In 1961, I auditioned for the chorus of Michael Kidd’s new Broadway show, Wildcat, a musical starring Lucille Ball. I’d grown up loving her feature films and landmark TV show, so seeing Lucy in person was stunning. With her dazzling aquamarine eyes, fiery hair, and luminescent skin, Lucy seemed to radiate light from within. She was wonderful, warm, and friendly to the entire cast.
The first time the cast convened to read the script, Lucy insisted that everyone introduce him- or herself. I was sitting next to a beautiful, petite brunette named Penny Ann who had worn hip hugger pants to the audition. When Penny Ann said her name, Lucy looked up from her script and said, “What’s a Penny Ann?” Then she looked directly at Penny and said, “Look at those saucer eyes, that’s a Penny Ann.”
Lucy looked after all of us. The first time she visited us in our chorus dressing room, she was shocked by how grim it was. She came from Hollywood, the land of clean, well-lit dressing rooms, so she was unaccustomed to the lack of glamour backstage in the old Broadway theaters. When she saw the rough, dirty cinder-block walls, she exclaimed, “I don’t want you living like this. We’ve got to paint the room.”
A few days later, she returned. “Kids, the union says that we can’t paint the dressing room. So how about we all sneak in on the weekend and do it behind their backs.” When the management got wind of what Lucy was up to, they immediately saw to it that the dressing room was painted. It was clear she used her stardom to help us. When I gave Penny Ann a shower for her upcoming wedding, Lucy sent a blender. A real state of the art blender was a big deal in those days.
Although the show got lukewarm reviews, people flocked to the theater expecting to see Lucy Ricardo, the wacky housewife from I Love Lucy. When the curtain went up, though, they embraced the tough oil prospector Lucy played in Wildcat. With her mile long legs and huge personality, Lucy filled the theater and enthralled the audience.
One night she truly outdid herself. There was a scene that involved Lucy; her sister Janie, played by Paula Stewart; a ritzy countess, played by Edith King; and a little Yorkshire terrier. The dog was unbelievably well trained, and every performance, he dutily followed behind Edith, Lucy, and Paula as they crossed the stage. One evening as the Yorkie was making his cross, he suddenly stopped center stage, assumed the position, and pooped. The audience went wild. Edith froze. Lucy dashed off stage and urgently asked the stage manager to hand over a broom and a upright dustpan. She returned to the stage and swept up the offending little pile and then turned to the audience. “Next time I’ll read the fine print in my contract.” The audience exploded with laughter and applause. After the show, Lucy confided to the cast that she was glad it had been a Yorkshire terrier and not a Great Dane.
Wildcat had its share of problems. Lucy suffered bouts of exhaustion and got injured during a performance when part of the oil rig hit her on the head. She was forced to take several leaves of abscence during which the show was dark. But when she recovered, she soldiered on immediately. If not for Lucy’s immense draw, I think we would have closed earlier than we did.
- Valerie Harper (far right) recounts her experience with Lucille Ball on the Broadway play Wildcat, “I Rhoda”
Lucille Ball (August 6, 1911—April 26, 1989)
I’m happy that I have brought laughter because I have been shown by many the value of it in so many lives, in so many ways.
On this day twenty-four years ago, the world lost the greatest comedienne of all time. Her name was Lucille Ball. Who would’ve known that the Queen of Comedy had stage fright when she first started off as an actress? The fact that Lucy overcame that fear to become the icon she is makes me respect her even more, if that’s possible. Personally, I don’t remember a time before I knew that unforgettable face with those thousands of incredible expressions. Though she suffered heartbreak and hardship, she managed to not only survive but rise above it all with grace and poise. No matter what was happening in her life, Lucy always had a smile on her face and could make everyone smile simply by being there, by being herself. Lucy was truly a special lady. She truly made the world a better place, and she will never be forgotten. We love you, Lucy! Rest in peace.
Twenty year old Lucille Ball in 1931.
I cured myself of shyness when it finally occurred to me that people didn’t think about me half as much as I gave them credit for. The truth was, nobody gave a damn. Like most teenagers, I was far too self-centered. When I stopped being prisoner to what I worried was others’ opinions of me, I became more confident and free.
Lucy and I would love furiously and fight furiously.
– Desi Arnaz
Years after the divorce, Lucy and Desi continually stressed each other’s contributions to making I Love Lucy the success it was. She praised his business acumen, whilst he gave credit to her talent.
“They were hotly in love and saw no reason to hide the fact. They showed magazine writers their love-telegrams to each other, and their love-jewelry. All her gold earrings were marked ‘To Lucy’ on one side and ‘Love, Desi’ on the other. He wore a gold St. Christopher’s medal on his neck marked ‘Darling,’ and carried a gold cigarette lighter engraved with the words, ‘Dear Desi, my love for you last much longer than this lighter, I betcha, Lucy.’ They always went on six or eight ‘honeymoon’ trips each year, and they embraced madly whether photographers were present or not. Also, they named everything in sight ‘Desilu,’ a combination of their names: their ranch, station wagon, boat, and even a special goulash invented by Desi…. But please realize one very important fact. Although Hollywood was often agog over Lucy and Desi’s public demonstrations of affection, it was never an act with them. They were truly in love.”
- Hollywood observer on Lucy & Desi, “The Real Story of Lucille Ball”
I sifted through the pile of photos and came across a note from a private stationed at Fort Bragg with no picture attached. He said he was sorry for intruding on Lucy’s privacy but he was writing on behalf of his mother. She had terminal cancer and she was too weak to leave the house to see Lucy in person in the hotel lobby as so many of her friends had earlier that day. He wrote that his mother worshipped Lucy and that for the last thirty years she had kept trying, unsuccessfully, to dye her hair the same shade as Lucy’s. He gave his mother’s address and asked Lucy if when she went back to California she could autograph a color photo of herself and send it on to his mom.
Lucy was visibly moved when I read her the note. “Get her phone number from information, right now,” Lucy ordered.
“Aye, aye Sergeant,” I said. She didn’t laugh. I got the phone number and Lucy dialed.
“God, I hate these damn newfangled Touch-Tone phones,” she mumbled.
The private’s mother answered and Lucy introduced herself. “This is Lucille Ball…Lucy, and I hope I’m not disturbing you.” Evidently, the woman thought that one of her friends was pulling a prank, and it took Lucy a minute or two to convince her that she was the genuine article. Lucy found out that the woman and she were the same age, and that they each had a son and daughter, and that they were both originally from upstate New York. Lucy told her not only was she going to send her a personalized autograph color shot of herself, but also a year’s supply of henna rinse. Lucy told her to take good care of herself and to get well soon. Then Lucy hung up and went into the other room and cried.
[A few days later]….We flew back home. Lucy was very tired so I started going through the mail, and came across this letter, which I handed to Lucy. She closed her eyes and told me to read it aloud to her.
“Dear Mrs. Ball:
My mother told me that talking to you on the phone was the happiest day of her life. Sadly, I must report it was also the last day of her life. She died peacefully in her sleep in the middle of the night. There are no words for my family and I to adequately express our thanks and deep appreciation for your most kind gesture. We are holding a memorial service next week. If you could send an autographed picture of yourself like you promised my mom, we will proudly display it at the ceremony. My best wishes and God bless you.”
It was signed with love by the private first class.
Lucy was stunned but said nothing. She turned her head away, reclined in her seat, and just stared out the window until the plane landed one hour later.
- Lee Tannen recounts a 1987 trip to North Carolina, “I Loved Lucy”
Happy Birthday, Desi Arnaz! (March 2nd, 1917 - December 2nd, 1986)
My full name is Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha. When I became an American citizen while in the United States Army, the sergeant in charge of the swearing-in ceremony had a hell of a time pronouncing my name.
He politely told me, “You know, son, you could shorten your name a bit, that is, if you want to, of course, on your citizenship certificate.”
I said, “I guess I better, Sarge. Make it Desi Arnaz.”“You don’t have to overdo it,” he said, “don’t you want a middle initial or something?”
“No, thanks, Sarge. Just Desi Arnaz—-period.”
Lucy did go back, after lunch, and told them (the writers) in no uncertain terms how they had to fix that script and it better be done, and by tomorrow morning. I mean, she was strong. And then she took a sip of her drink and said, “Kid, that’s when they put the S on the end of my name.”
- Carol Burnett
Job Switching- Sep. 15, 1952
During rehearsals for “Job Switching,” the professional chocolate dipper hired for a critical scene was hesitant to slap Lucy very hard- afraid that she’d hurt the redheaded star. “Don’t worry, I can take it,” Lucy assured her. “Just haul off and slap me in the face as hard as you can. The scene depends on it.”
When cameras finally rolled, Lucy, who had to slap the candy maker first, gave her quite a wallop-not at all the way she’d done it at rehearsal. Just as Lucy hoped, the woman was so stunned by the unexpected force of Lucy’s slap that she hauled off and really let Lucy have it, practically knocking her off her stool.