On this day in 1911, Lucille Ball, destined to become one of America’s most beloved comic actresses, is born near Jamestown, New York.
Her father, an electrician, died when Ball was two. By age 15, Ball had decided to attend drama school and become an actress. However, the shy, skinny teenager received little encouragement and was rejected at least four times from Broadway chorus lines before finally becoming a chorus girl in 1926. In 1933, she was hired as the Chesterfield cigarette girl and was featured in all the company’s advertisements. Attracting attention with her Chesterfield ads, she finally began playing bit parts in Hollywood movies in 1933. By the late 1930s, the starlet had graduated to comic supporting roles. In 1940, she met Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz while shooting Too Many Girls. The couple married the following year.
Ball continued to land movie roles that didn’t fully showcase her talent. Frustrated, she turned to radio and starred as a ditzy wife in My Favorite Husband from 1948 to 1951. CBS decided to launch the popular series on the relatively new medium of TV. Lucy insisted Desi be cast as her husband in the TV version, though the network executives argued that no one would believe the couple were married. Desi and Lucy performed before live audiences and filmed a pilot, convincing network executives that audiences responded well to their act, and CBS cast Desi for the show.
I Love Lucy became one of the most popular TV situation comedies in history, ranking in the top three shows for six years and turning the couple’s production company, Desilu, into a multimillion-dollar business. Ball became president of the company in 1960, after she and Desi divorced. She also starred in several other “Lucy” shows, 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 until the show was cancelled in 1974. A later show, Life with Lucy, featuring Lucy as a grandmother, was cancelled after only eight episodes. Ball worked little in the last years of her life. She died of congestive heart failure in 1989, at the age of 78.