Former mayor attempted to reunite Ball with Jamestown
From Lucyfest to Comedy Center
JAMESTOWN — It might be a forgotten art, but the power of carefully worded letters might be the very reason the National Comedy Center is on the verge of opening in Jamestown.
Former Jamestown Mayor Steve Carlson wrote several letters to Lucille Ball, and her family and friends, to convince the Broadway, television and movie star to return to Jamestown in the mid-1980s. We know about these letters today because Carlson kept a large box of his correspondence with “The First Lady Of Comedy,” which was given to Sam Teresi, Jamestown mayor, following Carlson’s death in 2014.
In January 1985, Carlson wrote a letter on official city letterhead to Ball asking her to please return to her hometown. At the time, it had been about 30 years since Lucy had visited Jamestown. Her last visit was in 1956 for the premier of her movie “Forever, Darling,” which also starred her first husband Desi Arnaz as well as James Mason.Carlson didn’t just correspond with Lucy. In April 1985, Carlson wrote a letter to Gary Morton, Ball’s second husband, about bringing Lucy back to Jamestown. Carlson even wrote a letter to another Jamestown native turned actor Greg Mullavey, who was best known for the television show “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” who ate dinner every once in awhile with Ball and Morton.
“Carlson was working all angles to get Lucy home,” Teresi said.
In 1987, Carlson wrote a second letter to Lucy that focused on how her native city could honor her. In the letter, Carlson discussed the work that was being done to restore the Palace Theater, now known as the Reg Lenna. At the time, the theater had fallen into disarray, but the Arts Council of Chautauqua County, which was headed by Philip Morris, was working to renovate the structure. Carlson had suggested that when the theater was restored they could name it after Ball, where she had performed, along with at the Little Theater, before becoming a worldwide star.
During this time, Carlson had not made it publicly known that he was writing letters to Ball to workout her return to Jamestown, Teresi said. So when Reg Lenna made a $1 million donation toward the renovations, if local foundations matched the gift, the theater board named the newly renovated facility after Lenna.
This, of course, led to another letter written by Carlson to Ball to inform her that they would have to find another way to honor her in Jamestown. Teresi said this is when the two started nurturing ideas, which led to the development of the Lucille Ball Festival of New Comedy, which was going to be a celebration about developing new comic talents and encouraging comedy playwrights.
After years of corresponding, the stage was finally set for Lucy’s return to Jamestown, which was going to occur in May 1989. During her triumphant return to the Pearl City, Lucy was going to be given an honorary degree from Jamestown Community College; the Little Theater was going to be named for the famous comedian; and city officials were going to announce for the first time publicly the creation of a new comedy festival.
Unfortunately, on April 26, 1989, Ball died of an abdominal aortic aneurysm at the age of 77.
Along with Ball’s death, another step back in honoring Lucy happened when Carlson didn’t win re-election as mayor of Jamestown. However, Morris, who had been instrumental in renovating the former Palace Theater, picked up where Carlson had left off and continued forging relationships with Ball’s family.
Teresi said Morris struck up a correspondence with Ball’s daughter, Lucie Arnaz, who became involved with the comedy festival and donating some of Ball’s personal items and memorabilia to be auctioned off to raise money for a museum, now the Lucy-Desi Museum.
Teresi said the current board and staff of the National Comedy Center deserve a tremendous amount of credit for finally finishing the idea that started more than three decades ago. Teresi said the city will be celebrating the opening of the comedy center because of the work of Tom Benson, NCC chairman, Journey Gunderson, NCC executive director, George Panebianco, NCC president and countless others.
“The efforts collectively in the community have been amazing,” he said. “They’ve done a hell of a job developing the concept … and did a better job to make it a reality.”
However, the mayor said without the initial work of Carlson, who was Jamestown mayor from 1976-89, and Morris, Arts Council executive director from 1977-2002, the community would not be on the brink of the grand opening of the comedy center.
“If not for these two guys … much of what has happened in recent years, Lucy Fest, Lucy Desi Museum and the comedy center, wouldn’t have happened,” Teresi said. “If not for these two guys, the groundwork wouldn’t have been set.”