Loving Vivian Vance
The highs and lows of an Albuquerque legend
By Kristi D. Lawrence
Most people recall Vivian Vance as Lucille Ball’s hilarious partner-in-crime Ethel Mertz on “I Love Lucy.” When Lucy got in trouble, Ethel was right there with her. Their antics are some of the most famous, and funniest, scenes in TV history.
Brooks Studio, PA1978.153
But there's more to the real Vivian Vance. The Vance who didn’t always gel with her famous costars. Whose personal life wasn’t always picture-perfect. Who at one point succumbed to the stress of stardom and had a nervous breakdown.
An exhibit debuting this weekend at the Albuquerque Museum (2000 Mountain NW) opens a window on the life of Burque's most famous TV actress. Everybody’s Neighbor: Vivian Vance runs March 29 through Jan. 31, 2015. It features family photos, news clippings and wardrobe pieces, including a beautiful green rhinestone hair comb Vance sported during her vaudeville days. Visitors will also see Vance’s Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Television Series—Vance was the first-ever recipient of that award in 1954.
Though Vance spent her earliest years in Oklahoma, her family later moved to Albuquerque's South Valley. She joined them here in her late teen years and fell in love with the Duke City.
And the Duke City fell in love with her.
Vance performed in the very first show at Albuquerque Little Theatre (ALT) in 1930. Immediately sensing her star potential, the community in 1932 conducted some old-school crowdsourcing: After her performance in The Trial of Mary Dugan, they gave Vance the ticket money so she could travel to New York and try to “make it big.”
“ALT founder Kathryn Kennedy O’Connor felt that Vivian would be a big star. But she always felt she wouldn’t become a star until her middle years and that is exactly what happened,” says Deb Slaney, the museum's curator of history. “In this day and age when you have instant stardom with 'American Idol' and 'America’s Got Talent,' they were willing to bank on this young girl who took 21 years to become a household name.”
Gift of John Airy, PA1982.180.86
Their faith in Vance paid off, and she never forgot that support. She continued to perform in plays here and helped raise money to build the balcony at ALT.
“It demonstrates the appreciation she had for Albuquerque and the people of New Mexico that she continued to give back all those years,” Slaney says. “Even though she didn’t live here, she was still our neighbor.”
But if fate had taken a different turn, none of us would be talking about Vivian Vance. After years on the New York stage, she moved to California and was performing at the La Jolla Playhouse just as Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball were casting for “I Love Lucy.” The woman they initially wanted to play Ethel Mertz was unavailable, so one of the show’s producers recommended Vance. Desi went to see her perform and instantly knew she was Ethel.
Lucy, however, wasn’t convinced—Vance was too young and too pretty for the part. Hollywood lore has it that Ball required Vance to dress in frumpier clothing and gain about 20 pounds so as not to outshine her. Yet over the years, the pair went from frenemies to true friends.
Vance’s TV husband was another story. Despite their onscreen chemistry, they never got along. More than 20 years her senior, Vance felt that William Frawley was too old and cantankerous to play her husband. Apparently Frawley didn’t appreciate that sentiment.
Courtesy Lou Ann Graham
And though she was thrilled with the success of “I Love Lucy,” Vance didn’t want to be defined by her role as Ethel Mertz.
“Vivian was always fighting the fact that she was the sidekick of the star,” says Slaney. “I think that is why the theater was so important to her; she wanted to be acknowledged as a star in her own right.”
Slaney says Vance’s frustration and the stress of constantly performing took their toll. The star had a lot of unexplained pain and ultimately suffered a nervous breakdown.
“She lived with the knowledge that continual performing could send her over the edge,” Slaney says. “She freely admitted in the '50s that she spent at least a couple of years in therapy. That‘s why she felt it was so important to volunteer to help mental health organizations.”
Here in Albuquerque, Vance visited women in homes for the mentally challenged. “She would listen as they talked because she knew how important it was for people with mental illness to know that somebody was hearing them,” Slaney says.
Through her joys, struggles and four marriages, Vance remained close to her family, especially baby sister Lou Ann Graham, now 88 years old. Graham, herself an actress and drama teacher, approached the museum about hosting the exhibition.
“Viv really loved New Mexico. I hope that her spirit is around and sees [the exhibit]. I think it will please her a great deal,” Graham says. “The fact that she is remembered this long ... it was 50 years ago for heaven's sake, but 'I Love Lucy' is still running. It is amazing to me how many people still love that show and still love her.”
The free opening reception happens March 29 from 2 to 5pm and includes the Vance Players, a theater troupe formed by Graham, performing scenes from shows throughout Vance’s diverse career.
“One reason I’m doing that is to show people that 'I Love Lucy' isn’t the only thing she ever did,” says Graham. “She never stopped acting on stage until she got sick.”
Diagnosed with cancer in 1973, Vance decided to take things easy, focusing on commercial work and guest appearances after she finished treatment.
“That’s when she did the ... ads as Maxine the Maxwell House Coffee Girl,” Slaney says. “It was an important time in her life to learn that she could get these commercial contracts and make a living that way. The goal was to reduce stress in her life and spend more time with her family.”
It was Graham who helped take care of Vance in her final years. She's worked tirelessly in the decades since to ensure that the star’s legacy continues. Slaney says it’s a legacy we can all learn from.
“The morals of the story are: It takes time to achieve your dream; you have to have patience. Remember who you are,” she says. “I think Vivian spent her lifetime working on learning who she was. And she never forgot where she came from. Don’t forget who helped you along the way.”
Everybody’s Neighbor: Vivian Vance opening reception
Runs through Jan. 31, 2015
Saturday, March 29, 2 to 5pm
2000 Mountain NW
Exhibit opening is FREE. Museum admission is $1-$4, except on special free admission dates. See website for details.
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