On this day in 1911, Lucille Desiree Ball, one of America’s most famous redheads and beloved comic actresses, is born near Jamestown, New York.
At age 15, Ball went to New York City to attend drama school and become an actress. However, she received little encouragement and was rejected multiple times from Broadway chorus lines. After waitressing and working as a hat model, Ball was hired in 1933 as the Chesterfield Cigarette Girl. Around this time, she began playing bit parts in Hollywood movies. She went on to leading roles in dozens of B-movies in the late 1930s and 1940s. In 1940, Ball met the Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz while shooting Too Many Girls and the couple soon eloped.
From 1947 to 1951, Ball starred as a ditzy wife on the radio program My Favorite Husband. When CBS decided to launch the popular series on the relatively new medium of TV, Lucy insisted that Arnaz be cast as her husband in the TV version. Network executives initially argued against the idea, arguing that no one would believe the couple were married. However, Ball and Arnaz were eventually cast as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo in I Love Lucy, which aired from 1951 to 1957 and became one of the most popular TV sitcoms in history. According to Ball’s obituary in The New York Times: “It was a major national event when, on Jan. 19, 1953, Lucy Ricardo gave birth to Little Ricky on the air the same night Lucille Ball gave birth to her second child, Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha 4th. The audience for the episode was estimated at 44 million, a record at the time, and CBS said 1 million viewers responded with congratulatory telephone calls, telegrams, letters or gifts.”
The success of I Love Lucy turned the couple’s production company, Desilu, into a multimillion-dollar business. Ball and Arnaz divorced in 1960, and their professional collaboration also ended. Arnaz died in 1986. Ball also starred in several other “Lucy” programs, including The Lucy Show, which debuted in 1962 and ran for six seasons, and Here’s Lucy, in which she starred with her two children; the show was cancelled in 1974. A later show, Life with Lucy, featuring Lucy as a grandmother, was cancelled after only eight episodes in 1986. Ball died at age 77 on April 26, 1989. In 2001, the U.S. Postal Service honored her with a commemorative stamp.