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Queen of the B’s, not Queen Bee: Lucille Ball

I’m not funny. What I am is brave. – Lucille Ball

I admit, one of my favorite movies is Mean Girls.

If you haven’t seen it, you should. It’s an awfully disturbing insight into the adolescent (and perhaps lingering into the adult) female psyche.

Saturday Night Live alum Tina Fey developed the movie’s fictional script from Rosalind Wiseman’s non-fiction book, Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence. Wiseman describes how female social circles are dictated by a clique leader – a Queen Bee. Those who support the clique leader fit in; those who don’t fit her impossible standards, don’t.

In case any of you were wondering, I wasn’t Queen Bee in high school.

Yeah, you can stop choking on your food now.

No matter how I tried, cool seemed to elude me.

Sound familiar to anyone?

If it does, then you probably, like me, have memories of your brief – but painful – encounters with the Queen Bees of your adolescent world.

Some of you still feel ugh inside whenever you think of those moments.

But the great thing about adulthood is realizing that most Queen Bees don’t get to be Queen Bee the rest of their lives.

In fact, most times, its the rest of us – the Queens of the B’sthat start to shine, especially once we all turn thirty.

I say thirty, because I think most of us spend our twenties figuring out what we’re good at, what we really believe, and who we really want to be. Those of us who supported a Queen Bee or two in high school often discover we’re tired of propping up someone else we don’t really agree with. We want to think, do and say what we think, not what others think we should.

We’re the ones stuck with ourselves for the rest of our lives.  We better like who we become, or we’ll spend far too many decades being miserable.

Sound a little more familiar?

As a child, my sick days from school were often spent curled up on my grandma’s couch, dozing and arguing with my grandpa about which show we got to watch on TV.

The one we could always agree on?

I Love Lucy.

I watched clips of that show recently, and the thing that surprised me was that every episode was the same – Lucy coming up with a hair-brained scheme to get into Ricky’s orchestra show or ‘help’ her family or neighbors in some inevitably disastrous way.

But it worked.  The show, I mean.

A show about screw-ups, mistakes, and social mis-steps is responsible for the longest recorded laugh in TV history:

Most people recognize the success of this iconic show was largely due to the comic abilities of its star.

But many people don’t realize just how much heartache was behind her laughs.

Lucille Ball lost her father to typhoid fever when she was only four. Her mother was pregnant. Her family was poor.

All Lucy remembers of that day is a fallen family picture, and a bird trapped in the house.

She was afraid of birds ever since.

Lucy’s mother, Baby Fred, and Lucy moved to Celoreon, New York, to live with her mother’s parents. Lucy’s grandfather regularly took the family to Vaudeville shows and encouraged Lucy to participate in local school plays.

And, of course, to make up her own.

Four years after her father’s death, Lucy’s mother remarried. While her mother and step-father looked for work in the city, Lucy was left in the care of her step-father’s parents, a strict Swedish couple who were so opposed to frivolity that they banned all mirrors from the house – except one left over the bathroom sink. When Lucy was caught looking at herself in that mirror, she was severely punished for her vanity.

Lucy only lived with the step-grandparents for a year, but it felt like a decade.

Her step-father eventually found work, and she was cast as a chorus girl in some of his friend’s productions.

She quickly became addicted to the stage. She came to life in front of an audience.

And, she realized she was good at something.

But the praise didn’t last long. When Lucy was sixteen, a neighborhood boy was accidentally shot and paralyzed while someone was target shooting in the family yard, under Lucy’s grandfather’s supervision. Most of the Ball family possessions were taken from them in the following legal proceedings, and they had to move.

Again.

I wonder if tears of laughter are birthed by tears of pain. Have you ever noticed that some of the funniest people, some of the people who smile and laugh the most, some of those who’ve made you feel the best, are those who know what it’s like to feel the worst?

I used to get irritated when, in the middle of an argument, David would throw out a non-sequitur, a where in the world did that come from? moment, just to make me laugh. I remember storming off over something that at the time seemed important and when I returned to his dorm room in Robson Hall, he was washing the dishes while wearing a Darth Vader mask.

It was supposed to make me laugh.

I, of course, thought he was trivializing my very serious issue, and got even madder.

Looking back on it now, David had the better idea.

Once you spend enough time in the crummiest years of your life, you learn you have two choices: laugh, or cry.

For your sake, I hope you teach yourself the discipline of laughter.

Lucy knew was it was like to suffer. She knew what it was like to have your dream constantly torn from you. She knew what it was like to be rejected.

And she learned to laugh.

Lucy’s first acting coach told her that she had ‘no future at all as a performer.’ She was hired – and quickly fired – from several Broadway shows, constantly disappointing her directors in her failed attempts as a chorus girl.

Sound familiar, I Love Lucy fans?

Realizing that Broadway wasn’t for her, Lucy moved to Hollywood.

As a model, she made her way into Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films.

It might have helped that Ginger was Lucy’s cousin, of course.

These brief roles landed Lucy other brief roles. After starring with the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges, she earned larger parts in Top Hat and Stage Door. Her co-star in the latter was none other than Katherine Hepburn.

Despite these successes, Lucy was no where near Queen Bee status. In fact, Hollywood producers called her Queen of the B’s.

As in, queen of the B (not A) list movies.

She was the ‘go-to girl’ for any second-rate, semi-successful movie Hollywood could produce.

But no one seemed to think she was A-list material. Maybe Lucy didn’t either. Or maybe she realized she could do things that other people couldn’t.

And then came Desi Arnaz.

Most people assume that of this unlikely couple, Lucy was the star, and Desi was her co-star. What most don’t realize is that while she had obvious talent, he had critical thinking and production sense.

When they met in 1940, neither one was a star. Yet.

They hated each other at first. But as my grandma used to say, hate is often akin to love, and weeks later, the All-American redhead and her cuban band leader had eloped.

Hollywood criticized the marriage.

But then, they started to take notice.

By the end of the decade, Lucy was a popular radio star. Her goofy character, Liz Cooper, on the radio program, My Favorite Husband, so entertained audiences that CBS begged her to develop the show for television.

Lucy was conflicted. Her dream was coming true.

But her marriage was on the brink of divorce.

So, she demanded that her co-star be her real-life husband.

CBS balked. What 1950’s TV audience would embrace such a bi-racial, unorthodox pairing?

But the Arnaz’s knew that if this didn’t work, neither would their marriage, and neither one was ready to give up on that yet.

To sell CBS on the idea, they developed a Vaudeville act that toured the country. It took post-WWII- America by a… hilarious storm.

Thus, I Love Lucy was born.

The show ran eight seasons. The marriage lasted a few years after that. But the company borne in the process – Desilu Productions – went on to develop Star Trek, Mission: Impossible, I Spy, The Andy Griffith Show, and The Dick Van Dyke Show, to name a few.

Then, the year my big brother was born, it became Paramount Pictures.

All because two very flawed, very broken, very funny people decided, we’re not giving up on us, just yet.

There were other big things I Love Lucy achieved. It was the first show filmed in front of a live studio audience, then aired later.

That was Desi’s idea, by the way.

It was also the first show to say the word pregnant on the air.

(Believe it or not, that was a big controversy sixty years ago. Now, of course, many so-called ‘family’ shows are more than happy to show you exactly how one became pregnant, or how one might become pregnant, but that’s another topic for another time. )

But the thing about I Love Lucy that kept everyone coming back for more?

That Ricky loved Lucy, despite all her zaniness, dizziness, and bizarre screw-ups.

Just like we all loved Lucy.

We understand her. She’s the darkest parts of us, revamped to make us laugh.

And we need to know that despite all of that, we’re still okay.

We’re still loved.

Do you have people who let you know that? I hope so.

I sure do.

We spent last weekend with some of the best of these people. These friends-who-are-almost-like-family (and all those who mean the same to us but who don’t live nearby or get to see us as often) know how to laugh, cry, and tell stories.

They also know that we’re all Queen of the B’s at… something.

Too often we spend Christmas trying to achieve an impossible standard of winter party perfection. We try to be the people on the Hallmark ads, in the Macy’s parade, the Pottery Barn flyers, or even the Sears windows. We wonder if we’ll make the ‘A list’ this year. We wonder if we’ll be driven to drink in the presence of our family, because the people we love also drive us crazy. We wonder if the pictures, the cards, the presents, or the tree will turn out exactly the way they’re supposed to.

We spin our wheels fitting in every visit with every person we know we should see, because…. its Christmas.

Sometimes those compelled get-togethers are good things. Sometimes they make us see people we really want to see, but wouldn’t make time for otherwise.

But sometimes they’re just draining.

I’m lucky to have family that I’d choose as relatives. But not all of us are that lucky.

And if that’s you – if you’re dreading what’s coming – know you’re not alone.

Look for your safe people. Find your fellow Queens of the B’s. Make each other laugh with your collective epic fails. Tell each other why you think they’re awesome and how you’re really glad you get to know them.

And let them be the buffer for the parts of the holidays that have you running for sharp things to poke in your eye.

Because this holiday isn’t actually about doing. It’s not about pretending. It’s not about trying to make the ‘A list.’

It started because someone who’s bigger than any Queen Bee, chose to be with, well… us.

So as you try not to run over all the cranky people in Walmart, as you fantasize about yelling at all the crazy people at Superstore, or as you consider sticking your tongue out at all the on-the-verge-of-breakdown people at the mall, I wish you the very best kind of togetherness.

As Lucy said:

Life’s a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!

Don’t be one of those poor suckers. Embrace the banquet. And share with those who are actually starving to death.

That is what its all about, right?

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