WORTH THE DRIVE: 2 museums pay tribute to ‘Lucy’ and comedy

Dave Chappelle, Jonathan Winters among Daytonians represented.

Whether you grew up watching “I Love Lucy” in the 1950′s, or have discovered the classic sitcom in the years since, chances are you’ve met the Ricardos.

Lucy has never been forgotten and is making news at the moment thanks to the new film, “Being the Ricardos” now streaming on Amazon Prime. Since 1996, the madcap comedienne’s legacy has also been kept alive through the Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum in Lucy’s hometown of Jamestown, New York. A state-of-the-art National Comedy Center opened a few blocks away in 2018.

Within six months after its debut on Oct. 15, 1951, “I Love Lucy” earned a place as America’s #1 show with about 11 million households tuning in. At the time there were only about 15 million TV households in the nation. The plot centered around a New York couple and their neighbors. Wacky Lucy always meant well when trying to help her Cuban bandleader husband, Ricky, but often got into trouble along with her friend and partner-in-crime, Ethel Mertz.

The new movie, “Being the Ricardos,” takes place during a significant week of filming that focuses on the couple’s behind-the-scenes relationship. The week presents a triple-whammy: splashy news headlines about Desi’s alleged affair, accusations about Ball’s connections to communism and the news of Ball’s pregnancy. The Aaron Sorkin film stars Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball and Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz.

Credit: Glen Wilson

Credit: Glen Wilson

It’s an appropriate time to learn more about the multi-talented actress, comedian, model, studio exec and producer who took the television industry by storm and was ahead of her time in so many ways.

Meet Journey

Pre-pandemic I had the pleasure of visiting both of the Jamestown museums. Last week I had a phone chat with Journey Gunderson who serves as the executive director of both.

When I asked where she got her unusual first name, she told me there was a Dayton connection. “My mother went to grad school at the University of Dayton and there was someone on the basketball team named Journey. She remembered that name and loved it!”

Gunderson says Lucille Ball was a mix of innate talent and an extreme work ethic when it came to getting the laugh. Interestingly enough, Ball went to drama school in New York and was booted out after a few weeks and sent back to Jamestown with a letter to her family that said: “Save your money. This girl has no talent.”

Gunderson notes that folks of all ages respond to Ball’s great face and ability as a physical comedian. “Kids relate to her comedy more than anyone would anticipate,” she says. “Anyone can test this by showing a young person the hilarious conveyor-belt chocolate scene or the Vitameatavegamin clip.” (Both segments are available on YouTube).

Lucille Ball, she adds, was a student of the craft and studied comics like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. “She was never arrogant enough to believe she was gifted and she never coasted.”

Gunderson believes the new film is resonating in 2021 because of the way Ball took on the establishment. “She was a woman in the 1950s telling CBS executives that a Cuban man would play her husband on TV. It’s the story of tenacity, bravery and success and that resonates with young people today who are focused on issues of social justice.”

About the museums

The Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum takes a more traditional and nostalgic approach to the Lucy/Desi story. Visitors can get their photos taken in the most famous living room of all time, the Ricardos’ New York apartment. Their kitchen set and Hollywood hotel suite are also replicas.

Here you’ll learn more about the creation of “I Love Lucy” and Desilu as a production company. On display are original props, costumes, scripts and Emmys. You’ll also hear about the important influence Desilu Studios had on the entertainment industry for generations to come.

Close by, the National Comedy Center is pretty amazing. It offers more than 50 interactive exhibits and immersive experiences that present the story of comedy from its origins to the present day. When you arrive you’ll answer some questions which personalize your visit based on your comic preferences. Among the folks with local connections you’ll meet along the way are Jonathan Winters, Dave Chappelle, Mike Peters and Nancy Cartwright. And did you know that George Carlin met his wife in Dayton and was married here at her parents’ home?

Using green screen technology, visitors can get into famous scenes from “I Love Lucy,” including the chocolate conveyor-belt scene and the grape-stomping vat. On display is Lucy’s famed polka-dot dress.

Each August on Lucy’s birthday, the museum sponsors an annual Lucille Ball Comedy Festival which features the biggest names in contemporary comedy as well as nostalgia programming around “I Love Lucy.”

“Lucy fans come and when they do, they discover newer artists like Jim Gaffigan and John Mulaney,” notes Gunderson. “And those who come to see the newer comics discover Lucy.”

Credit: Lena McBean

Credit: Lena McBean

The museum folks were obviously proud to assist the production team on the new Aaron Sorkin film. " The Archive team provided reference photos of artifacts and the sets – even a portrait of Lucy that we have that was recreated for the Desilu offices in the film,” says Gunderson, adding that the production team worked hard to make the set design as authentic as possible.

“I love that now millions more people have been introduced to the incredible duo that took comedy and the entertainment industry by storm and created arguably the most successful sit-com of all time.”

Interesting facts about Lucy

  • “I Love Lucy,” according to Variety, eventually reached 29 million viewers in its first season and was TV’s most watched show for four of its six seasons. It peaked with the episode in which Lucy gives birth to Little Ricky–44 million Americans watched that show which received an unprecedented 71.7 rating with a 92 share, meaning 71 percent of all households with television sets were tuned in to view the program and 92 percent of households watching TV at that time. The following day, only 29 million watched the inauguration of Dwight D, Eisenhower. That record is surpassed only by Elvis Presley’s first of three appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956.
  • Karl Freund, director of photography at Desilu, was the first to develop the three-camera system still used to shoot television sitcoms. Ball and Arnaz were determined to shoot their show live on film so that it could later be edited and cut.
  • Among the shows produced by Desilu Studios were “The Lucy Show,” “The Untouchables,” “Mission: Impossible” and “Star Trek.”
  • This past Oct. 15 was the 70th anniversary of the debut of “I Love Lucy” on CBS. In honor of the anniversary, fans can submit photos to help create a Lucy anniversary Fan Mosaic, which will be displayed in the museum and become a permanent part of the museum archives. Visit LucyMosaic.com.
  • In Ball’s hometown of Jamestown, in addition to the two museums, there are Lucy murals, statues at Lucy Park in nearby Celeron, her final resting place, and more.
  • A 10-episode series on Lucille Ball is part of TCM’s podcast, ”The Plot Thickens,” released in October with bonus episodes still being released. https://theplotthickens.tcm.com/
  • Amy Poehler has directed a documentary called “Lucy and Desi” for Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment and Amazon, which will debut at the Sundance Film Festival later this month.
  • Paramount+ will be streaming “I Love Lucy” in 2022.
  • For more information about the Jamestown museums: Websites: www.comedycenter.org; www.comedycenter.org/anywhere; Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/nationalcomedycenter/

Source: Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum and National Comedy Center.

About the Author