The name Vivian Vance may not ring a bell, but when you watch an episode of I Love Lucy, you can spot her as the sidekick who shares crazy antics with her best friend.
Vivian Vance was a comedienne who shared the spotlight with her costar Lucille Ball, but she had her own career and personal struggles. Her comedic whit and philanthropic work has made many generations smile.
Born Vivian Roberta Jones on July 26, 1909, Vivian Vance was a native of Cherryvale, Kansas. Her family later moved to Independence, Kansas, where she studied drama. Her family moved again when she was a teen, but this time to Albuquerque, New Mexico. There, Vance earned money by working in the Albuquerque Little Theatre, and she saved enough to take acting classes in 1930s New York under the instruction of Eva Le Gallienne. Her career began when she had a two-year participation in Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Music in the Air.
Her first starring role on Broadway came as a result of a last-minute replacement for the role of Stephanie Stephanovich in the musical Hooray for What!. From late 1937 through May 1938, Vance had performed more than 200 shows for the musical. Another Broadway opportunity came in Kiss the Boys Goodbye, where she met her husband Philip Ober; they married in 1941 and divorced in 1959. She also took part in the musical Let’s Face It!, and she left after 86 weeks for the comedy production Over 21 in Africa — a stage play about the combat zone of World War II.
While on tour playing Olive Lashbrook in The Voice of the Turtle, Vance had a nervous breakdown that almost ended her career. After treatment, however, she was advised to return to the stage in a part she knew, and in the summer of 1951, Vance returned to The Voice of the Turtle at the La Jolla Playhouse, where she was spotted by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.
Vance starred as Ethel Mertz in I Love Lucy for seven years (1951–1958) with Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, and William Frawley in what became the most popular program in TV history. She moved on to Ball’s next project, The Lucy Show, where she worked from 1962–1968, and she also appeared in the 1977 CBS special Lucy Calls the President.
Although Vance and her TV husband Fred Mertz did not get along outside of I Love Lucy, their real-life hatred made their on-screen relationship funny when it came to the insults and arguments.
Vivian Vance was more than the funny, “bubble-headed” character she played on television. In reality, Vance was intelligent and active in philanthropic and civic organizations. She dedicated her time to mental health awareness and actually served on the board of the National Mental Health Association.
After the long run of The Lucy Show, Vance toured in summer theater and did TV game shows, such as The Match Game and The Hollywood Squares. She died in her home on August 17, 1979, at age 66 after a long fight with cancer.
In lieu of flowers, it was asked that donations be made to the National Mental Health Association or the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Like Lucille Ball, Vivian Vance was one of the few comedic actresses who existed during the 1950s. Her early struggles to be in theater along with her mental breakdown made her a triumphant comedienne who continued to work hard and help others along the way by making them smile.