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Ethel: We never forgot her

Oct 1, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Of course we still love Lucy. But we love Ethel, too. Ethel the loyal. Ethel the brave. Ethel the strong. Ethel who also wrapped chocolates. Ethel who helped steal John Wayne’s footprints from Grauman’s Chinese theater. Ethel who wept copiously when Lucy and Ricky decided to abandon New York City for a place in Connecticut.
They were both underappreciated in their day-Ethel Mertz and Vivian Vance, the woman who played her. Vance herself didn’t always appreciate Ethel, and she certainly didn’t like the idea of being married to William Frawley’s Fred, so old and bald and crotchety.
Vance lived long enough to know that “I Love Lucy” had achieved the status of American folklore. It’s too bad she couldn’t have enjoyed it more at the time-the incredible success, the phenomenal ratings, the amazing hold Lucy and her three cohorts had on the American consciousness-comparable to Dorothy Gale of Kansas and her three cohorts in “The Wizard of Oz.”
“We Love Lucy” would have been a more accurate if less catchy title for this Mother of All TV Classics, because it wasn’t just about Lucy’s marriage to Ricky Ricardo. It was also very much about her friendship with Ethel, the landlady who sometimes seemed to live upstairs, sometimes downstairs, sometimes on the same floor of that converted brownstone on East 68th Street.
In the episode “Lucy Writes a Novel,” Lucy asks Ethel what makes her tick so she can base one of her characters on her friend. “Well, if you want to know what I’m really like,” Ethel says dramatically, “I’m deeper than most people think. On the surface I’m carefree and happy, but deep down inside, I’m intense. And moody. I’m sensitive. I feel things.”
That could almost have been Vance talking about Vance. She was so “intense and moody” that she apparently spent many of those triumphant years in a depressed state. Her contract called for her to stay plump and dowdy so as to look not only heavier but also older than the star. In real life, Vance was Ball’s senior by a mere two years.
There are even reports that Ball treated Vance shabbily, especially later, after “I Love Lucy,” when they co-starred in another sitcom. But if Lucy didn’t fully appreciate Vance at the time, she did in later years, especially after Vance’s death in 1979.
In 1986, as she prepared for a sadly ill-fated comeback series called “Life With Lucy” for ABC, Ball looked back on the good old days wistfully. I interviewed her in her dressing room on the old Goldwyn lot while she ate a ham sandwich she’d brought from home and asked her how she reacted when she saw the reruns on the air.
“Do I laugh at them? Sometimes,” she said. “I study them, and I enjoy them, and I wish I’d done it differently lots of times-most of the time. But very few I really laugh at. I find that now I usually spend my time looking at Viv. Viv was sensational. And back then, there were things I had to do-I was in the projection room for some reason, and I just couldn’t concentrate on it. But now I can. And I enjoy every move that Viv made.
“She was something.”
To the role of Ethel, Vance brought everything but subtlety. She could give a line reading that managed to italicize every single word and then underline them all. Her delivery has a bravura audacity, a take-no-prisoners assertiveness. Even as she had longed to shake off the shackles of second banana, she was imbuing her character with what could arguably be called magnificence. Ethel, the indomitable.
Nobody could bark out an “Oh, brother” with as heavy a layer of derision as Vance did. But the phrase she used more than any other over the nine years of the show’s run was, “Oh, you poor little thing,” to Lucy-or, if Lucy were not present, “Oh, the poor little thing,” uttered in her honor.
It was always said with an unmistakable sense of sisterly sympathy. For all the farce and overplaying and backstage bitterness, there was still, of course, an incredible warmth and even tenderness there. These were indeed The Best of Friends.
Biographers seem to differ on whether Vance was born in New Mexico or Kansas, but on the show, Lucy Ricardo hailed from Jamestown, N.Y., just as Lucille Ball did, and Ethel was always said to be from Albuquerque. The fact became the basis for an episode that was probably Vance’s finest half-hour. With the Mertzes accompanying the Ricardos on a roundabout cross-country trip from New York to Hollywood, the entourage makes one last stop in Albuquerque so Ethel can visit her peculiar old kook of a father (no mention is made of whatever became of Mom).
Though the writers gave Ethel Mertz different middle names over the course of the long run, they had settled by this time on May, with her maiden name Potter, thus inspiring the management of the local theater to post on his marquee the proud civic salute, “Ethel May Potter-We Never Forgot Her.” Much of the episode is a tour de force for Vance; all the attention goes straight to Ethel’s head and she imagines that she, not Ricky Ricardo, is the big star going to Hollywood to headline a Technicolor extravaganza at MGM.
Wonderful. And on the 12th or 13th viewing, or maybe the 20th, a bit sad, too, with Ethel’s yearnings for solo stardom seeming to echo Vance’s.
Vance was Ethel Merman’s understudy in more than one show, and it’s not that hard to picture her in one of Merman’s more bombastic roles. She also might have been able to handle something along the lines of a Shirley Booth vehicle-“Come Back, Little Sheba,” perhaps. Or perhaps not. But it’s so inescapably clear now: Ethel is the role she was born to play, whether she knew it or liked it or not.
In addition to her spectacular turn in the Albuquerque episode, Vance had many a major Mertzian moment along the way, and her bang-pow delivery helps embed them, rock-solid, in memory. Like the time when Lucy wanted to take Fred’s side in a dispute over money and Ethel roared, “When I say he’s wrong, he’s wrong.” Or when Lucy, who had dozed off, scolded the Mertzes for tiptoeing out during Ricky’s home movies, and Ethel retorted, “You should talk, sleepy-time gal!”
During an episode in which Lucy decides to test Ricky’s devotion by pretending to have been kidnapped, Ethel opens the door to the Ricardos’ apartment, sees the mess that Lucy herself has obviously created, and roars out, “Oh, honestly-how FAR can you GO?”
“Over the Teacups” was a Lucy-Ethel classic in which Fred asked Lucy to pick out something for Ethel’s birthday present and Lucy selected, of all things, harlequin “hostess pants” instead of the toaster Ethel wanted. This led to a huge fight that ended in the balcony at a Broadway play about a woman who discovers a friend has died. Hearing that from the stage, Ethel and Lucy drop their mutual hostilities and break out in tears, reaching out over Fred and Ricky for one another, hugging, weeping and sitting together for the rest of the play. They even held hands.
Who could blame them? Friendships like that one don’t come along every day.
There are innumerable examples of Ethel getting the big laugh or setting it up. The episode about Lucy’s novel includes a scene in which Lucy returns home to find that Ricky and the Mertzes found the manuscript and tossed it into the fireplace. Or as Ethel more colorfully puts it, “We pulled down the kitchen blind and changed the title of your novel to `Forever Embers.”’
When, in Hollywood, Fred brags that his manly handshake impressed John Wayne, Ethel grabs Fred’s hand and squeezes. He drops to the floor on one knee, wincing, and grumps, “You big bully!”
Ethel the Invincible.
Of course it helps these jokes if people know there was once a hit song called “Sleepy-Time Gal” or that a red-hot best-seller of the ’40s was called “Forever Amber.” Or maybe it doesn’t