As is observed in this book, I LOVE LUCY without the Mertzes would probably not have been an immortal show, and more properly it was Vivian Vance who was key to the chemistry that made this show such an icon. It was high time there was a book about her, and what we get is a solid narration of an interesting story. Vance was a working third banana on the New York stage of the Golden Era, respected and dependable but never quite hitting the top, just missing getting Mary Martin’s spot in LEAVE IT TO ME, just missing a key role in CAROUSEL, etc. One can read quite a bit about musicals and straight plays of this era without realizing that the future Ethel Mertz was one of the people regularlly filling key character roles on the Great White Way. The “slice of life” of one of the “state-of-the-art” performers in this world is great reading.
After this we get to Vance’s work with Lucille Ball, and at this point, if one has already read the growing number of books on Lucy and her television work, there is really only so much more to be said that hasn’t been said before. This is not the authors’ fault, however, and they more than compensate with fascinating information about Vance’s two main marriages and her bout with depression.
If there is one flaw in this book, it is that the authors appear to lose interest in their subject after Vance leaves THE LUCY SHOW. Vance was quite distraught that she was forever associated with the Ethel character, and yet for the last fifteen years of her life, the authors — belying that what they are at heart is Lucy fans who came to wonder what was up with Vivian Vance — seem mainly interested in her life to the extent that it occasionally reconnected with Lucy’s. Yet during this period Vance did several theatre tours and stock appearances and television productions. Things like this can make interesting reading as well — witness William Henry III’s book on Jackie Gleason, THE GREAT ONE — but the authors seem to consider all of this mere “postscripts”, not having gone to the trouble to view the TV appearances, dig up info on most of the plays. I now feel like I more or less knew the Vance of her New York days, but the post-LUCY Vance remains a kind of footnote.
However, overall, hats off to the authors for bringing this wonderful performer to light. Now it’s time for someone to give Eve Arden similar treatment…
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She chaffed when people called her Ethel in public places, sometimes even exploding in anger, especially if they asked where Fred was. (“He’s dead, thank God,” was her reply in later years after he died.) Her blessing was her curse. Vivian Vance was such a fine actress, she convinced TV’s millions that she was Ethel Mertz. Only a small percentage of her audience ever saw her on stage or in remembered her few forays onto the big screen, so we might be forgiven for not realizing how talented she really was. With the recently released “Ball of Fire” Lucy fans might want to read about Ball’s talented side-kick.
Vance had a successful acting career before that fateful evening when Desi Arnaz first saw her on stage in La Jolla, and would continue her stage career after her years as Lucy’s sidekick (Vivian Bagley in The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy being but a prettier, more sophisticated version of Ethel). Most Lucy fans already know quite a bit about those years from the many books about Lucy, but this concise book fills in what happened before and after.
The authors do an excellent sleuthing job. They highlight Vance’s religious upbringing and trace some of her later emotional problems to her conflict arising from desire to be on the stage and her mother’s admonitions that it was the road to perdition. They cover her early experiences on the stage in New York and then in New Mexico as well as her few films. From this, they illustrate her versatility and trace the roots of some of her funniest moments on “I Love Lucy.”
Only in the bibliography do we learn that they most of the extended quotes are from Vance’s unpublished memoirs. Unwilling to reveal names or hurt anyone, she offered little cooperation to her assigned ghost writer and the project fell through. That’s a pity, given the viewpoint she had in one of TV’s greatest comedy series and what she reveals about herself in the excerpts. This was one courageous woman who had more than a little business savvy.
No matter though, her excellent work as one of the most famous second-bananas in show business speaks for itself.
It came as a surprise that there had been no previous biography of the actress Vivian Vance before this. We all came to know her as the beloved sidekick and “best friend” of Lucy Ricardo on the long running “I Love Lucy” television show. It came as little surprise that the wise cracking, laughing person we all grew to love from TV was actually a person beset by family problems and anxiety. This is a well researched and written book. Following Vivian Vance’s growing up in a small town, her early days in theatre, her disappointments in love, and her crossing paths with Desi Arnez, this book doesn’t disappoint. Vivian Vance is shown to be a multifaceted, complex performer, trying to come to terms with the perpetual second bannana roll that became her offering in life. There are some particularly poignent sections dealing with the actress’s struggle with depression and breakdowns, and touching tales of how she was the first to speak out about depression and mental illness, and how she reached out to others. This was a much needed glimpse into the life of someone we all thought we knew and loved.