In the 1950s, Lucille Ball became one of the most beloved women in America. Ball and her real-life husband Desi Arnaz starred in the TV show I Love Lucy. As many as 60% of American households watched the sitcom each week at the height of its popularity. It broke ground by showcasing scandalous concepts at the time, like interracial marriage and a pregnant woman on TV.
But while neither of those earned as much criticism as the network expected, another element outside of the show almost did derail the career of the iconic stary. Was Lucille Ball a communist?
The Red Scare
Aaron Sorkin’s film Being the Ricardos debuted in December 2021. It tells the mostly true story of the crisis that threatened the careers and marriage of Ball and Arnaz.
In 1953, at the peak of the second Red Scare, many of Hollywood’s top stars hit the spotlight following accusations of either being a Communist or a Communist sympathizer. When some learned of Ball’s ties to the Communist party, she found herself in a precarious position.
Being the Ricardos showcases one particularly hellish week in the life of the TV icon — with a few liberties taken for dramatic effect.
Was Lucille Ball a registered communist?
According to History.com, in 1936, Ball registered to vote and listed an affiliation with the Communist party as other family members had. Ball explained later that she did so to “appease her socialist grandfather.” However, the site states Ball never achieved active member status.
The claims contradicted the testimony of Rena Vale, a Communist and Hollywood journalist. She attended a new member class at Ball’s residence in 1937, before the House’s Un-American Activities Committee in 1953.
Ball went before the House Un-American Activities Committee willingly to clarify her position that same year. Her testimony was sent on to the notorious J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director at the time. The committee cleared Ball of all suspicions. But the Los Angeles Herald-Express still ran the headline “Lucille Ball Was Red in 1936” in bold red lettering. The story posed a genuine threat to her career.
How Ball responded
The communist accusations were one of three crises covered by the film Being the Ricardos. But it didn’t play out exactly as seen on screen. In the movie, the scandal happened the week they filmed the show’s 22nd episode. But that actually took place the year before. The change was made to better fit the film’s narrative, including Arnaz’s alleged infidelity.
The film also hints at the discrepancy between Ball’s testimony and what Arnaz wanted to share with the public. Arnaz argued they should simply explain that Ball “checked the wrong box” when she registered to vote. But the Los Angeles Herald-Express acquired an actual voter registration card belonging to Ball that clearly showed “Communist” written on it.
While the couple appeared terrified the scandal would end the show and their careers, Arnaz suggested they best deal with the situation directly. As he warmed up the crowd before shooting episode 68 in front of a live studio audience, he addressed them, claiming that the only thing red about Lucy was her hair — and that even that wasn’t legitimate.
Network executives and show sponsors stood with Ball. Their faith paid off when her reputation made a complete recovery within months. Later that year, Ball and the rest of the principal cast of I Love Lucy attended President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s birthday celebration in Washington.
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