Vivian Vance (Vivian Robert Jones, 1909-1979) has a birthday today. I wrote about Vance’s three I Love Lucy co-stars ages ago; there’s a reason I’m only getting around to her now. Her background was quite a bit different from Lucille Ball’s, Desi Arnaz’s or William Frawley’s. Though she did appear in Broadway musicals, unlike the others she was not a creature of vaudeville, night clubs, or dance chorus lines. She was studious, serious about her art.
She was originally from Cherryvale, Kansas, where one of her childhood friends was Louise Brooks. Later she moved to Independence and studied drama with William Inge and Anna Ingleman. Next came Albuquerque, and then finally, New York, where was able to study with Eva La Gallienne.
Her first Broadway show was Music in the Air (1932-1933); she was in the vocal ensemble. Then came two Cole Porter hits. She was in the original production of Anything Goes (1934-1935) as Babe, and as Ethel Merman’s understudy in the lead part of Reno Sweeney. (See photo above; that is a good match for an understudy). She was also in Porter’s next show Red, Hot and Blue (1936-1937), also with Merman, as well as Bob Hope and Jimmy Durante. She replaced Kay Thompson in Hooray for What (1937), and continued to work steadily on Broadway throughout the next decade, culminating with a revival of The Cradle Will Rock in 1947.
She moved to Hollywood after that, getting one tv part and two small roles in movies before she was spotted in a play at La Jolla Playhouse and cast in I Love Lucy (1951-57). Typically this “fourth spot” in a two pair sit-com group dynamic is the weakest one, a “last but least role” (e.g. Joyce Randolph in The Honeymooners). But Vance was bursting with liveliness and personality. To this day she has a huge fan base; she’s certainly as beloved as any of the other three. (Well, to be fair, who’s going to bat for William Frawley?)
There was a certain awkwardness to her casting, however. Lucy was only two years younger than she was; and Frawley was over 20 years older than she. To be named “Ethel” is like a code word for “frumpy friend”. Vance had a matronly appearance and was filling out at this point in her life. Many assumed she was of Frawley’s generation, an impression helped by the occasional allusions on the show to the pair’s “vaudeville days”. Vance’s sharp way with a line, and her hilarious dismissal of Fred’s wishes on most occasion was a key part of the show’s formula, and apparently rooted in some reality. The pair didn’t like each other. He was stung by her cracks about his age, so he decided to cast her as an inexperienced, untalented greenhorn, and berated her on that basis. At that point she had been in show business for 20 years, but Frawley had been performing for over 40. So she called him a dinosaur; he called her “a sack of hammers”. This was offscreen. They disliked each other so much, Vance turned down a chance to co-star in a sit-com with Frawley. She was that glad to be rid of him.
As so often happens to tv stars, the public forever closely associated Vance with the part of Ethel, and most of her work going forward was to be Lucy-based: The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour (1957-1960), The Lucy Show (1962-1968), Here’s Lucy (1968-1972), and Lucy Calls the President (1977), one of her last roles. But she did occasionally get other work. She was a semi-regular on The Red Skelton Hour (1960-1964), she’s in the Blake Edwards comedy The Great Race (1965), and The Great Houdini (1976), the made-for-tv bio pic starring Paul Michael Glaser of Starsky and Hutch.
She was only 70 when she died of cancer.