Vivian Vance, aka Ethel Mertz, Spent “I Love Lucy” Years on Frontera Drive
By MICAHEL OLDHAM | Contributing Writer
Stage, film and television actress Vivian Vance is best-known for playing a middle-aged landlord on TV’s famous 1950’s sitcom “I Love Lucy.” It was in 1951 when the vivacious-looking Vance took on the role of Ethel Mertz.
Vance, a singer to boot, was 42 years of age when she received the biggest break of her then-20-plus years of hard-charging acting work.
Born in Kansas in 1909, a rebellious young lady from the get-go, the blonde-haired Vance left behind her conservative mother’s strict religious upbringing and abruptly left home. She quickly married and set off to fulfill her dream of becoming an actress.
By 1930 she was acting in stage plays. And by 1932, Vance was performing on the Broadway stage. She would also divorce that year—the first of three divorces she would have in her lifetime.
Film work would not follow until 1950, when Vance played a streetwise chambermaid in “The Secret Fury.” Another film would follow and more stage work before she landed the role of Ethel—a role Vance seemed born to play.
In “Lucy,” Vance’s Ethel character would be married with no kids. Offscreen, she had no kids, along with plenty of practice at playing the role of a wife. By the time Vance read her first lines as Ethel, she was a decade into her third marriage.
In “I Love Lucy,” which ran from 1951 to 1957, Vance’s Ethel was the sidekick of Lucy, the focus of the series played by actress Lucille Ball. Ethel was Lucy’s best friend and landlady in the show. Their friendship extended offscreen, as well.
Vance wrote in her unpublished autobiography, “Lucille Ball and I were just like sisters. We adored each other’s company. She and I had so many laughs on ‘I Love Lucy’ that we could hardly get through filming without cracking up.”
Vance further wrote, “Lucille and I used to watch our own shows and rock with laughter at what we’d done on camera. We thought we were knock-outs in some routines.”
The two ladies’ characters would often be involved in various schemes that they hid from their husbands.
Desi Arnaz played Lucy’s husband, Ricky, on screen. Arnaz and Ball played a real-life married couple, too. Fred Mertz, Ethel’s marriage partner on “Lucy,” was played by William Frawley.
In circa 1952, during the second year of the successful “I Love Lucy,” the blue-eyed Vance traded the fast-lane traffic of Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood for the breezy Pacific Palisades. The five-foot, six-inch tall Vance moved out of her apartment in the Chateau Marmont and onto Frontera Drive in The Huntington neighborhood.
A biography on Vance called “The Other Side of Ethel Mertz: The Life Story of Vivian Vance” tells us that prior to buying the Palisades home, she sought advice.
“Vivian asked her brother whether he thought the $23,000 price was fair, he quickly said he did,” according to the book.
Vance was married at the time to her third husband, television actor Philip Ober.
Television director Jay Sandrich, who was a second assistant director on “Lucy,” visited Vance’s Frontera house. Sandrich described it as a “nice home.”
Vance was not only well liked on the then-black-and-white television screens of America. The actress was apparently so beloved inside the Palisades that in 1957, she was named honorary mayor.
And while Vance summed up her feelings about her first successful run at a TV show by writing, “Overall, my years on ‘I Love Lucy’ were great fun,” all of it was clearly not fun.
On “Lucy,” the Ethel and Fred characters played a bickering, but ultimately happily married couple. Offscreen the actors’ attitudes toward each other were far from happy. Vance and Frawley sometimes bickered much worse than the spouses they played, for the two people despised each other.
And inside Vance’s Spanish-style house on Frontera Drive, her real-life marriage was also no romantic fairytale, for there was trouble in paradise for Vance and her husband, Ober. This trouble included reports of abuse, on the part of Ober.
Ober would pack his bags and leave the Palisades. Vance stayed behind and divorced him in 1959. The Frontera Drive home was now hers, alone.
Vance would finally find a lasting marriage in 1961, when she married for the final time. Her next residential stop for her and her newly minted husband John Dodds would be a house in Stamford, Connecticut.
By 1970, “I Love Lucy” was being shown on television sets in multitudes of countries. Vance would tell talk show host Mike Douglas, “I’m not a stranger any place in the world.” She would add, “It’s the most wonderful thing never to be a stranger.”
Vance passed away in 1979 in Belvedere, California, at the age of 70.
Michael Oldham, author of the novel “The Valentino Formula,” can be reached at email@example.com.