Born as Vivian Roberta Jones in Cherryvale, Kansas, she had a brother and four sisters. Her family moved to Independence, Kansas, and later studied drama under Anna Ingleman and William Inge. Their next move, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, brought her to that city’s Little Theatre, which provided her the money she needed to study under Eva Le Gallienne in New York. After arriving in 1932 she had trouble finding stage work until she began a two-year stint in Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s “Music in the Air”.
She next understudied Ethel Merman in the hit “Anything Goes.” Her first starring role was as Kay Thompson’s last minute replacement in “Hooray for What!”, starring Ed Wynn. In 1945, while starring in a touring company of “Voice of the Turtle” she had a nervous breakdown. After undergoing psychotherapy and limited movie work, she returned to the play at the La Jolla (California) Playhouse, where she was seen by Desi Arnaz who decided she was perfect for the role of Ethel Mertz (Ball and Arnaz’s first choice, Bea Benaderet, was unavailable) in the I Love Lucy (1951) television series.
At first she didn’t want the part (too frumpy), and hated being cast as the wife of William Frawley (she was 42, he was 64, and the two never got along). Frawley, an alcoholic and on the professional skids had actively campaigned for the role of Fred Mertz after learning that Gale Gordon was also unavailable. Desi Arnaz hired him, but only under strict conditions regarding alcohol consumption and professionalism. The runaway success of the series forced the two to work together but Frawley never forgave Vance for a comment she made about the disparity in their ages, which he overheard. After I Love Lucy (1951) ended she divorced her third husband, married again, to the considerably younger John Dodds, and they moved to Stamford, Connecticut, the first time she had lived east of the Mississippi (aside from work) in many years.
In 1962, she began work on The Lucy Show (1962), but the pressures of long-distance commuting didn’t suit her, so after three years she limited her herself to guest appearances. In 1974, she and her husband moved to Belvedere, California (just north of San Francisco Bay) so she could be near her sister. She battled ill-health throughout much of the 1970 and died in 1979, aged 70, of breast and bone cancer.
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