Obscurity Knocks

Earnest, empathetic, industrious, unpretentious, gay Virgo in Milwaukee with a great life, amazing friends, and a wonderful family.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Other Side of Ethel Mertz

Lesley also sent me "The Other Side of Ethel Mertz: The Life Story of Vivian Vance" for my birthday. I'm a huge Ethel Mertz fan. When I watch "I Love Lucy," I always envision myself as most similar to the Ethel Mertz character. I'm probably not clever enough to come up with schemes on my own, but I can likely be talked into becoming a part of someone else's scheme. While there's no question that Lucille Ball was a true comedic genius, I'd argue that Vivian Vance was, as well. Playing second banana isn't as easy as it might seem, and Vivian Vance set the gold standard for playing second banana. Without Ethel Mertz, there could have never been a Rhoda Morganstern, let alone just about any supporting actress in a comedy.

The book describes Vivian Vance's childhood, particularly her religiously devout mother who believed that performing on the stage was sinful. Vivian left home as a teenager, got married, and decided to pursue a career on the stage. She ended up married four times, the fourth time to a gay man named John Dodd, who stayed with her until her death from cancer. Vivan made her way to New York, where after modeling and singing in nightclubs, she got a break and became a Broadway actress, usually in supporting comedic roles.

Desi Arnaz discovered Vivian Vance when she was performing at the La Jolla Playhouse, and offered her the part that would define her career and her life, Ethel Mertz. Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance had a complicated relationship, but the book makes clear that they had a mutual respect for each other and a deep friendship in spite of their frequent arguments. Both came to depend on the other, and neither one had much success after "I Love Lucy" without the other. Vivan eventually learned to stand up to Lucy and not let Lucy push her around. And Lucy went from being skeptical of Vivan to depending on her professionally.

Vivian's relationship with William Frawley, who played Fred Mertz, is well-documented. To say that there was mutual disrespect between them would be putting it mildly. Vivian never accepted the fact that her television husband was 22 years her senior, and could have been her father. When she learned at a restaurant that Frawley had died, Vance became elated and bought champagne for the whole restaurant.

Vance also battled depression throughout her life, suffering a number of nervous breakdowns. She was usually in the best mental health when working and especially so during the run of "I Love Lucy."

The book demonstrates that Vivian Vance was a complex personality and a talented actress. 8 of 10.


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