Vivian Vance   1909-1979

 by Wayne Hallowell, Director of the Leatherock Hotel Bed & Breakfast

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I Love Lucy fans know Vivian Vance as Lucy’s neighbor and cohort “Ethel Mertz.” Born Vivian Roberta Jones in Cherryvale, Kansas, on July 26 in 1909. The second of six siblings one brother and four sisters), Vivian was popular, blessed with an outgoing personality, and very rebellious. As a friend of Louse Brooks, the 20th century "flapper" icon and world renown silent screen actress, they made mud pies together and play among the tombstones manufactured two blocks down the street.

When her family moved to Independence, Kansas, she began her dramatic studies with drama teacher Anna Ingleman. Throughout her childhood, Vance’s desire to be an actress constantly clashed with her mother’s strict religious beliefs. At the age of sixteen she took off to Tulsa, Oklahoma to become an actress. Unfortunately, for Vivian her first try was a failure and she soon returned to her family in Kansas just before the family headed for Albuquerque, New Mexico. Vance joined the Albuquerque Little Theatre, and began the long path that would lead her to stardom. The directors were so impressed with her talent they organized a productions of The Trial of Mary Dugan, starring Viv, the proceeds of which sent her to New York City to study dramatics under Eva LeGalliene and to find work on Broadway. There she struggled as a chorus girl, sang in night clubs and finally got her first break in the musical Music in the Air. After understudying for Ethel Merman in Anything Goes, she starred with comic actor Ed Wynn in Hooray for What!. Although she had become a top performer, the demands of the onstage life took their toll on Vance, and in 1945 she suffered a nervous breakdown.

After her recovery, she returned to the stage in Voice of the Turtle at the California La Jolla Playhouse. It was there that she was spotted by Desi Arnaz and offered the role that would make her a household name. It took a lot of convincing to Desi's wife, Lucille Ball, but in the end, it worked out and made TV history. At first Vivian didn't want to play Ethel Mertz on "I Love Lucy" because she thought the character was "too frumpy." Paired with William Frawley as “Fred and Ethel Mertz,” Vance and Frawley made a convincing couple despite the twenty-five year age difference between them. However, in real-life their relationship was less than cordial, and Frawley’s heavy drinking did little to endear him to Vance. They despised each other throughout this and the following TV series. In addition, the role of a frumpy ex-vaudevillian neighbor was not a character that Vance exactly relished. Over time on the show, she accepted the role and put on weight for the role to make the show convincing.

Vance’s personal life was less than storybook, as she struggled throughout her life with depression and psychosomatic illnesses. She became very active in different organizations dealing with these disorders. Vivian tried other parts in movies as well as sitcoms, but never escaped the "Ethel" image. In 1954, she became the first actress to be awarded an Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actress. That was her first and only Emmy although she was also nominated in 1955, 1957 and 1958. She was offered to do a spinoff of "I Love Lucy" with her costar William Frawley, but with the personality conflicts, they both chose not to do it. She passed away on August 17, 1979 of cancer. © 2000-2005 Wayne Hallowell

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Note: All rights are reserved. The presentation of all photos and electronic materials on these pages are the property of other sources and historical societies, and used with their permission.


Favorite Web Links:

My Tribute to Vivian Vance
Vivian Vance's place in Cyberspace; too many sites dedicated to I Love Lucy, few focused only on this extraordinary woman.
"I Don't Run Away Anymore"

McCalls Magazine May 1955 article; story of her 194l nervous breakdown and her fight with emotional problems all of her life.
Vivian Vance (Ethel Mertz of I Love Lucy)
Mini biography, creating I Love Lucy, photo archives, Ethel sounds, gift store.
Meet the Mertzes
Biography, production photos, programs, artist's rendering, studio publicity stills, book store.

Books Available in Cherryvale Library and Leatherock Hotel Bed & Breakfast:

Frank Castelluccio & Alvin Walker. The Other Side of Ethel Mertz.. Knowledge, Ideas & Trends (USA), 1998.
--- Superb
illustrated biography providing little known facts and stories about TV's most beloved second banana. Must reading for every I Love Lucy fan.

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© 1999-2008 Leatherock Hotel Bed & Breakfast.  Web Site created, compiled and maintained by Wayne Hallowell, Director of the Leatherock Hotel Bed & Breakfast

The above information is part of the heritage of Cherryvale, Kansas and the legacy of the
Leatherock Hotel Bed & Breakfast 
A Railroad Bed & Breakfast Inn and Museum
420 North Depot Street         Cherryvale, KS 67335
Information and Reservations   620 336-3350

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