When Lucy was a Red

August 11, 2011

One of the best-known figures of television comedy had little-known leftist roots.

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 Lucy 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.

Lucille Ball's voter registration card
Lucille Ball's voter registration card

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 picqued 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.

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