By Anne Glover, Times Staff Writer, TampaBay.com
Mention the words Lucille Ball, and many people will immediately flash to their favorite episode of I Love Lucy: the candy factory, Vitameatavegamin, William Holden putting out Lucy's fake nose that's on fire.
But for Suzanne LaRusch, the late comedian and actress is much, much more than the zany redhead who was always getting into trouble. She was a smart businesswoman, a mother who loved her children (even if she didn't always show it), a perfectionist and, says LaRusch, "I'll just say it, she was a classy broad."
LaRusch should know. She portrays Ball in a play that she wrote, An Evening with Lucille Ball, Thank You for Asking!. It opens tonight and runs through Jan. 17 at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.
We spoke with LaRusch last week as she was packing for her trip to this coast from California and watching an old appearance by Ball on the Dick Cavette Show. Here are some highlights:
How she came to be Lucille, not Lucy: LaRusch started as a child actor in a Kodak commercial at 18 months old, but it wasn't until she was working at Universal Studios in Hollywood that she used her talents for doing impressions (she'd been doing Mae West, Marilyn Monroe and others) to launch into a career first as Lucy Ricardo, and now as Lucille Ball. She explains: "The perception is that Lucy Ricardo and Lucille Ball are the same person. L-u-c-y is a person that Lucille Ball invented. She always talked about that character as a third person." In fact, LaRusch emphasizes that she didn't get into portraying her because she was a huge fan of I Love Lucy. To her, it was just part of her acting repertoire, one that she was very good at. But over time, she became a historian of the woman and the show.
That's why it's a play, not old skits. If you want to see Lucy stomping grapes, rent some DVDs, suggests LaRusch. Her play is meant to be a re-creation of one of Ball's old lectures that she used to give, answering questions from the audience and reminiscing about her career and her life. Ball had used these lectures as a way to connect with her fans without having to be L-u-c-y.
LaRusch began writing the play in 1997, but it wasn't until 2006 that she had a version she performed. All along, she had the permission of Ball's heirs, daughter Lucie Arnaz and son Desi Jr. Then in 2008, Lucie Arnaz saw the play and immediately started making suggestions. "She treated it like the Scarecrow (from the Wizard of Oz)," says LaRusch. "She took out the stuffing and put it back in." More importantly, Arnaz became the play's director ("very intricately involved") and provided valuable insight into her mom and dad's life, including suggesting clips and home movies that would go well at different moments. She and husband Larry Luckinbill remain firmly associated with the show.
What can the audience expect? The construct of the play is Ball answering questions from audience members (really actors who have recorded their lines in a studio). As Ball answers them, she relives moments from her life. That's why you won't see her doing skits, only remembering scenes from her shows as they were being filmed. LaRusch is confident that her audience will love Lucille and not clamor for Lucy. "I promise they will not be disappointed," she says. "There's a touching scene at the end where the lights go down and she reminisces about the love of her life, Desi."
Shhh, here's a little insider info: LaRusch, who would love to take the show to Broadway, shared a fact that's usually reserved for after the show. The actors who are "audience members" asking questions are in some way either related to Ball or worked with her during her career. LaRusch says she accomplished this because during her career playing Lucy, she met so many people who had that connection. Tampa Bay audiences will be able to see who the questioners really are after the play.
An Evening with Lucille Ball, Thank You for Asking!, opens tonight at 7:30 at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa. Tickets are $36.50 and up. Call (813) 229-7827 or visit tbpac.org. Runs through Jan. 17. Running time is approximately two hours and includes a 15-minute intermission. The center is offering special talkbacks with Lucie Arnaz after the performances on Jan. 14, 15 and 16.