By GARY HERRON, Observer staff writer
Who didn’t love Lucy in the 1950s? Or even in reruns of “I Love Lucy,” which premiered in 1951, and ran ad nauseum for several decades.
All four are long gone, and not many realize that the woman who portrayed Ethel Mertz, Vivian Vance, always called Albuquerque her hometown — even though she was born July 26, 1909, in Cherryvale, Kan., and attended high school in the Jayhawk State.
Why the loyalty to New Mexico?
Let’s ask someone who should know: her younger sister, Lou Ann Graham, who talked about her sibling on the Albuquerque Little Theatre stage for about an hour on July 31.
That’s the very same ALT stage where Vance got her start, back in 1930 – and one of the reasons Vance was so fond of the Duke City. Even after her first Broadway role, in the 1932 musical “Music in the Air,” she returned regularly.
Of course, her family, including Graham, was then living in Albuquerque — their father ran a store on the northwest corner of Broadway and Coal — and Vance was always close to her family. One sister married legendary New Mexico high school football coach and one-time Lobo Ralph Bowyer.
Graham recalled one amusing incident in which Graham, Vance and the Bowyers were eating at a restaurant in Cuba, N.M. Vance noticed a waitress kept glancing at their table and, when the waitress approached, muttered, “Here we go,” expecting a request for an autograph.
Not to worry: “Aren’t you Ralph Bowyer?” the inquisitive waitress asked.
Vance’s days as Ethel were mostly what the 100 or so ALT visitors wanted to hear, and Graham had plenty of stories, plus a 33-minute video to show them. According to Lucille Ball in her autobiography (“Love, Lucy,” 1996), Vance and her were “extraordinarily compatible” once Vance had been selected to play Ethel Mertz in 1951.
Vance was “actually much younger” than her TV husband, William Frawley, and didn’t mind portraying Ethel in “dowdy clothes, no false eyelashes or eye makeup, and hair that looked as if she had washed and set it herself. But she drew the line at padding her body to look fatter.”
Graham, who attended Albuquerque High and the University of New Mexico, before living in France, San Francisco and other locations, is back “home” in the Duke City. She’s understandably proud of her sister, who was much more than Ethel Mertz, and had once been an understudy to Ethel Merman.
“Many people think she never did anything but Ethel Mertz,” Graham said. Maybe that’s because the role was played perfectly by Vance, who was always scheming with Lucy while trying to be the voice of reason, receiving four Emmy nominations for best supporting actress — and winning once, in 1954. (That Emmy is encased on a wall of ALT.)
After “I Love Lucy” ended, Ball starred in “The Lucy Show,” again with Vance — this time still her best friend but named Viv — on board.
Many years and roles later, Vance’s body was ravaged by terminal breast cancer, and she wanted her sister nearby. Graham was called and told, “Vivian wants to die and she wants you there. In 1979, people didn’t do that,” she said.
“It took three weeks and she never lost her sense of humor,” Graham said, telling another humorous incident in which a nurse asked Vance, “Is there anything I can get you?” and Vance replied, “Yeah, another body.”
After she died, on Aug. 17, 1979, her ashes were scattered in San Francisco Bay.
“I could go on for another week with stories about my big sister,” Graham said, who touted Vance as a good decorator, someone who loved to garden, loved to cook and “tried to be our second mother … She was always very generous.”
For more on the late Vance, visit Graham’s website, vivianvancescrapbook.com.