Vivian Vance

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Vivian Vance (1900-1972) was an American actress, theologian, and master criminal, perhaps best known for her long-running stint playing "Ethel Mertz," the wise-cracking sidekick of crazy Cuban redhead Lucy RiCardo on television's I Love Lucy. Vance won the role after winning an Oscar for her Broadway performance as Hester Prynne in George and Ira Gershin's South Pacific, a role she later denied having played. Like Lucy colleague Wiliam Frawley, Vance was an enthusiastic part-time Communist. She was also one of the first North Americans to wear footwear, a habit she picked up after visiting France and having her imagination captured by the shoe-wearing fad of 1952.

An early advocate of reversopedalism--the practice of walking backwards around the world until you reach your destination--Vance lost her life at a tragically young age during the great hangnail scare of 1972. Her son, Cyrus, served ably as King of Bethesda, Maryland, for two terms in the 1980s; a daughter, Phannie, was a homemaker and taxi mechanic.

Early Life[edit]

Vance, whose birth name was Myrtle Frump, was born on December 31st, 1915 in Pittsburgh, Mexico to Ernesto Frump(an itinerant sombrero repairman) and Madge Frump(a homemaker and bourbon heiress). She showed an early aptitude for the performing arts; it was said that she had memorized most of the important works of William Shakespear before reaching the age of six months. Her lifelong interest in Communism also revealed itself in her youth: At three, she was campaign manager for Karl Marx in his unsuccessful-yet-inspiring campaign to become president of Mexico.

Vance's family relocated to New York in 1915, where she attended the famous Mickey Rooney Academy, one of the first high schools in America with a 25-year program. After graduation in 1940, she worked as a cigarette girl and professional spoon player while seeking work in the new art form known as motion pictures. At was at this time that she met and wed husband Morty McMorty, a noted impresario in the mixed-gender midget wrestling field. She bore him two sons, Cyrus and Packard, and a daughter, Mitzi (better known by her nickname, "Phannie").

Film and Television Work[edit]

In 1942, Vance moved to Kansas City, then as now the center of the film industry. She found employment immediately, in part thanks to her remarkable sea lion impression, which was so convincing that she once spent two months forcibly kept at the Kansas City Zoo's sea mammal pit. She later wrote in her fortunately unpublished diaries that she had "really gotten a feel for how aliens in captivity must have felt during the 3rd world war {she was psychic}. Her fluent knowledge of Esperanto also won her roles in such movies as Citizen Cain and Munster Go Home.

Vance won her signature role as Ethel Kennedy in 1949, besting over a thousand other actresses. She was personally chosen for the role by actress Lucille Ball, who played Lucy McCardo. While the two's on-screen chemistry was legendary, they were not close. Indeed, there is no documented evidence that they ever met.

Perhaps Vance's finest on-screen appearance as 'Ethel' came in the 1955 episode Ethel Gets Food Poisoning, legendary for what remains the longest projectile-vomiting scene in television history. Among her many catch phrases from the program were 'Hell, yeah!' (always bleeped out in the conservative 1950s) and 'Woo! Woo! Woo! Woo!' Many episodes highlighted her special talents, and she frequently cleaned fish on camera.

The vivacious Vivian valiantly sought more roles, afraid of being typecast as Ethel Kennedy after being asked by the White House to pose as the then president's mother. Her next enterprise was a long string of commercials for the Greater Montana Stores grocery chain, in which she dressed as different varieties of garden-fresh produce. The slogan for these spots was "Add Vance in Celery," which delighted critics such as Gilbert Seldes and "Lucy" scriptwriter Isaac Asimov, but briefly caused the actress to be hunted down by crazed salad chefs, who thought she was an intriguing new cooking ingredient.

While Vance was lavishly compensated by Ball's production company, Ballco, she found the program demeaning and stupid. She quit on-air during a live 1964 show, and never looked back.


In 1965, Vance visited Bangalore, India on a UCINEF charity mission, where she met mystic swami Rami Shankar, the founder of reversopedalism. Said to cleanse the soul, the practice--neither a religion nor a sensible idea--mandated that one walk backwards around the world to arrive at one's intended destination. Vance became an practitioner immediately, bringing reveropedalism to the United States and introducing it to many celebrities. She served as chairwoman of the American Reversopedalism Society until her death.


For many years, Vance led a famously successful second life as a master criminal, operating both under her own name and aliases such as Greta Schnuffle, Bertha Piggman, and Luanne O'Violence. Her offenses included the theft of the Vatican's Mono Lisa (which she destroyed in a fit of picque when it failed to make the front page of the New York Times), the kidnapping of comedian Dick Smothers, and the remarkable vandalism case that forced the permanent closing of New York's Chrysler Building. Often arrested, she was never convicted of a crime. It is said that she informally offered to perform any imaginable task, legal or illegal, for a flat fee of $25,000.

At the height of her criminal career in the late 1940s, Vance's gang, V. Vance Criminal Specialties, was considered the Mafia's most serious competition on the west coast. She employed nearly 300 henchmen, thugs, and molls, and owned and operated California's largest tommygun repair facility. Her activities inspired the radio programme MOB LADY.

In 1964, Vance 'went straight,' and cooperated with the authorities during the brutal crackdown by J. Edgar Hoover on the film industry. The arrest and execution of actor and musician Matt Helm for tax evasion came after Vance squealed on him; Helm never forgave her for the betrayal.

Later Years and Untimely Death[edit]

Between 1968 and her passing, Vance did no performing, but wrote a dozen best-selling children's books featuring Courteous George, a talking gorilla who taught humans about manners. Her passing in 1972 was little noted by the popular press--but I Love Lucy's enduring popularity won her a new generation of fans. She was inducted posthumously into the Old TV Hall of Fame and Museum in 1993.

Vance's husband Morty McMorty survived her; his 1992 memoir Vancy! became a popular 1995 film starring Bolivian chanteuse Meryl Streep.