ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Lou Ann Graham still remembers seeing her sister Vivian relaxing in her Albuquerque Little Theatre dressing room in a glamorous gown.
“I think I might have been 3 or 5,” the sister of Vivian Vance said in a telephone interview. “She was on the KiMo stage in a Christmas revue. I remember her sitting there in a beautiful dress. I thought, ‘I want to be in a dressing room just like that.'”
Graham will talk about her memories of the “I Love Lucy” star in a 90-minute presentation at the Albuquerque Little Theatre.
Known as “Viv” to her friends and family, Vance was born Vivian Roberta Jones in Cherryvale, Kan.
Her passion for the stage struck defiantly when she was a teenager, against the wishes of her religious mother.
The family moved to Albuquerque in 1929 because of the matriarch’s asthma.
“My mother objected to a lot of things,” said youngest sister Graham, who would grow up to become an Albuquerque actress and teacher. “We were raised in the Methodist Church. Later she became a Jehovah’s Witness. My mother thought (acting) was sinful.”
Vance came to Albuquerque with the first of her four husbands in 1930. The Jones family opened a grocery store near Broadway and Coal.
Vance earned money modeling clothes but soon landed a role in the racy vaudeville show “Cushman’s Revue” at the KiMo.
She later toured with the production.
When she returned, she fell under the guidance of Albuquerque Little Theatre director Kathryn Kennedy O’Connor, appearing in the theater’s first two seasons.
Convinced of her talent, O’Connor hosted a 1932 benefit for Vance, raising enough money to send the fledgling actress to New York.
“The day she was leaving, I guess she and my mother were in the kitchen,” Graham said. “She said to my mother, ‘I’m afraid she’s going to forget me.’
“But she always sent me my most beautiful doll for Christmas, so how could I forget her?”
Vance returned regularly, both to visit her family and to perform at ALT.
“She appreciated what they’d done for her,” Graham said.
Vance landed the role of a lifetime when Desi Arnaz spotted her performing in “Voice of the Turtle” at the La Jolla Playhouse. The rest is television history.
Vance was nothing like the frumpy housewife Ethel Mertz.
“Until ‘I Love Lucy’ she played glamour women and she loved that,” Graham said. Often “she was the second woman – the blonde that took away the husband. In stage roles, she played mothers.”
The family donated her 1953 Best Supporting Actress Emmy Award to Albuquerque Little Theatre.