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Lucille Ball Dies; TV's Comic Genius Was 77

Death Caused by Ruptured Abdominal Aorta as She Appeared to Be Recovering From Surgery

April 27, 1989|Roxane Arnold | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Lucille Ball, the leggy showgirl, model and B-grade movie queen whose pumpkin hair and genius for comedy made her an icon of television, died early Wednesday, a week after undergoing emergency heart surgery.

The co-creator and star of " I Love Lucy," a product of TV's Golden Age that continues via syndication to be viewed by millions around the world, was 77 and died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center of a ruptured abdominal aorta.

Known simply as "Lucy" to four decades of smitten television fans, she had undergone surgery at Cedars-Sinai on April 18 to replace part of her aorta and aortic valve and had recovered from the 6 1/2-hour operation to a point where she was eating and even walking around her hospital room.

Hospital spokesman Ronald Wise said the rupture occurred in a portion of the aorta, the main heart artery, far from where the operation was performed.

She suffered a complete heart failure at 5 a.m., and 47 minutes of resuscitation efforts proved fruitless, Wise said. "There was nothing to indicate this would happen," Wise said. "The heart itself apparently was not involved in Miss Ball's sudden death."

Since last week's surgery, fans had flooded the hospital with thousands of get-well cards, sent via telegram and even facsimile machine. Hospital officials said it was the largest outpouring they had ever seen.

Miss Ball was a tough-talking woman who had used her stardom and show business savvy to become, with her then-husband, the late Desi Arnaz, head of one of Hollywood's major studios, Desilu.

Despite her business acumen, she remained the unquestioned queen of television comedy. From her star-struck childhood through her struggles as a wisecracking movie actress in the 1930s and '40s to the television career that made her a legend, Miss Ball's life was in the best show business tradition of rags to riches.

Almost humbly, she liked to say she owed her enormous success, not so much to talent, but to a magical combination of guts and good supporting players. Her greatest achievements, she always would add, were not any milestones in her career but ranked somewhere under the birth of her two children, Lucie in 1951 and Desi Jr., two years later.

"I am not funny," Ball told an interviewer for Rolling Stone magazine in 1983. "My writers were funny. My directors were funny. The situations were funny. . . . What I am is brave. I have never been scared. Not when I did movies, certainly not when I was a model and not when I did "I Love Lucy."

It was "I Love Lucy," which premiered on CBS on Oct. 15, 1951, that earned Miss Ball her niche in television history. The 30-minute comedy starred Miss Ball and the Cuban-born Arnaz as the wacky Lucy Ricardo and her conga-playing husband Ricky. The show was a weekly dash into absurdity that boasted the biggest television audience of its time--of almost any time.

Stopped the Nation

In creating the show, Miss Ball and Arnaz--who died in 1986--set a pattern of television that was to be repeated in decades to come. They filmed the programs in front of a live audience and in doing so, invented the popular and financially rewarding rerun.

The show was so popular during the 1950s that it literally stopped the nation every Monday night from 9 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. In fact, nighttime shoppers became so scarce in Chicago that the mammoth Marshall Field department store posted a sign that read: "We Love Lucy, too, so from now on we will be open Thursday night instead of Monday." When presidential candidate Adlai E. Stevenson interrupted the show once for a political message, he was flooded with angry mail.

Even a charge that Miss Ball was a Communist, made by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, failed to dent her popularity. The charges, based on her registering to vote as a Communist in 1936, were dropped when Miss Ball explained she had done so only to please her ailing grandfather. Millions of sympathetic fans and a pragmatic CBS understood.

A phenomenal 40 million viewers watched the antics each week as Lucy would always try to outwit Ricky. With their best friends and landlords, Fred and Ethel Mertz, played by veterans William Frawley and Vivian Vance as the perfect foils, the Ricardos found themselves mired in situations that frequently were rowdy and always ridiculous.

A generation of Americans grew to recap their favorite Lucy episodes, plot twist by crazy twist.

There was the time Lucy schemed her way onto Ricky's television show to do a commercial for a vegetable drink with a high alcoholic content and got hilariously tipsy during the many retakes.

Then there was the time she threw in two packages of yeast while baking homemade bread and ended up pinned against the wall of her Manhattan kitchen by a monster loaf.

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