Theater News

I Love Vivian

Notes on a biography of Vivian Vance, who had a theater career before she became famous as TV’s Ethel Mertz.

She will always be known as TV’s Ethel Mertz — but are you aware that, years before I Love Lucy came to the small screen, Vivian Vance had a career in the theater? What’s more, she had a few fascinating brushes with famous stars and shows. It’s all in The Other Side of Ethel Mertz: The Life of Vivian Vance, a marvelous biography by Frank Castelluccio and Alvin Walker that was published in 1998 by a small Connecticut house called Knowledge, Ideas, and Trends. As we celebrate what would have been the actress’s 96th birthday on July 26, here’s a look at the book’s theater-related sections.

Although Vance always liked to call Albuquerque her home, Castelluccio and Walker report that Vivian Roberta Jones was actually born in Independence, Kansas. As a teenager, she was a cheerleader for Independence High — on the same squad as William Inge. But it was the legitimate stage that Vivian wanted, though her mother was dead set against it. “You want to be an actress, trying to lead men into sin?” she snarled. “You are going to hell.” Maybe that’s one reason why young Miss Jones felt she’d better change her name, but even “Vance” had theatrical roots: It was the surname of a budding playwright whom Vivian had come to know.

When road press agent Joe Danneck came to town in 1927, touting a touring production of George Abbott’s Broadway, Vance got chummy with him and got into the show. He became her husband — for 18 months, anyway. After appearing in the chorus in the national tour of Rodgers and Hart’s Peggy-Ann in 1929, Vance wended her way to Albuquerque, where her rendition of “My Man” in Cushman’s Revue made her a local celebrity. Soon, she was a founding member of the Albuquerque Little Theater, where she played a vamp in This Thing Called Love and a nun in The Cradle Song. The budding actress did so well in Albuquerque that the theater was eventually nicknamed The Vivian Vance Playhouse.

Vance decided to brave New York in 1932, where her Peggy-Ann pedigree got her an audition for Music in the Air. Messrs. Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern were impressed with her Sophie Tucker-like rendition of “After You’ve Gone” and cast her in the chorus of the musical at $35 a week. During the show’s run, Vance wasn’t above apple-polishing Kern, to whom she brought an apple every day. She also had a thing with Musics‘s star, Walter Slezak.

Next, she got a chorus job in a musical titled Hard to Get — which, by the time it opened at the Alvin on November 21, 1934, had been retitled Anything Goes. Vance meticulously studied star Ethel Merman (who could blame her?) and came to ape her vocal style so much that she became The Merm’s understudy. She only went on twice — you know the Merm’s policy on missing performances — but she did play Reno Sweeney in the musical’s bus-and-truck tour.

Russel Crouse, the show’s co-author, took a (non-romantic) interest in Vance; he gave her a one-line role and the chance to again understudy Merman in Red, Hot, and Blue, the 1936 musical about a woman whose buttocks were branded by a hot waffle iron. She went on a few times in that one, too. Then she got a job in the chorus — and served as understudy for Kay Thompson — in Hooray for What? But the chorines locked horns with choreographer Agnes de Mille: She felt that her dancers were romancing the producers and backers, who’d protect them from being fired. She was right; deMille was the one who was canned during rehearsals.

Thompson was also fired, during the Boston tryout. Vance was given the job on an interim basis but turned it down because she felt bad for Thompson. The star told Vance to take it, saying that if she didn’t, “they’ll just get someone else.” Vance felt vocally unprepared for the part and asked orchestra member Hugh Martin to help her — the first time anyone had asked him to do that. He apparently did a good job with Vance because, two days before the December 1, 1937 opening, she was told that the role was hers. She received good notices, though some of the more important critics (including John Mason Brown) thought she gave an overly vulgar performance of the show’s big number, “The Night at the Embassy Ball.” So, when producer Vinton Freedley was preparing his next musical and offered her a number in which she’d have to do a striptease, she turned him down lest she be typecast. Wrong move: The show was Leave It to Me and the song was “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” which jump-started Mary Martin’s rise to stardom.

Though Vance wasn’t headed for a Tony-caliber career, she did work for Antoinette Perry, who directed her in the road company of Kiss the Boys Good-bye, Clare Booth’s 1938 comedy loosely based on David O. Selznick’s search for an actress to play Scarlett O’Hara. A member of the New York company was Philip Ober, who’d become her third husband. (There’d be one more to go!) The following year found Vance working with the great Gertrude Lawrence in Skylark; the authors note that Vance loved telling the story of her first meeting with Lawrence, just as the star was getting out of the shower. “She made her entrance naked except for a miniature bath towel that provided more coyness than coverage.” (Had this scene been in Lawrence’s biopic, Star the film might have been more successful.)

After a San Francisco stint in that old ’30s warhorse Springtime for Henry and an Albuquerque run in the title role of Anna Christie, Vance returned to New York in 1941 to be in Vinton Freedley’s production of Cole Porter’s Let’s Face It with Danny Kaye and Eve Arden. She came up with a bit of business that was getting laughs, so Arden wanted to appropriate it; Vance complained to Porter, who let her keep it. From then on, Kaye did some stage business of his own to subvert her.

Vance was unhappy in the show, but Freedley wouldn’t release her from her contract when another musical — Oklahoma! — wanted her services. Two years later, director Rouben Mamoulian cast Vance in Carousel as Mrs. Mullin, the carnival owner who’s in love with Billy Bigelow’s; but the show’s choreographer was Agnes de Mille, who demanded that Vance be fired just as unceremoniously as de Mille had been canned from Hooray for What? Producer Theresa Helburn felt that de Mille, who had given her that innovative dream ballet in Oklahoma!, was the more valuable employee, so Vance was axed.

She rebounded by securing the smaller of the two female roles in the tour of the wartime smash The Voice of the Turtle and then went on the road playing the switchboard operator in Counselor-at-Law. She later returned to Broadway (after a nervous breakdown) in It Takes Two, a George Abbott flop, and a revival of The Cradle Will Rock wherein she played Mrs. Mister. Then she and Ober moved to Hollywood, where, in 1949, she reprised her role in The Voice of the Turtle at the La Jolla Playhouse. In the audience one night was director Marc Daniels, who was working with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz on a planned TV series. He liked what he saw and urged his stars to come give the lady a look. Lucy had given birth to Lucie only 11 days earlier, so Desi went alone. After the performance, he immediately went backstage and signed her.

I had the pleasure of seeing Vivian Vance on stage only once, when she was the original leading lady in Woody Allen’s Don’t Drink the Water during the show’s Boston tryout in 1966. She was replaced by Kay Medford for the Broadway opening. I’ve never learned whether she was fired or quit; the show was pretty awful, but there was something special about seeing good ol’ Ethel Mertz up there.


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