Celebrating Lucille Ball’s 105th Birthday
The Lucille Ball Comedy Festival starts today, in her hometown of Jamestown NY, sponsored by the Lucy-Desi Center for Comedy. Celebrating what would have been Lucy’s 105th (!) birthday on August 6, there are plenty of Lucy, I Love Lucy and comedy events in which to take part.
I attended the festivals regularly, and though I can’t make it this year, I wanted to honor our favorite redhead by posting a “Letter to Lucy” I wrote after attending one of the special weekends, circa the mid-2000s. So enjoy, and as soon as I have a picture of the new sculpture being unveiled tomorrow in Lucille Ball Memorial Park, childhood home of Celeron, NY — to replace what many have dubbed the “Scary Lucy” monstrosity that was removed from the park after fan uproar — I’ll share it with you on Facebook.
Happy Birthday to the woman who has bought more of the healing power of laughter to us than any other entertainer in history.
Oh, how you would have loved the “Lucy-Desi Days” festival in Jamestown, N.Y.! Sponsored by The Lucy-Desi Museum (left), the celebration honors you, Desi Arnaz, and the cast and crew of I Love Lucy for bringing so much happiness to the world through laughter. A lot of your friends and fans showed up to celebrate: your I Love Lucy director William Asher; I Love Lucy film editor Dann Cahn (who told me a wonderful story about the making of Forever Darling, but more on that later); Wanda Clark, your personal secretary; your brother Fred; your “sister,” Cleo Smith; your daughter, Lucie; and of course, many, many fans, including myself.
I arrived at the Buffalo airport on Thursday night (05.26), and waited for William Asher and wife Meredith (right) to arrive. Museum volunteer Everett Nelson took me out to dinner and in general took good care of me; when the Ashers arrived, we loaded up the car and headed for Jamestown. Lots of stories from Bill and Meredith — several of which I can’t share! — but I asked Bill (waving in pic below; Dann Cahn is in the cap and glasses) how he got involved with I Love Lucy and he explained that Lucy and Desi had asked him to edit the show in the first season (1951), but he wasn’t interested since he’d already moved on to directing. He recommended his friend, Dann, as film editor, and the rest is history. When I Love Lucy‘s first director, Marc Daniels, left after Season One, you and Desi asked Bill to direct, again. This time he accepted, and ended up directing more than 100 episodes. Bill also directed other Desilu series like Our Miss Brooks and December Bride, and then, in the 1960s, became best known for writing, producing and directing Bewitched, which starred his then-wife, Elizabeth Montgomery. Bill and Meredith also noted they were very excited and looking forward to get to Salem, Massachusetts, their next stop, where, in the near future, a statue of Montgomery as her Bewitched character, Samantha Stevens, will be unveiled. Here’s a little secret: look for the couple in a cameo appearance toward the end of the updated big-screen version of Bewitched , coming in early June. The Ashers were a delight and had nothing but nice things to say about you, Lucy; more on Bill a bit later.
That’s me with Wanda Clark (right) getting ready to be immortalized in the Museum’s 2005-06 catalog (05.27). She was a sweetheart, as always, and one of the dearest people I’ve met…showed me pictures of her gorgeous new place in Oklahoma. She lives on a lake. Can we say, “Jealous!” I had a ball (forgive my pun) being photographed with Lucy archivist and fellow author Tom Watson, and illustrator Rick Carl. Afterward, I walked around downtown Jamestown, getting reacquainted with your home town, and especially Jones Bakery(!), where the cheese danish is heavenly. You used to have Jones’ Swedish limpa rye bread shipped out to Beverly Hills, didn’t you? At noon, downtown at Tracy Plaza, Mayor Sam Teresi proclaimed the official opening of Lucy-Desi Days 2005, with a little help from Lucy and Desi impersonators Diane Vincent and Adrian Israel (below).
I spent the rest of the day signing books at the Collector’s Show and the Lucy-Desi Fan reunion, held this year at the Celeron Fire Hall. The venue was appropriate for several reasons (normally, it’s held outside as a picnic): a devoted fan had bought Lucille Ball’s fire hat from the (future) Museum collection many years before, and took this opportunity to return it to the Museum. In addition, an episode of The Lucy Show was screened for the fans, “Lucy’s Barbershop Quartet,” in which the title group, including Vivian Vance and Carole Cook, calling themselves The Four Alarms (they were all volunteer members of the Danfield Fire Department), has to audition for a lead singer when theirs become unavailable. Guess who wants to sing? Well, you don’t have to guess, you were there! “Lucy” (Diane, a dear friend) and “Ricky” (Adrian) joined the fans for while, and the dinner ended with a trivia contest in which every correct answer was rewarded with a Lucy T-shirt or sweatshirt.
That night I was privileged to be one among many who watched a rare showing of the I Love Lucy Movie. Long thought lost, the movie was produced in 1953, at the height of I Love Lucy‘s success, and was comprise of three Season One episodes (“The Benefit” — see pic of Lucy and Desi performing, right — “Breaking the Lease,” and “The Ballet”) put together with newly shot connecting footage. The new footage was shot by your longtime pal and director Ed Sedgwick (he directed you in perhaps your best MGM comedy showcase, 1946’s Easy to Wed). It was Sedgwick who suggested making the movie a “show within a show,” framing it around what it would be like to be in the I Love Lucy audience, so that the laughter and applause on a typical Lucy episode wouldn’t seem out of place. The movie opens as the audience files in to see the show, and ends as they leave. Up front, Desi Arnaz is seen warming up the crowd, and introduces his three co-stars. At the end, the actors break character to take a bow. We follow a couple in the audience (Ann Doran and Benny Baker) as they watch the movie.
Dann Cahn, who introduced the movie at the Lucy Fest, remarked that he had searched long and hard (for five years!) to find a print of the movie, which even “insiders” like your original I Love Lucy writers, Bob Carroll and Madelyn Pugh, thought might not have ever existed. Dann finally found the print in a Paramount vault, listed as a Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse production…probably a big reason why it was never found all those years, since no one would have thought to look for it in a Desilu series archive. And the real reason it was lost to begin with, said Cahn, was that “We’d previewed it before an audience in Bakersfield (California) including MGM production chief Dore Schary and producer Pandro Berman. They came to us afterward and noted they [MGM] were releasing The Long, Long Trailer the next Valentine’s Day (1954), and they’d appreciate it if our ‘little I Love Lucy Movie’ wasn’t competing with it.” Desilu graciously withdrew its planned release of the movie, and it was promptly shelved and forgotten…until now. This is only the second time in more than 50 years that the movie has been shown, and it was a true joy to see Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel cavorting on the big screen.
The next day (05.28) began (deliciously) with coffee and a butterscotch muffin at Kaldi’s Coffee Shop, near the Reg Lenna (Civic Center) Theater. I ran into your daughter Lucie and fellow author Elisabeth Edwards, and we chatted for a few minutes; then it was off to see a very special presentation at the Reg (as everyone now calls it in Jamestown): author Tom Watson introduced Dann Cahn, Bill Asher, and your brother Fred (marking his first appearance in Jamestown in 70 years!), to tumultuous applause, for the “Men of I Love Lucy” seminar. That’s Dann at left onstage at one point introducing what he affectionately called “the three-headed monster”: a special moviola device designed by Lucy’s Oscar-winning cinematographer Karl Freund for editing the then-groundbreaking I Love Lucy three-camera shots (Tom’s at right in the pic with Bill Asher, seated). The fans in the audience ate up every word Dann, Bill and Fred had to say. Their work behind the scenes helped shaped TV’s most famous comedy. A highlight: Asher’s telling of the first day he worked on the I Love Lucy set, and a run-in he had with you, Lucy, who was apparently giving him too much direction. Asher recalled saying, “‘Lucy, there’s one director here and that’s me, and you’re paying me to do it. If you want to direct, go ahead, and you won’t have to pay anyone!’ Lucy broke down in tears and ran off the set,” at which point Asher remembers retiring to the men’s room (he didn’t yet have an office!), and finally coming back to the set and meeting Desi, who starting yelling at him in Spanish, until Asher politely asked, “Desi, give it to me in English, please?” Asher said Desi was completely understanding, and agreed with him, but told the young director “to find Lucy in her dressing room and bring her back to the set.” Asher did,and he and you hugged and cried for a few minutes; then, “Lucy pulled herself together and went back to work. After that,” said Asher, “I never had another problem with Lucy.”
Lucy, I’ve heard you sometimes “tested” people in that way, in order to see if they were going to let you push them around (which you couldn’t tolerate). In any case, with you and Bill, it worked out to be a wonderful arrangement. The seminar ran long because no one wanted the three men to leave the stage, but eventually it was time for me to sign some books at the Collector’s Show, which featured classic, collectible Lucy merchandise. That I did, and my last official appointment for the day was as the “mystery guest” on the 4:00 p.m. Lucytown Bus Tour. Tour guide Lucy Stubbs was a dream, the crowd was totally into Lucy trivia (Duh!), and I gave them as much as we had time for. Among the sites seen were Lucy’s birth house in Jamestown (left) and the house she grew up in, in Celeron. The latter home was recently bought by Buffalo’s Bill and Mary Rapaport, who renovated it back to its pristine 1922-era condition — when you actually lived there, Lucy! (Aside to Lucy: they invited your brother Fred and “sister” Cleo Smith, who lived in the home with you many years ago, to visit during the festival, so they could share memories and offer period details the Rapaports can put back in.) Mary and Bill, whom I met last year in Jamestown, were kind enough to take me on a private tour, and I snapped lots of shots, including the two you see here: the view from your second-floor bedroom (in the back of the house). It’s said that you loved to stand at the window and gaze at the lilacs that grew in the back. In this house, one really does get a sense of how you and your family lived and where your dreams to become a performer began, and it’s something no fan will want to miss. The other picture (below) is the original linoleum floor from the master bedroom of the house. I was literally walking through your childhood history, and it was amazing.
After the tour I signed more books, then got ready for the Masquerade Ball, which started at 8:00 p.m. in the former Jamestown Hotel’s Crystal Ballroom (the hotel is now a well-kept residence for seniors). Lucy, I’m told you used to hold court for fans and the local media in the restaurant for breakfast at the Jamestown Hotel whenever you were in town. In the ballroom itself was a wonderful riot of people and costumes; many of the women came as you, Lucy, either in the familiar navy polka-dot dress or one of your adventurous incarnations (an Indian, a showgirl, etc.); one fan came as Ethel (and Fred) in an inspired two-headed dragon costume, from the dream sequence in “Lucy Goes to Scotland.” The hors d’oeuvres were great, the entertainment (by Adrian and Diane as Desi and Lucy) better, the fans were in rare form.
The next morning (05.29), passing one of the many fabulous hand-painting murals (left) that decorate downtown Jamestown with scenes from I Love Lucy, I met Dann Cahn for coffee at Kaldi’s (yes, it’s the best place in town to meet and greet!). This is when he told me the wonderful story about how he and Desi and a few others re-edited your film, Forever Darling, after a not-so-great preview. Look for the full story in my book, Lucy A to Z: The Lucille Ball Encyclopedia (https://www.amazon.com/Lucy-Z-Lucille-Ball-Encyclopedia/dp/0595297617). I was signing books by 10 a.m. and then broke at noon to attend the Lucy Ladies’ Luncheon. This special seminar featured Cleo Smith (your first cousin, but you always referred to her as your sister, since you grew up together); the delightful Wanda, and Marilyn Borden, the surviving Borden twin (Teensy in the I Love Lucy episode “Tennessee Bound”). Your daughter Lucie decided to show up and be on the panel, too. What an amazing gift it was, to hear Wanda tell of how she was hired (through Cleo; also detailed in Lucy A to Z.); to listen to Cleo speak of the five agonizing years she was separated from Lucy’s family after her mother, Lola, died, and she went to live with her father; and to hear Marilyn talk movingly about what it was like to go on without her identical twin, Rosalyn, by her side. Lucie sat there, entranced as the audience was, listening (she may have spoken up later, but I had to take a powder midway through to catch a plane on Sunday afternoon). I hated to leave, because it meant missing special guest Barbara Eden, but family ties drew me back early (i.e., they threatened bodily harm if I didn’t spend at least part of the holiday weekend with them!).
The oil painting at left decorated the lobby of my hotel, the Holiday Inn. So nice to come home to after a busy festival day.
Lucy, you should have been there. On second thought, you were. You were there in the smiles and laughter that echoed the streets and Reg Lenna theater throughout the weekend. You were there in the memories of friends and relatives, and of fans who consistently spoke about how much better they felt after watching your shows, no matter how many times
they’d seen them. And thanks to some keen foresight on the part of Desi Arnaz, you were literally on screen for most of the weekend, in your classic episodes with your equally fabulous co-stars, Desi, Vivian Vance, and William Frawley; and in special performances, some of which hadn’t been shown in years. Lucy, you still possess that magic ability to heal through laughter. Whoever coined the phrase “Laughter is the best medicine” surely had you in mind. For all these years, the most I can do, strictly as a fan, is say a heartfelt “Thank You.” We still love Lucy. And we always will.
P.S. If you haven’t already done so, would you mind saying hello to my mother? She always joked about how I had more pictures of you in my apartment than her, and I just wanted to let her know that I love her and miss her more than words can say.