Here’s What Happened to ‘I Love Lucy’ Star Vivian Vance: It Was a Hard Life for TV’s Ethel Mertz

When it comes to I Love Lucy, arguably the greatest Classic TV sitcom in television history, it’s usually Lucille Ball and husband Desi Arnaz as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo that come to mind. But in truth, equally important to the show were their on-screen best friends, Ethel and Fred Mertz, as played by Vivian Vance and William Frawley — and in particular Ethel, who became Lucy’s comrade-in-schemes from episode to episode.

“It took several months of filming for Ms. Ball to realize what she had with Vivian,” suggests Geoffrey Mark, author of The Lucy Book and Ella: A Biography of the Legendary Ella Fitzgerald, “which is why, as the show goes on, the Ethel Mertz character gets more and more prominent, because she realized that as well as she and Desi worked together, actually the better team was Lucy and Ethel.”

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CBS Television Distribution

And yet as true as that is, an equal truth is the fact that over the years Vivian hasn’t gotten the sort of attention that she actually does deserve. “I think she’s always been a mystery to most of the I Love Lucy fans,” he says of the actress who can currently be seen on Decades TV on both I Love Lucy and The Lucy Show. “Her early background is mysterious, not because you can’t find these things out if you look for them, but people just don’t look for them.”

Well, we are. One of Robert Andrew Jones Sr. and Euphemia May Jones’ six children, she was born Vivian Roberta Jones on July 26, 1909 in Cherryvale, Kansas, a town she supposedly disliked because it was just as oppressive as her family was. In fact, according to Theater Mania, when she decided to become an actress, there was no support on the home front. Notes the site, “As a teenager, she was a cheerleader for Independence High … 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.’”

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Moviestore/Shutterstock

Not exactly a ringing endorsement. Nonetheless, as a teenager Vivian moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she fared much better. There she changed her last name to Vance and began performing at the Albuquerque Little Theatre in 1930, where credits would include This Thing Called Love and The Cradle Song.

Geoffrey explains, “The local theater people there saw her talent when she began to perform and, as a group, they sent Vivian Vance to New York, which is why, on episodes of I Love Lucy, they always referred to Ethel as coming from Albuquerque — Vivian wasn’t born there, but that’s where her heart was. They just felt she had so much talent and that there was nothing for her in Albuquerque and that she deserved to go where her talent could be recognized.”

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