Vivian Vance was no less attractive than Lucille Ball. This is something of a hot take, as she’s best remembered as the frumpy Ethel Mertz, and we tend not to think about marriages with age difference as great as that between Vance and William Frawley. But he was twenty years her senior. It’s not true that Vance was contractually obligated to remain twenty pounds heavier than Lucille Ball—who was in fact older than Vance by two years—but it was true that Vance was made up, styled, and filmed in a way that made her appear older and drabber. But you had to do that, because the two women were both attractive in a Middle American sort of way; arguably, the only reason Ball had ever truly stood out from the other starlets of her generation was her hair.
Vance was born in Cherryvale, Kansas, three years after its other Hollywood name, Louise Brooks. The family moved to Independence, the county seat and still not a large town. Young Vivian began studying acting in high school and fell in love with it, which seems to have caused conflict with her mother’s religious beliefs. Vance rebelled, sneaking out and so forth. She eventually changed her last name from Jones and moved to Albuquerque, working at the Albuquerque Little Theatre.
From there, she moved to New York. She started as a member of the chorus; while Ball was in Hollywood campaigning for the role of Scarlett O’Hara (she was allegedly offered Belle Watling), Vance replaced Kay Thompson in the musical Hooray For What! She also starred in a Cole Porter musical a few years later with Danny Kaye and Eve Arden. She doesn’t seem to have had a spectacular career, though she did appear in a 1947 revival of The Cradle Will Rock as Mrs. Mister. Had she stayed on Broadway, it’s hard to say where her career would have gone.
She wasn’t the first choice for Ethel. One of the women Ball wanted was an alcoholic whom the network rejected; the other was already doing Burns and Allen. (We’re getting to that duo next month!) The younger Vance had her naturally light hair darkened and put into unflattering hairstyles; her makeup was designed to make her look older. Unlike Ball’s attractive attire, she was put into frumpy house dresses. And of course she was saddled with Frawley, whom she loathed.
And that was it. For the rest of her career, it didn’t matter what she did—she was Ethel. The story about her weight seems to have stemmed from a joke contract Ball gave her at a party once, which also stated that Ethel couldn’t get more laughs than Lucy. Her hair couldn’t be within five shades of Ball’s, according to this fake contract, and she couldn’t wear false eyelashes. Though she wasn’t given that last by the makeup department anyway.