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Although many people believe Vivian Vance to be a native of Albuquerque, Vivian Roberta Jones was actually born in Cherryvale, Kansas. The beloved character, Ethel Mertz, whom Vance played on the I Love Lucy television show, claimed Albuquerque as home and the association stuck. That and her (Vivian Vance’s) status as a founding member of the Albuquerque Little Theatre would leave an indelible impression that she was one of Albuquerque’s own.
Vivian Vance was the second of six children born to Robert Jones and Euphemia Ragan. When she was six years old her family moved to Independence, Kansas, where she eventually began her dramatic studies at Independence High School under the tutelage of Anna Ingleman, the drama instructor. William Inge was a classmate and fellow cast member in play productions at the school. Her love of acting clashed with her mother's strict religious beliefs, and it wasn't too long before Vance, nicknamed "Viv" by friends, became very rebellious, often sneaking out of her bedroom and staying out after curfew. She soon changed her surname to Vance (after folklorist Vance Randolph) and moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to find work as an actress. Vance was a founding member of the Albuquerque Little Theatre, where she played a vamp in "This Thing Called Love" and a nun in "The Cradle Song," the local theatre community helped pay her way to New York to study under Eva Le Gallienne.
I Love Lucy
When Desi Arnaz and wife Lucille Ball were casting their new television sitcom I Love Lucy in 1951, director Marc Daniels, who had previously worked with Vance in a theater production, suggested her for the role of landlady Ethel Mertz. She was not the first choice, however. Lucille Ball wanted actress Bea Benaderet, a close friend. Because of a prior acting commitment, Benaderet had to decline playing the role. Arnaz then began searching for another actress. Daniels took Arnaz, along with producer Jess Oppenheimer, to see Vance in the John Van Druten play The Voice of the Turtle. While watching her perform, Arnaz was convinced he had found the right woman to play Ethel Mertz. Ball was less sure, since she had envisioned Ethel as much older and less attractive. In addition, Ball, firmly entrenched in film and radio, had never heard of Vance, primarily a theater actress. Nonetheless, the 42-year-old Vance was given the role on the new television program, which debuted October 15, 1951, on CBS.
Vance's Ethel Mertz character was the less-than-prosperous landlady of a New York City brownstone, owned by her and husband Fred Mertz. The role of Fred was played by William Frawley, who was 22 years her senior. While the actors shared great comedic and musical chemistry on-screen, they did not get along in real life. According to some reports, things first went sour when Frawley overheard Vance complaining about his age, stating that he should be playing her father rather than her husband. She used to skim through the script to see how many scenes she had with that "stubborn-headed little Irishman." Others recall that Frawley loathed Vance practically on sight. Vance, in turn, was put off by Frawley's cantankerous ways, in addition to his age. Eventually, Ball overcame her resistance to Vance, and the two women formed a close friendship.
Honored for her work in 1953, Vance became the first actress to win an Emmy Award for "Outstanding Supporting Actress". Vance accepted her award at the Emmy ceremony in February 1954. She was nominated an additional three times (for 1954, 1956 and 1957) before the end of the series.
In 1957, after the highly successful half-hour I Love Lucy episodes had ended, Vance continued playing Ethel Mertz on a series of hour-long specials titled The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show (later retitled The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour). When the hour-long Lucy-Desi specials ended production in 1960, Vance and Frawley were given the opportunity to star in their own "Fred and Ethel" spin-off show. Although Frawley was interested, Vance declined.
In 1962, when Lucille Ball was planning to return to television in a new series, she asked Vance to rejoin her. Vance reluctantly agreed, with the stipulation that she appear in more glamorous clothes, as well as having her character be named "Vivian". She appeared on The Lucy Show from 1962 until 1965, as Vivian Bagley, a divorced mother of one son, sharing a house with Ball's character. The character of Vivian Bagley was the first divorcee ever on a weekly American television series.
Later years and death
In 1973, Vance was diagnosed with breast cancer. The following year, she and her husband moved to Belvedere, California, so she could be near her sister. It was during this period that Vance played the part of "Maxine", who wheeled around a catering truck, dispensing Maxwell House coffee to office workers in a series of television commercials. She also guest-starred in a 1975 episode of Rhoda, playing an older woman who strikes up a friendship with Rhoda. Her final television appearance with Lucille Ball was on the CBS special Lucy Calls the President, which aired November 21, 1977. That same year, Vance suffered a stroke which left her partially paralyzed.
Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Vivian Vance, who never had children, died on August 17, 1979, at the age of 70, of bone cancer. After her death, Desi Arnaz remarked, "It’s bad enough to lose one of the great artists we had the honor and the pleasure to work with, but it’s even harder to reconcile the loss of one of your best friends."
She was the godmother of Lovin' Spoonful guitarist John Sebastian, and had been very close friends with his mother Jane.
Her body was cremated, and the ashes scattered at sea. Family members donated Vance's Emmy Award to the Albuquerque Little Theatre after her death.
During a 1986 interview, Lucille Ball talked about watching I Love Lucy reruns and her reaction to Vance's performance: "I find that now I usually spend my time looking at Viv. Viv was sensational. And back then, there were things I had to do—I was in the projection room for some reason, and I just couldn't concentrate on it. But now I can. And I enjoy every move that Viv made. She was something."
For her achievements in the field of television, Vance was posthumously awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1991 at 7030 Hollywood Boulevard.
Vance is memorialized in the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center in Jamestown, New York.