the Oscar for Best Sound Effects, and was nominated for four others.
My pal, artist and caricaturist Dave Woodman, sent me this photo of Vivian Vance that he found on a site dedicated to the history of newspaper comic strips. The New York Journal, the New York American and other papers used to run a regular feature showing stars of the day reading its Sunday strips. This is Viv in 1935 reading the funny pages from the March 2 and March 3, 1935 (!) editions, respectively, of those two papers. As Webmaster Allan Holtz at strippersguide.blogspot.com notes, "I only knew Vivian Vance as Lucy's sidekick on I Love Lucy — who knew that she was such a hot tamale 20 years earlier!" Viv is relaxing in her dressing room during the run of Cole Porter's hit Anything Goes, in which she had a bit part and understudied star Ethel Merman. Vance performed the lead in Merman's place several times during the run of the show. She had a successful stage career, but suffered a nervous breakdown after touring war-torn Europe during World War II. Vance was slowly returning to stage work when she was discovered and cast in I Love Lucy.
In a November 1969 interview with L.A. journalist Cecil Smith (married to Lucy’s cousin Cleo at the time) Vivian Vance — then shooting a guest spot for Here’s Lucy — Smith noted that “Watching Vivian Vance and Lucille Ball rehearse is like attending a master class in acting. Each comedienne is such a superb technician, each has such deep admiration and respect for the other, there is such perfect chemistry created when they work together that the stage literally explodes in comic creation.” He added that Vance was rarely in Los Angeles anymore: “Her gusto and sharp intelligence are mostly confined to the literary world of her husband, publisher John Dodds.” Theater, he noted, was Vance’s first love, and though she had recently done a Broadway show that “quickly closed, she says now she’s disinterested in Broadway — ‘That isn’t sour grapes, honey,’ Vance told him. ‘I’m just too geared to television. I don’t want to be leaving for work every night just as John comes home.’” But Vance said she would always do TV because of something her movie and stage co-star Claudette Colbert once told her: “She said get before the public every year — let ’em see you every year — then they don’t realize you’re getting any older, because they’re getting older right along with you.”
There’s a wonderful online site that focuses on the history of Cherryvale, Kansas (leatherockhotel.com), which you know, if you’re any kind of Vivian Vance fan, was her hometown. Vance, though, didn’t have any great love for the Midwest locale. She once said that unlike Dorothy (of The Wizard of Oz), who was trying to get back to Kansas, she (Vance) couldn’t wait to get out of there. Maybe she knew she was destined for greatness. She was actually born at 309 West 6th Street in Cherryvale, on July 26, 1909. West 6th Street was designated Vivian Vance Lane in the summer of 2002. In July 2009, Viv would have celebrated her 100th birthday. We’re celebrating it year-round. The Leatherock Hotel was built in 1912, to accommodate travelers on the Sante Fe railroad north/south route. Now restored and featuring original décor and room furniture, the hotel also offers something special for the true Vivian Vance fan: a room called The Vivian Vance 1950-60s Dressing Room, described by the hotel online as follows: “This guest room styled after her Hollywood dressing studio will be dedicated to Cherryvale born actress Vivian Vance. Born Vivian Roberta Jones, the second of six siblings, she was blessed with an outgoing personality. After a theater and movie career, she became Lucille Ball's legendary 50s and 60s TV Series neighbor[s], Ethel Mertz [and Vivian Bagley]. It has been stated that, ‘If Louise Brooks [also a Cherryvale native] was born dancing, Vivian was born funny.’ Featured in this 1950s decorated Hollywood Studio guest room will be Vivian Vance memorabilia, including videos from her film career and I Love Lucy TV series. Two large windows face the hotel's outside gardens. Radiant floor heating will be added to this corner guest room and its private bath.” How delightful; Vance loved to travel and I’m sure she’d be tickled to be remembered this way. The room is scheduled to open this summer.
On August 18, 1955, Hedda Hopper wrote in her column about a film that would co-star Vivian Vance and William Frawley. Vance and Frawley were, at the time, two of the most popular actors in the country, thanks to a little sitcom called I Love Lucy, on which they played Fred and Ethel Mertz. But as most everyone knows by now, the two weren’t especially fond of each other, and outside the show, did their best to distance themselves from their characters. Even though Frawley would always get a “Where’s Ethel?” question, and Vance would get suspicious looks when spied eating out with her real husband, both played nice until after the show, when Frawley referred to Vance as a ”mushroom” that sprang out of nowhere (meaning he’d never heard of her before the show), and Vance answered the question “Where’s Fred?” with the terse, “He’s dead,” after Frawley’s death in 1966. They never did make a big-screen appearance together, unless you count The I Love Lucy Movie, which never had a theatrical run.
Vivian Vance had a thriving stage career on and off Broadway, beginning in 1932, and, of course, a classic TV career. But she never really "made it" in the movies. Most people believe Vance only did a handful of film appearances, two just before I Love Lucy, the I Love Lucy movie in 1953, and The Great Race, in 1965. But, wait! There is one recently discovered, uncredited chorus performance of Vance's, singing a verse of the song "Eadie Was a Lady" from the 1933 musical Take A Chance starring Lillian Roth. Vance, who would have been 24 at the time, is slim, pretty and her voice is instantly recognizable. That gives Lucy and Viv yet another connection: both began their film in careers in 1933, and Vance, though unbilled, had a much bigger "part" than Ball. Vance is at left in the pic at left.
Vance’s theatre career began on Broadway, beginning in 1932 with a chorus part in Music in the Air, almost 20 years before I Love Lucy. Over that two-decade span, Vance graduated to supporting and leading roles in plays and musicals, and had a patent on the role that won her the part of Ethel Mertz, Olive Lashbrooke, the sarcastic "other woman" in The Voice of the Turtle. It was as Olive that Desi Arnaz and Jess Oppenheimer saw her in San Diego, taken there by Vance's friend, director Marc Daniels (who directed the first season of I Love Lucy). The picture of Vance at right is her in character as Olive.
Every star does publicity, especially when he or she is involved in a hit, long-running television show. This may involve press conferences or junkets, guest appearances on other shows, and newspaper interviews. Vivian Vance did all of these things while starring as Ethel Mertz on I Love Lucy and as Vivian Bagley on The Lucy Show. In the picture at left, scanned from an original press release, it's the late 1950s (you can tell by Viv's hairdo; she never wore it like that until later in the runs of I Love Lucy and The Lucy Desi Comedy Hour). Viv talks "excitedly" to a reporter about one of those series, as the press released noted ... but is it real or staged? Probably a bit of both. More publicity photos of Vance to come.
When Lucy returned to TV in 1962 with The Lucy Show, she had to do some hard persuading to get her old pal and co-star, Vance, to join her again. Vance had just settled with her fourth husband, John Dodds, in Connecticut, and was quite happy living a quiet suburban life and doing occasional theater or New York TV. But eventually Lucy's worked her charm, and Vance ended up commuting back and forth to L.A. every few weeks. After three years, she tired of it, and the picture at right, of Lucy and Viv as little kids, marks one of their last appearances together with Vance as a Lucy Show regular, in the episode "Lucy the Stockholder" — which aired March 29, 1965 — in which Lucy, Viv, and Mr. Mooney (Gale Gordon) are regressed via hypnosis to the age of 5. Lucy missed Viv at her side on TV ever after.
Here's an item from the Albuquerque Journal, a New Mexico daily that covered Vance's activities on a regular basis. Though it wasn't Vance's hometown, it was kind of her "adopted" hometown (and was made Ethel Mertz's hometown on I Love Lucy); you see, Vance ended up doing a lot of theater work in Albuquerque when she left her real hometown of Cherryvale, Kansas. The Albuquerque theater community thought so highly of her talent that it raised enough money to send Vance to New York, where she started her career, first singing in nightclubs and jazz venues to survive, eventually making it to Broadway. This excerpt from the Journal — part of a Nov. 20, 1977 review of "Lucy Calls the President," Ball's final TV special and her last performance with Vance, shows the paper's obvious bias toward their "hometown gal" more than 40 years after they sent her to the Big Apple: "Zany Lucille Ball in a hilarious comedy ... [is] abetted by former sidekicks Gale Gordon, Vivian Vance, Mary Wickes, and Mary Jane Croft ... Vivian Vance is the old 'Viv,' Lucy's best friend and constant foil — and no one can make it work like she does."
*A Pop Quiz* Several years ago, Entertainment Weekly voted Vance (as Ethel Mertz) the No. 5 spot on its "We're No. 2" list (a.k.a. "The 50 Greatest Sidekicks Ever"). Vance was only one of two sitcom sidekicks in the Top 5 (the other being No. 3, Seinfeld'sGeorge Costanza (played by the fabulous Jason Alexander). About Vance and her famous alter ego, EW noted, "Without Ethel to bail [Lucy Ricardo] 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."
02.02.09 Here’s a short quiz to see how much you know about Vance. (Answers are below -- don’t cheat!)
1. Vance’s performances at this “little theater” inspired its patrons to donate money so she could travel to New York and make it big. Where was the theater located? a) Cherryvale, Kansas b) Albuquerque, N.M. c) Santa Fe, N.M. d) Scottsdale, Ariz.
2. Before Vance hit the stage, she supported herself by singing at various nightclubs in New York. Which future wife of a famous comedian, also singing for her supper, did she meet? a) Mary Livingstone, Jack Benny’s wife b) Ruth Berle, Milton’s wife c) Dolores Hope, Bob’s wife d) Gracie Allen, George Burns’ wife
3. Vance made the chorus of one musical on Broadway, and subsequently understudied a brassy musical actress in two hit musicals before starring in her own shows. For whom did she understudy? a) Betty Hutton b) Kaye Ballard c) Martha Raye d) Ethel Merman
4. Vance had small parts in two films just before I Love Lucy, which made her wary of taking the TV role of Ethel Mertz, lest she lose her chance at a movie career. Which films were they (pick two)? a) Magnificent Obsession b) The Blue Veil c) The Great Race d) Auntie Mame e) The Secret Fury f) Weekend With Father g) The Lady Pays Off
5. Vance did a pilot for Desilu after I Love Lucy that didn’t sell. It did sell the following year, but not with her in it. What was the show, and who eventually starred in it? a) Guestward Ho! /Joanne Dru b) The Real McCoys/Kathleen Nolan c) Dennis the Menace/ Sylvia Field d) Pete & Gladys/Cara Williams e) Fair Exchange/Audrey Christie
6. Vance co-starred with comedian George Gobel in episodes of two series after she left The Lucy Show. What were they? a) Love, American Style and Rhoda b) Petticoat Junction and Here’s Lucy c) The Red Skelton Show and Occasional Wife d) Love American Style and Sam e) Marcus Welby, MD and Love American Style
Answers: 1.b 2.c (They both sang at the Club Simplon.) 3.d (Vance understudied Merman in Red, Hot and Blue and Anything Goes. She got to play the lead several times in Anything Goes.) 4.b. and e. 5.a. 6.d
Vivian Vance's centennial was in 2009. If it seems impossible that she died more than 30 years ago, that's because Vance has never really left the public eye. Whether it's on I Love Lucy reruns, YouTube clips, a digitally created insurance commercial with William Frawley, the I Love Lucy stamp released in 2009 with Lucy and Viv on the candy company conveyor belt (see above, 12.29.08), Vance is always visible. She was much more than the best second banana ever, though she was that. She was also an accomplished stage performer, and a gifted comedienne who connected with her audiences. And she was Lucy's pal. Onscreen and off. Now and forever.
We love Lucy...and Viv, too. ...
Home | Latest Lucy News | Lucy Collectibles!
Contents ©2011 by Michael Karol; No text may be reprinted nor pictures taken from this site
without the express permission of the author. Screen captures are created
for your enjoyment, and are not meant to infringe on any copyrights
held by the creators. All photos © their respective owners.