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Walt Disney & Lucille Ball: The Dots You Probably Never Connected Until Now

walt disney and lucille ball
Credit: Disney/CBS/Canva

Two iconic entertainment titans from the 20th century spent most of their lives building empires that would far outlive them, and though their paths barely crossed, the commonalities they shared earned them legendary status in the television, film, and entertainment industries decades ago–a legendary status that has stood the test of time for generations.

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walt disney and lucille ball

Credit: Disney/CBS

Two of the most beloved and recognizable faces in the history of Hollywood belonged to the genius visionary and wish-granter Walt Disney and the famous and very talented “screwball redhead” Lucille Ball. Though they were born ten years apart from one another–Walt being the elder of the two–and rose to fame in very different areas within the arenas of film and television, the striking similarities between the journeys that led Walt Disney and Lucille Ball to garner fame and the admiration of fans all over the world are astounding and undeniable.

As the two someday-titans grew up and began to make their marks in Hollywood, they faced similar challenges and similar accomplishments, and ultimately, their respective efforts not only solidified their rightful places in the story of the Golden Age of Hollywood; they also helped to define popular culture and daily life in 20th-century America.

A Once-Shared Stage & an Undeniable Mutual Respect

Walt and Lucy spent most of their lives living and working in California, and though both were known for hob-nobbing with celebrities–Walt with the likes of authors P. L. Travers and Ray Bradbury, as well as Gene Autry, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan (long before he became President) and then-Vice President Richard Nixon, and Lucy with William Holden, Rock Hudson, Harpo Marx, John Wayne, Carol Burnett, Danny Kaye, and Dean Martin, among others–their paths almost never crossed.

In fact, with the exception of awards shows in Hollywood, Walt and Lucy shared the stage only once, on June 24, 1956, when they came together with other celebrities in Hollywood to congratulate Ed Sullivan on the eighth anniversary of his television show.

But a post by Top Disney sheds light on the connection between the visionary entrepreneur and television’s favorite redhead, detailing the mutual respect they had for one another:

“Lucy was a good friend to Walt Disney. She advised him when Walt was thinking about making a big leap into television in the early 1950s. The favor was returned in the 1960s when Walt advised Lucy on running a Hollywood studio; Desilu Productions launched Star Trek, and [Ball] saved the budding blockbuster franchise when NBC lost faith in it. And while Lucy never appeared in a Disney film, she was a frequent visitor to Disneyland.”
lucille ball with her children at disneyland

Lucille Ball with her children at Disneyland, 1956/Credit: Facebook

Pioneers in Television and Film

Walt Disney and Lucille Ball weren’t only recognizable faces in Hollywood; they were pioneers in the industry. Walt had already made a name for himself with his animated shorts by the time he decided that a feature-length animated film would be his next “big thing.” Such an idea was new to Hollywood and had never been attempted before, which may very well have served as motivation for Walt, who was well-versed in never walking away from a challenge.

In the early 1930s, Walt had dreams of creating an animated feature–one that would be produced on color film–and he wanted the picture to give the illusion of depth. To achieve the illusion in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), his first-ever feature-length animated film, he developed the multiplane camera, which was designed to film through several layers of drawings. The lens of the camera could then focus on any one of the layers, ultimately creating a brilliant picture that looked three-dimensional.

It would be the first of many “new-fangled ideas” across Walt’s career–and just one of the advancements he made in the film industry.
While Walt Disney was hard at work pioneering the film industry, Lucille Ball and her husband, Desi Arnaz, were working to pioneer the television industry. Two brilliant ideas entered the industry in the early 1950s and became the new standard for filming live shows, thanks to Lucy, Desi, and I Love Lucy.
September 8, 1951...First Episode Of "I Love Lucy" Was Filmed - Eyes Of A Generation...Television's Living History

On the set of “I Love Lucy”/Credit: Lucy-Desi Museum

The fan-favorite show starring Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, William Frawley, and Vivian Vance was revolutionary in that it was the first live show that used multiple, simultaneously filming cameras as a studio audience watched the performance. It was also one of the first shows to be shot on 35mm film rather than broadcast live. 

The Early 1950s: A Turning Point in the Lives of Walt Disney & Lucille Ball

Every Saturday was “Daddy’s Day” for Walt Disney and his daughters Diane and Sharon. They’d spend the day together on an outing that varied each week. But over time, Walt realized that many of the “attractions” of the day focused on children enjoying an activity while parents could only sit back and watch. He knew there had to be a better way, and when he couldn’t find it, he decided to create it. Though Disneyland didn’t open until his daughters were already older, Walt was determined to bring the park to fruition.

Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round -CarouselHistory.com

Griffith Park carousel, where Walt Disney took his daughters on Saturdays/Credit: Carousel History

“There is nothing like it in the entire world,” Walt said about his plans for Disneyland. “I know because I’ve looked. That’s why it can be great–because it will be unique.”

In 1953, he bought 160 acres of land in Anaheim, California, and in 1954, Walt and his team of “Imagineers” began the work of constructing Disneyland, which opened one year later in July 1955. Though Disneyland was only the first of many Disney Parks, it’s the only one that was completed during Walt’s lifetime–and the one for which he is nearly synonymous.

Reinventing the American Amusement Park

Credit: Disney Archives

While Walt was dreaming of Disneyland somewhere in Anaheim, Lucille Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz were in Los Angeles, embracing their alter egos Ricky and Lucy Ricardo on the I Love Lucy show, which debuted on October 15, 1951, on the CBS television network.

Just 15 months later, the sitcom was so popular that on January 19, 1953, 72% of American households–44 million people–tuned in to watch the episode titled, “Lucy Goes to the Hospital,” during which Lucy gives birth to Little Ricky. That was 15 million more viewers than those who tuned in for President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s inauguration the following day.

I Love Lucy" Lucy Goes to the Hospital (TV Episode 1953) - IMDb

“Lucy Goes to the Hospital” January 1953/Credit: CBS

To this day, I Love Lucy still holds the record for the highest household rating in a season for any TV series ever with a 67.3 rating in season two (1952-1953), and it remains one of the most popular sitcoms in television history.

1955: A Landmark Year for Walt and for Lucy

The year 1955 would prove to be monumental for both Walt Disney and Lucille Ball–and for millions upon millions of their fans for generations to come.

walt disney and lucille ball

Credit: Disney Archives/CBS

On Sunday, July 17, 1955, Walt Disney welcomed the first visitors to Disneyland when the gates to his theme park were finally opened. Walt spent $17 million on the construction of the family-friendly theme park, which, when adjusted for inflation, is the equivalent of approximately $194 million in today’s money. But for all his planning and preparation, opening day at Disneyland was a disaster by most accounts.

Approximately 15,000 guests were expected to visit the park that day, but the circulation of counterfeit tickets led to a crowd of close to 30,000 guests in the park. Food and drinks were exhausted before the end of the day, and the heels of ladies’ shoes got stuck in the fresh asphalt that turned to goo in the 100-degree heat.

parking lot full of cars in the 1950s

Disneyland’s parking lot was full to the brim on opening day in 1955/Credit: Disney Archives

And though that so-called “Black Sunday” was a rough start for the theme park, it fades to nothing in comparison to the decades of memories, magic, and nostalgia afforded to guests who’ve visited the park since 1955. Disneyland served as the beginning of Disney’s theme park endeavors and is an immovable mainstay of American culture–one enjoyed by generations of fans–almost all of whom were not even born when Walt Disney was alive.

In 1955, Lucille Ball was behind a major advancement in television history–one that would allow future generations to love Lucy too, long after the final episode of Lucy’s signature show was filmed. In 1955, I Love Lucy became the first TV series to be broadcast in the form of reruns, which was possible because the show was produced on film instead of the grainier kinescope like most shows during that time were produced.

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Ethel and Lucy get jobs at a chocolate factory (“I Love Lucy,” Season 2, Episode 1)/Credit: CBS

The advancement ultimately gave way to syndication, allowing new generations of Lucy fans to be born long after the silly antics of Lucy and Desi were but memories captured on film.

Though Walt and Lucy led very different lives, their efforts and dedication to the work they loved created lasting legacies that continue to bring laughter and joy to millions upon millions of fans today and that will continue to do so for generations to come.

About Becky Burkett

Becky's from the Lone Star State and has been writing since she was 10 and encountered her first Disney Park when she was 11. It was love at first Main Street Electrical Parade. Joy is blank lined journals, 0.7 mm pens, and all things Walt, Woody and Buzz, PIXAR, Imagineering, Sleeping Beauty (make it blue!), Disney Parks history and EPCOT. At Disney World, you'll find her croonin' with the birdies at the Enchanted Tiki Room or hangin' with Woody and the gang at Toy Story Land. If you can dream, you really can do it!