Sunday, July 26, 2009

Happy 100th, Vivian Vance!

Today would have been the 100th birthday of television's foremost second banana -- I hope that is not taken as an oxymoron -- Vivian Vance, who served as an anchor to Lucille Ball's loose cannon on two comedy series of the 1950s and '60s, the beloved I Love Lucy and The Lucy Show.

Most reliable sources -- including the Internet Movie Database ( and Wikipedia -- agree that the actress was born on July 26, 1909, with the given name of Vivian Roberta Jones.

One of the primary resources for showbiz information, the Internet Broadway Database (, however, places Vance's birthday five years later, on July 26, 1914, but it also lists her first marriage as taking place in 1928, making her quite the child bride.

Vivian Vance was primarily a stage actress before she was cast as landlady/sidekick Ethel Mertz by Desi Arnaz for I Love Lucy. IMDB shows a gap of 17 years between her first movie, Take a Chance (loosely based on a Broadway musical of the same name), and her second, The Secret Fury. A year after that came her first television credit, I Love Lucy.

During the intervening years, Vance was on Broadway in several shows, including the original casts of Anything Goes; Red, Hot, and Blue; and Let's Face It (all with scores by Cole Porter, the first two starring Ethel Merman). She was also in a revival of The Cradle Will Rock, playing "Mrs. Mister." Over the years her costars included Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante, Marjorie Main, Nanette Fabray, Danny Kaye, Eve Arden, Jack Albertson, Jesse White, Will Geer, and Gertrude Lawrence. (Pardon me while I lift up my jaw from the floor.)

While theatre patrons, in New York and elsewhere, might have known Vance by name or by face, it wasn't until the advent of television that she became a household name. Not only was I Love Lucy a top-rated show throughout its original run on CBS in the 1950s, through syndication it may well have become the most-viewed television series of all time. (It is said, and probably correctly so, that somewhere in the world, an episode of I Love Lucy is broadcast every hour of every day.)

After her on-screen partnership with Lucille Ball ended, Vance did a few bit parts in movies and on television, and frequently appeared as herself on game shows and chat shows. She was on the road, performing before live audiences in summer stock and regional productions of shows like Arsenic and Old Lace and Everybody Loves Opal.

Because Vivian Vance was an accomplished stage actress and singer, she possessed the skills necessary to react appropriately against Lucy Ricardo's outlandishness. Like George Burns playing off of Gracie Allen, Vance was able to make Lucille Ball's comedy seem that much more funny, simply because she was so understated. She no doubt benefited from Arnaz's decision to film I Love Lucy before a live audience (as conventional as this seems today, this was a new idea in 1951), applying her experience from the theatre to enhance her ability to feed off an audience's energy and reactions.

I found a couple of clips on YouTube of Vivian Vance away from the Lucy sets.

The first is a segment from her debut film, Take a Chance, in which Lillian Roth sings "Eadie Was a Lady" (a Buddy DeSylva/Richard Whiting/Nacio Herb Brown song introduced by Ethel Merman). Vance appears at minute marker 5:45, just after Mae Questel (the voice of Olive Oyl and Betty Boop), singing one of the verses.

The second clip is from a March 22, 1965, episode of I've Got a Secret. Not only does Vivian Vance appear as a guest (with a secret), but Carol Channing, then appearing on Broadway in Hello, Dolly!, is on the panel along with regulars Bill Cullen, Bess Myerson, and Henry Morgan. Steve Allen is the host.

One thing that made my ears prick up as I watched this video comes toward the end and makes me wonder if Vivian Vance might have been a fan of Ayn Rand.

Why would I ask that, you may wonder. Well, when Vance takes on the "role" of a prosecuting attorney, she asks about a murder and, when pressed for details, notes the murder took place on "January 16th" (minute marker 6:50). Is this just a coincidence, or did this ad lib from Vivian Vance originate in her thinking about Ayn Rand's play, The Night of January 16th? Why else would she reference this particular date on the spur of the moment?

Sadly, we will probably never know, since Vivian Vance passed away 30 years ago, on August 17, 1979, at the age of 70, after suffering from breast cancer and a stroke.

It really is an intriguing question, isn't it?

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Tinky said...

I enjoyed your essay about VV--and "Eadie Was a Lady" has always been one of my favorite songs!

If you feel like making some "second banana bread," try my recipe:

In Our Grandmothers Kitchens

Anonymous said...

As a die hard I Love Lucy and Lucille Ball fan, I thank you for this blog and especially for the clips. Happy Birthday Viv!!! Thanks for the memories!!