The Bouncing Ball

The Bouncing Ball
Photoplay September 1946
By: Frank Nugent

It was the preview of "Easy to Wed" in the Westwood Village Theater and excitement crackled in the air like lightning in a Mississippi Valley storm. Police reserves were on hand early to control the crowd. The junior misses on the sidewalk were practicing swoons and the wolf cubs were woo-wooing in close harmony. Van arrived in style and ten seconds later was barely intact. Esther's crossing of the lobby could only be compared to Little Eva's crossing the ice floes, but this time there were wolves in pursuit, not bloodhounds. Lucille Ball's reception was all right, too. After all, no one knew for certain then that she was going to be The Other Woman.

Now playing The Other Woman in a Johnson-Williams picture is a composite of Daniel walking into the lion's den and a girl with a sprained ankle bucking a department store sale of nylons. If she's lucky, the venturesome actress will be hissed on the screen and mobbed off it. And well aware of it on that night was Lucille's bodyguard - which included husband Desi Arnaz. Mechanically they noted the nearest exit and mapped a line of retreat as the house lights dimmed and the picture began.

Lucille nervously ran a hand through her hair as the flamboyant Gladys Benton came on the screen. Mr. Arnaz and the other members of her bodyguard exchanged understanding glances; they felt the tension too. And then a giggle ran through the theater, chased by a chuckle and followed by a guffaw. Gladys was doing fine - with everyone except Lucille. She kept running her hand through her hair, pushing it back, and back, and back. "Take it easy," Desi whispered once or twice, extending a restraining arm. "They like eet." He was brushed off, literally. Lucille kept biting her lips, tugging at her hair.

There was no vengeful mob waiting to get at her in the lobby when the picture had raced to its howling climax. The kids were grinning, and a bit respectful. Lucille had been the other woman, but she was a good sport and a good loser - and funny as the dickens. They asked for autographs and grinned at her hairdo. "It was that darned hairdresser!" she explained. "I had no idea when we were making the picture that my bangs were so low. So all through the preview, I just naturally kept pushing my bangs back. And out there in the lobby they were so far back it looked like an off-the-face hat!" "The Bouncing Ball was probably exaggerating. No one could possibly mistake that pink-gold thatch of hers for a hat. But it's no exaggeration to say that "Easy to Wed" is her best picture to date and a shiny red apple for a girl who has been handed more than her share of lemons in her twelve years in Hollywood. LIFE started bouncing Little Lulu against its brick walls from the time she was a redheaded fifteen-year-old in Celeron, New York, a tiny resort town on the shores of Lake Chautauqua. Stage struck from the start, Lucille had prevailed on her widowed mother to enroll her in John Murray Anderson's dramatic school in New York.

"Previous experience?" asked the admission director.

"School plays and summer stock," said Lucille, fingers crossed behind her back.

"Say 'horses and water' " ordered the diction coach.

"Horr-ses and watt-er," said Lucille in the flat accents of upstate New York. The coach shuddered and for the next six months her nickname was "Miss Horr-ses and Watt-er."

They tried her on comedy. ("I had no animation.") They tried her on tragedy. ("I was completely stunned.") They tried her on love scenes. ("I was very shy.") They sent her to a class in ballet. ("I couldn't stand on two feet, no less one toe.") They bit their nails and started her on eccentric dancing. ("I thought I was pretty good until they put me in a room lined with mirrors. I got one look at those big feet and skinny legs, ran out of the room and cried my eyes out.") After three terms of this all parties agreed to call it quits. There followed troubled times when Lucille tried to be a chorus girl, failed again and turned to modeling, winding up as Hattie Carnegie's pride and joy. Then came the skidding car in Central Park, the smashup, the blanket of oblivion from which she slowly emerged a paralytic. For three long years of bed, wheel chairs and crutches she fought the fear that she could never walk again as a normal human being and won. "Your old job's waiting for you, honey," wrote Hattie. "Come on back." So the Bouncing Ball began practicing the mannequin's glide with a cane in each hand to steady her. Lucille never has forgotten her debt to Hattie, still marvels at the modiste's kindness to her. "I guess it was because I was always the dumbest of her girls, knew less, had to be helped more," she says. And then there came that hot July day in Manhattan, soon after she had gone back to work, when a friend told her they were looking for one more Goldwyn Girl to round out the dozen they were sending to Hollywood for the Eddie Cantor musical, "Roman Scandals."

"But I'm no show girl," Lucille said.

"You could use some sunshine," the friend countered. "Besides, Hollywood won't know the difference!"

And Hollywood didn't, nor does it yet. Give the average producer a script with a part in it for a showgirl type and he automatically begins thinking of Lucille Ball. You can't blame him either, for on screen or off the Bouncing Ball is a show girl to the life - except that she may be a little wackier.

LIKE ninety nine out of a hundred show girls, she looks dumb - and isn't. She tries to be hard-boiled, yet gurgles over babies, puppies and kittens. She knows all the angles and is a pushover for anyone with a hard-luck story. She can stand at the top of a nightclub stairway and rivet every masculine eye in the place (and pretend not to know it), but she has more fun next morning wearing a pair of blue jeans trowelling fertilizer around a rose bush.

Show girls, when they're not dreaming of Park Avenue penthouses, like to picture themselves in the doorway of a rose-covered cottage tossing popcorn (or whatever it is) at a herd of chickens. Lucille has her five-acre ranch in Chatsworth with a rose-papered living room, fluffy white curtains and a small flock of chickens who die of old age. Or because a weasel gets into the coop. Lucille refers to the weasel as "a dirty old thing" but, since she hasn't the heart to kill off any of her flock, it probably is just as well that the weasel is around to keep the population down. She had a cow for a while, had raised it from a calf and couldn't understand why it suddenly began acting so strangely. Her handy man sheepishly informed her that the Duchess had reached the age when - well, when it ought to be introduced to the nice, gentlemanly bull who was living a mile down the road.
v "But she's just a baby!" wailed Lucille and later, with trembling lips, stood leaning over the fence rail as the Duchess philosophically - or was it eagerly? - waddled down the lane to keep her date with destiny.

Lucille went to visit the Duchess some time later, but she didn't like the change that had come over her. Something about the gleam in her eye.

The Duchess never was invited back.

Show girls have a sense of humor, too. Captain Ken Morgan, husband of Lucille's kid sister, Clio (she's a cousin, actually, but the two were raised together and consider themselves sisters), became one of the most popular men in his outfit overseas because he would read aloud Lucille's twelve-page letters retailing all the Hollywood gossip and family news with footnotes that not even the chuckling censors had the heart to delete. She also sent him a pinup to end all pinups: A shot of herself at her swimming pool wearing a 1908-model bathing suit with black cotton stockings and bloomers, her wet hair plastered down the sides of her face and her front teeth blacked out. It was autographed "From Your Glamour Girl, Luci."

Then - still in keeping with successful showgirl tradition - there's her maid, Harriet, a small-scale Hattie McDaniel who has been part of the Ball menage for the last eight years. When Lucille and Desi were married, Harriet went along on the honeymoon and referred to him then - as she does now - as "our husband." The porter had warned Mr. and Mrs. Desiderio Alberto Arnaz de Acha III to have their shoes outside their drawing-room door by midnight if they expected to find them shined the next morning. It is quite possible - honeymoons being what they are - that the couple might have forgotten all about it had there not come a loud knocking on the door and a hearty voice crying: "Cinderella, get out of those shoes! It's gettin' near to midnight!"

Harriet remembers everything.

PERHAPS it is only in her marriage that the Bouncing Ball doesn't suggest the show girl. And this is a laugh on Hollywood which winked knowingly when the zany redhead ran off with the volatile Cuban. "Boy!" said the town. "Will those temperaments clash!" Strangely enough, they seem to have meshed. Lucille's best friends remark enviously that she's simply "maa-aad" about Desi, and Desi's best friends repeat that he's just as "maa-aad" about Luci. It must be love when a gal exchanges a swimming pool, a comfortable house and California's climate for a small apartment in a New York hotel during the hottest months of the summer. That is exactly what Lucille did when she elected to be with Desi this summer when his band was booked into the Copacabana and the Paramount. Of course, she won't exactly be roughing it. That would be too much to expect of Hollywood's foremost show girl.

She spent the week before she left on a shopping tour. Let's see now: There were three fox stoles, one white, one platina and one dyed periwinkle blue. There were twenty-five (count 'em - twenty-five) John Frederics hats, minimum price $49 apiece. There were six basic outfits, three black and three in colors. There were the gowns Travis Banton had designed for her in "Lover Come Back" and which she managed to buy from Universal after the picture was made. (Report was that the Banton wardrobe had been budgeted at $75,000, but she didn't have to pay that, naturally.) Anyway, these - plus some old rags she happened to have at home - required one trunk, five bags and seventeen hat boxes. And, in case she ran short, there was Hattie Carnegie's - a sure stop on the Ball shopping itinerary.

Lucille was happily describing her New York wardrobe to some palpitating pals at the studio when a bystander cruelly suggested that she seemed to have overlooked the most important item, the one item without which no show girl can be happy.

"What," he asked, "about a mink coat?"

Little Lulu batted her blue eyes and looked demurely at the carpet. "Oh I couldn't wear a mink," she said. "Not unless my husband bought it for me. I made up my mind about that long ago. And naturally, with Desi in the Army for three years - well, you can't buy mink coats on a sergeant's pay."

They agreed that was unfortunately true.

"But now," she resumed confidently, "with Desi back in pictures and doing so well with his band, well..." and she smiled serenely at her smiling friends. Careful, Desi! The Ball is getting ready to put the bite on you!