Born Vivian Roberta Jones on July 26, 1909 in Cherryville, Kansas, she was the second-oldest of six children. From a young age she had a passion for acting, but her mother, who was strictly religious, felt the entertainment business was sinful. Her family moved to Albuquerque a few years later, and she appeared in numerous plays with the “Albuquerque Little Theater.” The town loved her and gave her money so she could go to New York to try to find work on Broadway. In New York she studied drama under Eva LeGallience.
Vivian began as a chorus girl in various plays, but she gradually moved to bigger roles. She traveled with such entertainers as Ethel Merman, Jimmy Durante, Bob Hope and Ed Wynn, among others. She traveled to Europe during World War II to entertain and encourage troops.
Vivian Vance had a blooming career, but she was actually a tortured soul who later found that she had psychosomatic and psychological disorders. She suffered nervous breakdowns, anxiety and depression, and spent many years in therapy.
On “I Love Lucy,” the Mertzes were not even part of the original storyline, and when they were added, Vance and Frawley were not the show’s initial choices. Vance had to be persuaded to accept the role of Ethel Mertz.
In the episode “Ethel’s Hometown,” the Ricardos and Mertzes visit Albuquerque, and Ethel is greeted with open arms, because Ethel has been hinting that she is the one going to Hollywood to star in movies. The episode did have some basis in fact, as far as Vance’s popularity with her hometown and her singing.
Vivian won an Emmy for her portrayal of Ethel Mertz. She was so popular, in fact, that she was once asked if she would act alongside William Frawley in a “Lucy” spin-off featuring the two. She declined, as she and Frawley did not get along. Frawley, a vaudeville performer from way back, thought Vivian unattractive, unshapely and annoying. Often forgetting that "Fred and Ethel" were not really married, people often asked Vivian how Ethel could put up with Fred, which annoyed Frawley no end.
Ethel Mertz was transformed into Vivian Bagley when “The Lucy Show” began, acting still as Lucy’s confidant but still partner in crime. Fred and Ricky did not carry on. Near the end of the final episode, William Frawley makes a brief cameo. Bagley looks at him and says mysteriously, “He looks familiar…”
Vance's real-life husband Phil Ober appeared in a handful of “Lucy” episodes. Vance was able to put out of her mind two previous marriages, one of Joe Danneck Jr. and another to George Koch (no relation to site author).
Vivian Vance passed away August 17, 1979, in Belvedere, Calif., of breast and bone cancer.