Today's column is dedicated especially to two groups of people: Those who love our community's most famous native, Lucille Ball, and those who came late to this world, and who have never really had enough experience to understand the great comic actress and to appreciate the role she plays in the entertainment business, and in our culture.
Next Saturday is part of the Memorial Day Weekend. For many years, our community has devoted two weekends per year to inviting fans of the red-haired comic to come to town, to see where Lucy grew up, meet the people she made famous with her television shows and the many books which have been written about her, and to enjoy performances which celebrate her style of performance and her long and successful career in films and television.
Saturday evening at 7:30 p.m., you're invited to enjoy a performance at the Reg Lenna Civic Center, of a funny and uplifting, one-woman play called ''An Evening with Lucille Ball: Thank You for Asking.'' Actress/comic Suzanne LaRusch will perform as Lucy, and she wrote the text, along with Lucie Arnaz, Ms. Ball's talented daughter.
Tickets for the performance range in price from $15, for seats in the rear balcony, to $65 for tickets in the loge, at the very front of the balcony. There are six categories of ticket prices between those two extremes.
You can purchase tickets at the Reg Lenna Box Office, or on the web site www.lucy-desi-com.
Let's explore together what I've been able to learn about Suzanne LaRusch and her performance as Lucy, and then take one more glance back at Lucille Ball herself, and try to separate the woman from the character.
Suzanne LaRusch made her professional acting debut at the sensitive age of 18-months, when she played an adorable child being photographed by adoring parents in a Kodak commercial on television.
Growing up in Southern California, she won a number of adorable child roles in television programs as diverse as ''Dennis the Menace'' and ''The Loretta Young Show.''
She spent two years as dance captain for the Los Angeles Rams Cheerleaders, then launched a career in dinner theater, playing leading roles in such popular shows as ''Guys and Dolls,'' ''Born Yesterday,'' ''Barefoot in the Park,'' and ''Sweet Charity.'' She was a favorite of Johnny Carson's, and worked with the Mighty Carson Art Players, who acted out often-ridiculous skits on ''The Tonight Show.''
In 1991, she decided she bore somewhat of a resemblance to Lucille Ball, and began to study films and television re-runs in which the comic appeared, to learn to mimic her facial expressions, tones of voice, hand gestures, and more.
Ms. Ball's children, Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz, Jr., caught a performance, liked what they saw, and authorized her to represent their mother's work in other venues.
I need to explain, there are legal differences between portraying Ms. Ball, portraying Lucy Ricardo, the most famous character portrayed by Ms. Ball in ''I Love Lucy,'' and portraying the other characters of Ms. Ball - all with the first name Lucy - which she played on other series such as ''The Lucy Show,'' and ''Here's Lucy.''
Although the fact that the names are so similar makes it a very confusing subject, I believe I am accurate to say that the Jamestown-born actress very much preferred to be called ''Lucille,'' in real life. ''Lucy'' was the fictional character often performed by Lucille, in a number of venues. ''Lucie'' is the real life daughter of Ms. Ball and Desi Arnaz, who has often performed here in Jamestown, as part of the annual celebrations of her parents' career.
I'm tiptoeing gingerly in how I describe these performances, especially because the rights to do those characters variously belong to the Arnaz children, to CBS television, and to other legal agencies.
In 2007, Ms. LaRusch participated in an ABC Television reality show called ''The Next Best Thing,'' which presented impersonators of established celebrities. As a combination of the votes of a panel of celebrity judges, and votes phoned in by viewers at home, Ms. LaRusch reached the final round, ending as Fourth Runner-Up, and the highest rated Female Celebrity Impressionist on the series.
The following year, Lucie Arnaz and her husband, actor Laurence Luckinbill suggested that they revamp the one-woman show which Ms. LaRusch had been performing, adding personal material and bringing the performed character closer to the real woman, Lucille Ball. Throughout her career, Lucille had enjoyed teaching theater and comedy, and often appeared at public venues to answer questions and share her observations and memories of show business and her own successful career.
Those lecture/question-and-answer sessions are the basis of the one woman show which will be performed here in Jamestown, next Saturday. ''An Evening with Lucille Ball: Thank You for Asking!'' was first performed in a theater owned by Desi Arnaz, Jr., in Colorado, and has an ambitious schedule of performances. There is hope that it might eventually transfer to Broadway.
The performing arts are difficult to make into a way of life. Performers dye their hair, change their names, pretend to be older or younger or taller than they really are, all because it doesn't matter to the vast majority of observers, who they really are. Their lives revolve around convincing you that they're someone else.
The characters we come to love aren't real. Teams of writers think up the clever things we hear them say. Highly-skilled designers select the cut and color and style of the clothes which might look like the jeans and sweatshirt which anyone would wear, but are really the professionals' selection to nudge us to believe that they're heroic or tragic or funny, or whatever we're supposed to believe they are.
Ms. Ball told several interviewers, throughout her career, that she was not really a funny person. She claimed that she was an actress who could take funny material, written by someone else, and show the audience what was funny about it, but she could not invent funny material, herself.
There are several different versions of the truth, when it comes to Lucille Ball, and since her death in 1989, nobody knows for certain whether some of them are true or not.
A birth certificate and the memories of people who were alive, way back when, confirm that the famous Ms. Ball was born in Jamestown on August 6, 1911. When she was 3 years old, her father's job as a telephone lineman required that he move with his family to Butte, Montana. When Lucille was trying to break into the acting profession, she would be advised that Butte would be a more exotic and attention-getting birthplace, so she gave a number of interviews in which she claimed that it was so. She even performed for a while, using the name ''Montana'' instead of her own.
Not long after the young family moved out west, the future actress's father died of typhoid fever. Her mother, who was pregnant with her second child, Fred Ball, moved back to Western New York, where she moved in with her parents Mr. and Mrs. Fred Hunt, who lived in Celoron. Because she often talked of childhood memories of Celoron, some biographies say that Lucille was born there, but she was not.
The Hunt family's meager income was stretched very thin, with her mother, brother, and herself living in their home, as did other members of the extended family, off and on, including her cousin Cleo. Her grandfather, Fred Hunt, was an eccentric but respected member of the community.
He was so strongly convinced of the right of socialism, that is was said whenever you saw two or more people standing together, you'd see Fred, trying to make them into a union. Later in his life, several members of his family would register to vote in the Socialist Party, to show support for his strong views, a fact which would return to haunt Lucille and make her the focus of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his congressional hearings, later in her life.
Grandpa Hunt also loved the theater, and he often took the younger members of his family along to the many theaters which existed in Jamestown, back then, and to the lectures and performances at Chautauqua Institution. Lucille loved dressing up in her mother's clothes, or those of other family members to be found in trunks in the family attic, and she wrote and performed a great many shows, either in the house, or more likely, in the chicken coop, behind the house.
Less than five minutes' walk from the house was a giant amusement park, Celoron Park, and as soon as she was old enough, Lucille began working there, selling hot dogs and other refreshments and doing work of that nature. She also began to hang around rehearsals of the Players Club, the local community theater company which is currently known as the Lucille Ball Little Theatre of Jamestown.
For their production of Beyard Veillers's play ''Within the Law,'' she was cast in her first leading role. Because the character is a shop girl who pursues vengeance against a wealthy family who have wronged her, it was decided that she should dye her naturally brown hair, red. When commercial rinses didn't give her the look she wanted, she began the custom of putting natural Egyptian henna on it, which resulted in the glowing orange color which became her trademark in show business.
Never a lover of school, Lucille, in her early teens, was often seen clomping around wearing a fur coat and rubber galoshes, boots which fastened with devices which resembled small, metal ladders. The fashion in the 1920s was to leave the galoshes unfastened, so that they flapped as their wearer walked. That was the origin of the term ''flapper,'' to refer to a liberated young woman of that era.
In this period, especially fueled by the fur coat, the rumor that she was morally inappropriate first began to spread. The nickname ''The Jamestown Floozie'' began to refer to her.
Whatever the truth might or might not have been about that issue, in fact it is known that the coat was given to her as a bribe by her mother, in return for her promise to remain in school. There followed a period of seven years in which she eventually dropped out of school, traveled alone to New York City, and tried to make a living in show business.
Once she was successful, she loved to tell stories about how she was sometimes so hard up for money, she hung around drugstore lunch counters, during that period, watching for customers to leave without finishing their meals. As they left their stools, she would jump in their place, finish their food, and buy more with the coins they had left as a tip. Dates would eventually remember that she always carried large purses, which she kept lined with waxed paper. She would drop dinner rolls and other foods into the purse, to later become meals.
Painfully thin, her first successful modeling jobs were for furriers. Because fur coats are bulky, a normal-sized woman can seem too bulky when wearing them, so photographers kept a special eye out for extremely thin models, who could look normal, while wearing the coats.
Gradually, she worked her way up to modelling hats for designer Hattie Carnegie. She was hired as ''The Chesterfield Girl,'' for ads celebrating that popular brand of cigarettes. Eventually she was hired by a company of ''Goldwyn Girls,'' showgirls who toured in groups, who needed to replace an ill member and had to find someone who could leave for California that very evening.
She was cast in ''Roman Scandals,'' a film starring comic Eddie Cantor, in which she stood or sat around in glitzy costumes, as a background for performances by others.
From time to time, in that period, she would find her way back to Jamestown. She claimed she was homesick. Other residents of town believed she was attracted by her on-going dating relationship with a young man named Johnny DeVita, a young man who was believed to have ties to the mob.
Even when she had found success in ''B'' films, which were low budgeted films, created to be part of double features with more expensive films, she would be seen around this area with DeVita.