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Vivian Vance

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Also Known As: Vivian Roberta Jones Died: August 17, 1979
Born: July 26, 1909 Cause of Death: breast cancer
Birth Place: Cherryvale, Kansas, USA Profession: actor, singer

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

This blonde soprano and dramatic stage player took a sharp career turn in mid-stream to become one of TV's best-loved second bananas. Vivian Vance's long-term stint supporting Lucille Ball earned her fame and honed her skills as a great comic.The Kansas-born Vance was trained as a lyric soprano, and got her start at a community playhouse in Albuquerque, NM. She was only 19 when she made her Broadway debut in the Hammerstein and Kern operetta "Music in the Air" (1932-1933). But Vance's stage career never really got off the ground.She had a small role in the comedy "Kiss the Boys Goodbye" (1938), touring with the show in the early 1940s. Her film career also struggled; after her debut in the Bob Hope/Betty Hutton comedy "Let's Face It" (1943), she made only three more films. These consisted of small roles in Mel Ferrer's whodunit "The Secret Fury" (1950), the melodrama "The Blue Veil" (1951) and, after her fame, the frenetic comedy "The Great Race" (1965), as Arthur O'Connell's suffragette wife.Vance was appearing as a prostitute in a La Jolla production of "The Voice of the Turtle" in 1951 when director Marc Daniels pegged her for the role of Lucille Ball's sidekick in the upcoming series "I Love...

This blonde soprano and dramatic stage player took a sharp career turn in mid-stream to become one of TV's best-loved second bananas. Vivian Vance's long-term stint supporting Lucille Ball earned her fame and honed her skills as a great comic.

The Kansas-born Vance was trained as a lyric soprano, and got her start at a community playhouse in Albuquerque, NM. She was only 19 when she made her Broadway debut in the Hammerstein and Kern operetta "Music in the Air" (1932-1933). But Vance's stage career never really got off the ground.

She had a small role in the comedy "Kiss the Boys Goodbye" (1938), touring with the show in the early 1940s. Her film career also struggled; after her debut in the Bob Hope/Betty Hutton comedy "Let's Face It" (1943), she made only three more films. These consisted of small roles in Mel Ferrer's whodunit "The Secret Fury" (1950), the melodrama "The Blue Veil" (1951) and, after her fame, the frenetic comedy "The Great Race" (1965), as Arthur O'Connell's suffragette wife.

Vance was appearing as a prostitute in a La Jolla production of "The Voice of the Turtle" in 1951 when director Marc Daniels pegged her for the role of Lucille Ball's sidekick in the upcoming series "I Love Lucy" when radio comic Bea Benaderet became unavailable to play landlady Ethel Mertz. Neither Ball nor Vance were thrilled with the idea: Vance wanted to pursue film work, and Ball wanted someone older and less attractive than herself (Vance was two years younger than the 40-year-old star). Nonetheless, she was signed and, after a rough start, became lifelong friends with Ball.

Vance played Lucy Ricardo's sounding board, cohort and sometime adversary in the hugely popular "I Love Lucy" from 1951-1957. With her wry cynicism and down-to-earth personality, she stood in for viewers, getting sucked into Lucy's "hare-brained schemes." Besides developing her own remarkable skills as a comic actress, Vance was often the peace-maker and problem-solver on the set. Her mercurial co-stars Ball, Desi Arnaz and, particularly, William Frawley (the gruff, much older actor who played her husband), often needed her calming influence.

Vance next re-joined her "Lucy" co-stars on the "Desilu Playhouse" series "The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show" (CBS, 1958-60). By the time Ball began shooting "The Lucy Show" (CBS, 1962-68), Vance was living in Connecticut with her second husband, publisher John Dodds. She agreed to co-star once again, provided that her character be named "Vivian" (not "Ethel") and that she was allowed to dress as attractively as Ball. On "I Love Lucy", Vance had to wear frumpy clothes and make-up (though she was not, as often rumored, forced to weigh 20 pounds more than Ball). By 1965, Vance tired of the commute (she lived with Ball in Los Angeles while shooting) and her role was curtailed to guest spots for the rest of the show's run.

"The Lucy Show" was Vance's last sitcom; she did the occasional guest spot and made some TV movies: supporting roles in "The Front Page" (ABC, 1970), the rural comedy "Getting Away from It All" (ABC, 1972) and the biopic "The Great Houdini" (ABC, 1976). Vance was last seen on a reunion, "The Lucille Ball Special" (CBS, 1977), two years before her death.

VIEW THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Filmographyclose complete filmography

CAST: (feature film)

1.
 Great Houdinis, The (1976) Minnie
2.
 Getting Away From It All (1972) May Brodey
3.
 The Great Race (1965) Hester Goodbody
4.
 The Blue Veil (1951) Alicia Torgersen Begley
5.
 The Secret Fury (1950) Leah
7.
 Desilu Revue, The (1959) Guest
VIEW THE FULL FILMOGRAPHY

Milestones close milestones

1929:
Appeared in the chorus of the touring company of Rodgers and Hart's "Peggy-Ann"
:
Appeared in an Albuquerque production of "Cushman's Revue"; became local celebrity
:
Founding member of Albuquerque Little Theater
1932:
Broadway debut, "Music in the Air"
1934:
Understudied Ethel Merman as Reno Sweeney in "Anything Goes"; later headlined a national tour playing Reno
1936:
Again understudied Merman in "Red, Hot and Blue"
1937:
Assumed the leading role in "Hooray for What?" when Kay Thompson was dismissed; clashed with choreographer Agnes De Mille
1938:
Turned down the lead role in "Leave It to Me"
1941:
Starred with Danny Kaye and Eve Arden in the Cole Porter musical "Let's Face It"
:
Had to turn down role in "Oklahoma!"
1943:
Film debut reprising stage role in "Let's Face It"
1945:
Fired from "Carousel" at the insistance of Agnes De Mille
1951:
Made TV debut as Ethel Mertz on hit sitcom "I Love Lucy" (CBS)
:
Appeared as Vivian Bagley on sitcom "The Lucy Show" (CBS)
1965:
Last feature, "The Great Race"
1970:
TV-movie debut, "The Front Page" (ABC)
1977:
Made one of her last TV appearances on "The Lucille Ball Special" (CBS)
VIEW ALL MILESTONES

Education

Independence High School: Independence , Kansas -

Notes

Vance's Ethel Mertz character was supposed to have been born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Vance had lived as a child. Ethel Mertz's maiden name was Ethel Mae Potter during the trip to Hollywood episodes, but earlier in the series she was referred to as Ethel Roberta. Vance and William Frawley, who portrayed Fred Mertz, were not fond of each other off-stage.

The character of Vivian Bagley, played by Vance on "The Lucy Show," was a TV milestone in that she was a divorced single mother. That widowed Lucy and Viv were living together with their children was a harbringer of another TV series, "Kate & Allie," from the 1980s in which stars Susan Saint James and Jane Curtin actually impersonated Lucy and Ethel during a fantasy sequence on one episode.

One of Vance's final TV appearances was as a guest star in an episode of "Rhoda" playing an older woman in the apartment building whom Rhoda befriends despite the difference in their ages and that her mother, Ida Morgenstern, is jealous of the relationship.

Companions close complete companion listing

husband:
Joe Danneck. Press agent. Married in October 1928; divorced in 1931.
companion:
Walter Slezak. Actor, singer. Had affair when they appeared together in "Music in the Air".
husband:
George Koch. Married in 1933; divorced.
husband:
Philip Ober. Third husband; caught by his former wife with Vance in 1938; married in 1941; divorced in April 1959.
husband:
John Dodds. Publisher. Born c. 1925; married in January 1961; survived her.
VIEW COMPLETE COMPANION LISTING

Family close complete family listing

mother:
Fanny Mae Jones.
sister:
Lou Ann Graham. Survived her.

Bibliography close complete biography

"The Other Side of Ethel Mertz: The Life of Vivian Vance" Knowledge, Ideas, and Trends
"Meet the Mertzes: The Life Stories of I Love Lucy's Other Couple" Renaissance Books

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