[Marxism] Lucy the Red

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Aug 12 08:31:51 MDT 2011

Counterpunch Weekend Edition
August 12 - 14, 2011
The Leftist Roots of Lucille Ball
Lucy the Red


FOR AN older generation of Americans, Lucille Ball was the queen 
of television comedy. Best known for her popular 1950s television 
series I Love Lucy--where she shared top billing with her 
Cuban-born husband Desi Arnaz--she was a fixture on the small 
screen for two decades.

She had one of the longest careers in Hollywood, and August 6 was 
what would have been her 100th birthday. There were small 
celebrations across the country, including in her hometown of 
Jamestown, N.Y., where more than 900 red-lipsticked and redheaded 
Lucy "look-alikes" gathered to set a new world record.

It's hard not to look back on I Love Lucy and be slightly 
embarrassed by the arcane slapstick humor. Her role as the goofy 
housewife with a heart of gold supporting her ambitious, 
bandleader husband can make you cringe at times, but it was also a 
funny show.

There were other important aspects of the show that were unique 
for the time, which it really doesn't get credit for. Desi Arnaz 
was a Cuban immigrant with a pronounced accent that he did not 
attempt to disguise. Though he was, according to the racial mores 
of Cuba at the time, "white" and from an upper-class family, his 
ethnic difference came dangerously close to a racial difference 
that was unacceptable to Jim Crow America and television 
executives who strenuously maintained a strict color line. Arnaz 
just made the cut.

There were no other married couples like it on American television 
at the time or for decades afterward. Later in life, Arnaz 
revealed that he and Lucyallenburn also decided that the show 
would be written and performed in "basic good taste." The show 
would avoid the derisive ethnic jokes that were--and still 
are--far too popular in American comedy, or mocking people with 
handicaps or mental disabilities. Seinfeld much later made the 
same pledge.

There were a handful of serious lapses. A particularly heinous one 
was where Arnaz dressed up as an "African wild man," one of the 
worst racist caricatures one can imagine. Despite this, they 
generally stuck to that format during the nearly six years that 
the show was on the air. The show was wildly popular and has been 
in near permanent syndication ever since.

It became--for better or worse--one of the models for a successful 
television situation comedy. Arnaz and Ball's real-life marriage 
was never as happy as their television one. They divorced in 1960. 
There were several other Lucy shows to follow, with Ball as the 
star, but none attained the popularity of the original.

What's less well-known, however, is that Ball's career was nearly 
sunk by the Red Scare.

* * *

BALL WAS born on August 6, 1911, into a working-class family in 
Jamestown, N.Y. Her father, Henry, was a telephone lineman for the 
mining giant Anaconda Copper. Like many working-class families, 
then and now, they were one death or illness away from disaster. 
Her father died when she was very young, and she and her brother 
and mother went to live with her maternal grandparents in Lake 
Chautauqua, a summer resort village near Jamestown.

Her grandfather, Fred Hunt, first peaked her interest in show 
business by taking her to vaudeville shows. He was also a retired 
railroad worker who had been a supporter of the great American 
socialist and railroad union leader Eugene Debs. Following a 
disastrous experience in acting school, she established herself as 
a model, but had a difficult time getting an acting career going 
in New York, so she and her family moved to California in the 
early 1930s.

Ball quickly made a name for herself starring in a string of "B" 
movies. Not great stuff, but she was now a working actor. Her 
grandfather moved with the rest of family to Los Angeles and had a 
big influence on the family's political ideas--not that radical 
politics were hard to find in Hollywood. The 1930s was an era of 
political ferment there, as elsewhere. Actors, screenwriters and 
film production workers with myriad job descriptions were all 
joining unions, while the Communist Party (CP) was a small but 
growing organization.

Lucille Ball listed her party affiliation as "Communist" when she 
registered to vote in 1936 and 1938. In 1936, she sponsored a CP 
candidate for the state's 57th district. She signed a certificate 
that stated, "I am registered as affiliated with the Communist Party."

Ball, according to former Communist Party member and writer Rena 
Vale, who later became an anti-Communist investigator for various 
government bodies in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., allowed her 
home to host party educational classes:

Within a few days after my third application to join the Communist 
Party was made, I received a notice to attend a meeting on North 
Ogden Drive, Hollywood [Ball's home]. On arrival at this address, 
I found several others present; an elderly man informed us that we 
were the guests of the screen actress, Lucille Ball, and showed us 
various pictures, books and other objects to establish that fact, 
and stated she was glad to loan her home for a Communist Party new 
members class.

Whatever role she played in the CP faded during the 1940s, and she 
seems to have been pretty much a liberal Democrat during that 
time. But it's significant that the radicalism of the 1930s 
reached so deeply into the population that an actor from upstate 
New York would register to vote for the CP soon after establishing 
herself in Hollywood.

* * *

ALL OF this might have been forgotten had Ball not become a major 
television star in the early 1950s.

I Love Lucy premiered in 1951 and became an instant hit. Two years 
later, the writers worked into the show's storyline the birth of 
Lucy and Desi's second child, and an astounding 44 million people 
(out of a population of 160 million) tuned in to watch. A month 
later, Ball and Arnaz signed an $8 million contract with CBS and 
the Philip Morris tobacco company to extend their show for another 
two-and-a-half years. It was the largest contract to date in 
television history.

At the same time, the Red Scare was reaching fever pitch. On June 
19, 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg--falsely accused and 
convicted of giving "atomic secrets" to Russia--were executed. Two 
months later, Lucille Ball was accused of being a Communist.

Unlike hundreds of others who were dragged publicly before the 
House Committee on Un-American Activities, better known as HUAC, 
and publicly humiliated, Ball was allowed to meet with HUAC 
investigators in private. She met William Wheeler, a HUAC 
investigator, on September 4, 1953, and admitted registering as a 
Communist, but said she never voted for the party or was ever a 
party member.

She also denied knowing anything about sponsoring a CP candidate 
for state office. Her testimony was released several days later. 
It came to 27 pages. Ball largely blamed her deceased grandfather 
for the things she had done. She said that she registered as a 
Communist "because grandpa wanted all of us to" and "to appease an 
old man."

Arnaz was hysterical in defense of his wife, saying, "Lucy has 
always had a clear conscience about this. She has never been a 
Communist, and what's more, she hates every Communist in 
Hollywood." He later told a live audience before the taping of one 
the shows, "The only thing red about Lucy is her hair, and even 
that's not legitimate." Groan.

Yet in a press conference following the release of Ball's 
testimony, Arnaz revealed something interesting about politics in 
the Ball household. "Grandpa was the type of fellow who wanted the 
whole world to be happy and have a lot of money. When I first 
started to date Lucy, I'd come to the house and there would be 
grandpa, 74 years old, reading the editorials of the Daily Worker."

Ball was "cleared" by HUAC, and maniacal FBI Director J. Edgar 
Hoover declared that I Love Lucy was among his "favorites of the 
entertainment world." Too bad. If history had been different, 
maybe the show would have been called I Love Lucy, the Red.

Joe Allen is the author of People Wasn't Made to Burn: A True 
Story of Race, Murder, and Justice in Chicago, about the 1947 
Hickman case, and Vietnam: The (Last) War the U.S. Lost, a history 
of the Vietnam era from an unapologetically antiwar standpoint. He 
is also a frequent contributor to the International Socialist Review.

More information about the Marxism mailing list