STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Before She Was Ethel Mertz

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Before She Was Ethel Mertz Of course she'll always be known as TV's Ethel Mertz. But did you know that years before I Love Lucy came to the small screen, Vivian Vance had a career in the theater, and had more than one fascinating brush with famous stars and shows?

Of course she'll always be known as TV's Ethel Mertz. But did you know that years before I Love Lucy came to the small screen, Vivian Vance had a career in the theater, and had more than one fascinating brush with famous stars and shows?

You can learn it all from The Other Side of Ethel Mertz: The Life of Vivian Vance, a marvelous biography by Frank Castelluccio and Alvin Walker that will be published in October by a small Connecticut house called Knowledge, Ideas, and Trends. But, in anticipation of what would have been the actress's 89th birthday on July 26, here's a report on the book's theater-related sections.

Though Vance always liked to call Albuquerque, NM, her home, Castelluccio and Walker report that Vivian Roberta Jones was actually born in Independence, KS. As a teenager, she was a cheerleader for Independence High -- on the same squad as William Inge.

But it was the legitimate stage that Vivian Jones wanted, though her mother was dead set against it. "You want to be an actress, trying to lead men into sin?" she snarled. "You are going to hell."

Maybe that's one reason why young Miss Jones felt she'd better change her name. But even "Vance" had theatrical roots. It was the surname of a budding playwright Vivian had come to know. When, in 1927, road press agent Joe Danneck came to town touting a touring production of George Abbott's Broadway, Vivian got chummy with him, and got in the show. They were married for 18 months.

After doing chorus in the national tour of Rodgers and Hart's Peggy- Ann in 1929, Vance wended her way to Albuquerque, appeared in a poor man's version of the Ziegfeld Follies, called Cushman's Revue. There her rendition of "My Man" made her a local celebrity.

Soon she was a founding member of the Albuquerque Little Theater, where she played a vamp in This Thing Called Love, and a nun in The Cradle Song. Also in the company: Joan Crawford's mother.

Eventually the budding actress did so well in Albuquerque that the theater was nicknamed The Vivian Vance Playhouse. So Vance decided to brave New York in 1932, her Peggy-Ann pedigree got her an audition for Music in the Air. Messrs. Hammerstein and Kern were impressed with her Sophie Tucker-like rendition of "After You've Gone," and cast her in the chorus of the musical at $35 a week. There Vance befriended chorus member Dolores Reade, who made Vivian the first to know that she was engaged to a rising comic named Bob Hope.

During the show's run, Vance wasn't above apple-polishing Jerome Kern, to whom she brought an apple every day. She also had a thing with Music's star Walter Slezak, even though she was already working on husband number two.

She next got a chorus job in a musical called Hard to Get, which, by the time it opened at the Alvin on November 21, 1934, had been retitled Anything Goes. Vance meticulously studied star Ethel Merman (well, who could blame her?), and came to ape her vocal style so much that she became The Merm's understudy -- and went on twice. She'd play Reno Sweeney for real, though, in the show's bus-and-truck tour.

Russel Crouse, the show's co-author, took a (non-romantic) interest in Vance, and gave her a one-line role and the chance to again understudy Merman in Red, Hot, and Blue, the 1936 musical about a woman whose buttocks were branded by a hot waffle iron. She went on several times in this one, too.

Next she became understudy for Kay Thompson in Hooray for What? and appeared in the chorus. Here she locked horns choreographer Agnes De Mille, who felt that Vance and the other chorines were romancing the producers and backers, that they didn't feel they had to give their all, because they'd be "protected." Sparks flew, but it was De Mille who was canned during rehearsals.

So was Thompson, during the Boston tryout. Vance was given the job on an interim basis, but didn't want it, because she felt bad for Thompson. The star, though, told Vance to take it, because "they'll just get someone else." Vance felt vocally unprepared and asked orchestra member Hugh Martin to help her -- the first time anyone had asked him to do that. That launched Martin on his career as Broadway's premier vocal coach.

He apparently did a good job with Vance, because two days before the Dec. 1, 1937 opening, she was told the role was hers. She got good notices, though some of the more important critics (including John Mason Brown) thought she was overly vulgar when doing the show's big number, "The Night at the Embassy Ball." So when producer Vinton Freedley offered her a song and-striptease in his next musical, she turned him down.

Wrong move. The show was Leave It to Me, and the song was "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" which jump-started Mary Martin's rise to stardom.

Vance, then, didn't seem headed to a Tony-caliber career -- though she did work for Antoinette Perry, who directed her in the road company of Kiss the Boys Goodbye, a 1938 comedy by Clare Booth, loosely based on David O. Selznick's search for an actress to play Scarlett O'Hara. In the New York company was Philip Ober, who'd become husband number three -- though not before a messy incident in which Ober's wife and the police broke in on her husband and Vance in the middle of the night. "Actor's Wife Sues, Names Blonde Star" was just one of the headlines that hit the paper the next day. Vivian called the Albuquerque newspapers and begged them not to run the story, lest her mother discover that her prophesy was fast coming true.

The newspapers complied. Those were simpler times.

Vance next acted with Gypsy Rose Lee in Burlesque, then Gertrude Lawrence in Skylark. The authors note that Vance loved telling the story of her first meeting with Lawrence -- just as the star was getting out of the shower. "She made her entrance naked except for a miniature bath towel that provided more coyness than coverage." (Had this scene been in Lawrence's biopic, Star! the move might have been more successful -- and in keeping with the film's second title, Those Were the Happy Times.)

After a San Francisco stint in that old '30s war-horse Springtime for Henry, and a visit back to Albuquerque as Anna Christie, Vance returned to New York in 1941 to do Vinton Freedley's production of Cole Porter's Let's Face It with Danny Kaye and Eve Arden. Vance came up with a bit of business that was getting laughs, so Arden wanted to appropriate it. Vance complained to Porter, who let her keep it. From then on, Kaye did some stage business to subvert the number and her.

Even though Vance was unhappy, Freedley wouldn't release her from her contract when another musical wanted her services. That show, by the way, was Oklahoma!

Two years later, though, in 1945, Oklahoma's director Rouben Malmoulian cast Vance in Carousel as Mrs. Mullin, the would-be-object of Billy Bigelow's affection. But the choreographer, of course, was Agnes De Mille, who demanded that Vance be fired, just as unceremoniously as she had been in Hooray for What? Producer Theresa Helburn felt that De Mille, who gave her that innovative dream ballet in Oklahoma!, was the more valuable. Vance was bounced.

She rebounded by getting the smaller of the two female roles in the tour of wartime smash, The Voice of the Turtle -- but soon experienced a nervous breakdown. She recovered, though a couple of Broadway flops didn't help: It Takes Two, where she was cast and directed by George Abbott, and a revival of The Cradle Will Rock where she played Mrs. Mister.

That drove her and Ober to Hollywood, where, in 1949, they did a movie, and she reprised The Voice of the Turtle at the La Jolla Playhouse. In the audience one night was director Marc Daniels, who was working with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz on a planned TV series. He liked what he saw, and urged his stars to come give the lady a look. Lucy had given birth to Lucie only 11 days earlier, so Desi went alone. After the performance, he immediately went backstage and signed her. The rest you know.

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star-Ledger.

You can e-mail him at PFilichia@aol.com