September 22, 2011

I Love Lucy Exhibits Tell Story of a TV Classic

From New York to California to Florida, fans can hit the road to celebrate the anniversary of the show that starred Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

As we approach I Love Lucy’s 60th anniversary in October, with the episode, The Girls Want to Go to a Nightclub, loyal Lucy fans have plenty of places to celebrate, from Lucille Ball’s birthplace 100 years ago in Jamestown, N.Y., to Los Angeles, where the famed redhead became TV’s Queen of Comedy.

“She’s more than just an icon,” says Bruce Bronn, president and CEO of Unforgettable Licensing in Chicago, which represents Ball’s estate (Desilu, too), and CBS, which owns I Love Lucy. “She’s a symbol of America.”

Bronn works directly with CBS and Desilu, too as their agent, and must give permission every time you see an image of Ball and her first husband and TV co-star, Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz. With CBS and Desilu, too, he signs off on all officially sanctioned public events, and this year there are plenty.

Let’s start our Lucy tour in Jamestown, located about eight hours by car north of New York City.

The official Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center opened here in 1996, seven years after Ball died at age 77. The museum and its nearby Desilu Playhouse are treasure troves of Lucy memorabilia. Visitors can view video clips, walk through replicas of I Love Lucy sets and see original costumes from the classic sitcom, which originally ran from Oct. 15, 1951 to May 6, 1957.

“We have the professor’s … cello costume donated by Pepito, the Cuban clown who appeared in the  I Love Lucy pilot,” said Susan Ewing, a staff writer at the center.

Among her favorite displays: Ball’s gold 1972 Mercedes donated to the museum by Laurence Luckinbill, actor and husband of Lucie Arnaz, Ball’s daughter. “It has her monogram, LBM, on the driver’s side door,” Ewing said. (Ball married comedian Gary Morton in 1961, after she and Arnaz divorced in 1960.)

Fans can reenact classic Lucy bits on the set replicas, Ewing says.

“People can do the ‘Vitameatavegamin’ commercial right there in the playhouse. That’s a pretty popular feature of the playhouse. Everybody wants to be Lucy,” she says. “We’ve done grape stomping. One year we did a competition to see how many snails people could eat at one time.”

Each August during Ball’s birthday week, the museum holds Lucy Fest: The Lucille Ball Festival of Comedy. This year was special, as attendees celebrated the star’s centennial.

“We had a huge celebration,” Ewing said. “We believe we have set a Guinness Book of World Records, having the most people dressed as Lucy Ricardo in one place — 915. Men, women and children. And a dog. There was a dog dressed as Lucy, in blue polka dots.”

Every year, up to 30,000 people trek to the Lucy-Desi Museum, which is open 12 months a year. “We’re just a little south of Buffalo,” said Ewing, a Jamestown native. “We’re in the snow belt. If you’re a Lucy fan and you get here in the winter, we’ll be here for you. Just dress warm.”

A museum memento not seen on television: the desk belonging to I Love Lucy’s creator-producer-writer, Jess Oppenheimer. Atop the desk is Oppenheimer’s original Rolodex, opened to Ball’s phone number.

“I just love that,” Ewing said. “When I see the desk and think what came from that creative talent, that’s amazing, too,.”

Oppenheimer, who owned 10 percent of I Love Lucy, died in 1988. His son Gregg, who donated the desk and Rolodex, has carried the Lucy torch ever since.

“Nobody compares to Lucy,” said Oppenheimer, who finished his father’s autobiography, Laughs, Luck … and Lucy: How I Came to Create the Most Popular Sitcom of All Time. “You had this superb cast, you had great writing, timeless stories. There’s not a lot of cultural references that people won’t understand.”

Beginning in the early 2000s, Oppenheimer spent seven years restoring the series for DVD. Now, he directs public re-creations of old-time radio shows at conventions and Lucy festivals. On Nov. 5, he will direct his own play, I Love Lucy: The Untold Story, based on dad’s book. Longtime Lucy actresses Janet Waldo (Peggy, the teenage neighbor who develops a crush on Ricky Ricardo), Shirley Mitchell (Lucy Ricardo’s friend Marion Strong) and Doris Singleton (nearsighted Caroline Appleby) will appear in the play, to be performed at a benefit in North Hollywood, Calif.

The play coincides with a major Lucy exhibit at the nearby Hollywood Museum in Los Angeles: Lucille Ball at 100 & “I Love Lucy” at 60. On display through Nov. 30 are scripts, costumes and memorabilia spanning Ball’s entire film and TV career. Oddities include the autographed plaster cast Ball wore after breaking her leg in a 1972 ski accident.

The Paley Center for Media, located both in Los Angeles and New York City, also is celebrating Ball with “We Love Lucy” public screenings through Oct. 30. Most of the programs are also available year-round for personal viewing at the center’s library.

Even Florida has a tourism stop for Lucy fans: Universal Studios in Orlando with its long-running Lucy: A Tribute exhibit, which screens classic TV clips and displays props from I Love Lucy and costumes worn by Ball.

Oppenheimer on why I Love Lucy is still hugely popular after six decades: “The main thing is it’s funny. There was never anything deep or ironic. The humor was never dry.”

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