How Vivian Vance became a big Hollywood star by accident
Image credit: The Everett Collection
In the early '50s, Vivian Vance was onstage at the La Jolla, California Playhouse. She appeared in The Voice of the Turtle for a small crowd at the famous non-profit, professional theater when her entire life changed.
Vance didn't know it onstage that night, but she was actually in the process of auditioning for a job of a lifetime. Vance had one of the most crucial auditions of her life that night. The best part? She had no idea.
It's as if Vance blinked once and became more famous than she'd ever been before.
In the audience were Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. They were looking for actors and comedians to appear in an unknown TV series called I Love Lucy. Ball and Arnaz had seen what they needed from Vance and with one performance, they had found their Ethel.
Ethel was Lucy's best friend known for her wise-cracking and wit.
I Love Lucy became a mega-hit. The series climbed to the top of the ratings and stayed there. According to a 1952 interview with The Kingston Whig-Standard, one episode of I Love Lucy had an estimated 42,000,000 people watching.
"If I had realized that night at La Jolla that I would be trying out for a part in the No. 1 TV show," Vance started. "I would have been too nervous to go onstage."
Before I Love Lucy, Vance had fallen into a rut. She was typecast as the hard, bossy and overbearing woman and she was worried that's the role she'd stay in. I Love Lucy changed the course of Vance's life. The series gave her a place to perform and be funny.
According to the interview, the people of her hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico, played a large role in Vance's success in acting. Friends, family and strangers in her hometown believed in her and attended her well-received play, The Trial of Mary Dugan.
Her play became a hit and her friends and family raised enough money to send her to New York, where she managed to land parts in productions such as Music in the Air and Skylark.
"It's an actor's dream," Vance said. "You do the same character, but you don't have the boredom of reading the same lines week after week onstage. We also have what the movies lack – an audience to stimulate you."
I Love Lucy fans idolized Vance and saw her as the only sidekick to Lucille Ball. Once Ball and Arnaz discovered Vance, everything changed. She became a large part of classic TV for generations to come.
"I Love Lucy has been my therapy," Vance said in a 1955 interview with Troy Daily News. "For four years I haven't done anything else. I've had other offers because of doing Ethel, but working on Lucy was enough for me."
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