Having Less Than
A Ball With Lucy
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine
March 14, 2016 — Her career spanned more than a quarter century in an industry with a turnover rate as rapid as some Third World dictatorships. Her last name bounced from Ricardo to Carmichael to Carter with regularity. But she never really needed a last name because to the world she was simply known as “Lucy.”
The acclaim she earned when her first series, I Love Lucy, premiered in October 1951 (in 2012, it was voted the greatest TV show of all time in a public poll conducted by ABC News and “People” magazine) was long overdue. Lucille Ball — first as a platinum blonde and later as the redhead we all came to know — arrived in Hollywood in 1933 as a “poster girl” in the Samuel Goldwyn film, “Roman Scandals,” which starred googly-eyed comic, Eddie Cantor.
So began a 17-year apprenticeship in movies, where she could be seen briefly in a few Astaire-Rogers musicals, on the receiving end of cream pies thrown by The Three Stooges and as the object of the collective desire of the Marx Brothers. Occasionally, Lucy would land meatier assignments such as the role of the crippled singer in Damon Runyon's Big Street, the title role in DuBarry Was a Lady and good parts in a few Bob Hope pictures.
But all that had happened long before we interviewed Lucy in 1980 at her home on Roxbury Drive in Beverly Hills where she lived with her second husband, comedian Gary Morton. Known as “The Street of Stars,” Lucy had Jimmy Stewart, Rosemary Clooney and Ira Gershwin as close Roxbury Drive neighbors.
It was a bit discomfiting walking up to her front door — being careful to stay on the sidewalk and not leave a footprint on the manicured lawn — while hearing tourists in an open-air Starline tour bus sneer at our effrontery, exclaiming in loud tones: “Who in the hell do they think they are!” To the gawkers, the fact that we were on a mission dressed in suits and carrying our customary accoutrements (shitty camera and intermittently functioning Panasonic cassette tape-recorder) didn’t seem to distinguish us from mere impetuous boobs with more nerve than class.
Luckily Lucy's public relations man, Howard McClay, was expecting us and we disappeared inside without a backward glance.
She was waiting for us in her living room. Sitting in an overstuffed chair and smoking a cigarette, Lucy looked fit but physically slight and wore a brown pants suit, tinted, oversize sunglasses and a green kerchief that was wound tightly around her head as if she expected to buck a strong headwind and not the gentle graze of her air-conditioner. Her trademark red hair practically pulsated with an orangish tint that would have startled Donald Trump.
We seated ourselves on the sofa next to her white toy poodle that looked to be as well coiffed as any Angeleno just released from a Vidal Sassoon rinse and set. As her husband Gary Morton hovered noticeably in the background, Lucy spoke candidly about her life and career, and unleashed some insights (insults) on the present state of television that would have given any self-respecting network executive reason to jump off a bridge.
Only once did she get into a momentary snit and that's when we asked her why, according to facts printed in a volume of Current Biography, she ran away from her upstate Jamestown, N.Y. home at a tender age to embark on a stage career on Broadway.
We surmised the question would be a cute lead-in to recollections about her childhood and budding show business ambitions. Instead, Lucy fixed us with a cold stare (at least that's what we figured; we couldn't see her exact expression behind the tint of her sunglasses). You'd have thought we just strangled her dog.
Lucy slowly rose from the couch and looked ready to kick our abashed asses out the door and over the fence into Jimmy Stewart’s yard.
“If I’d have known you’d be asking these kinds of personal questions, I would not have agreed to this interview,” she said in a quick, clipped way that left no margin for misinterpretation.
We had thought any facts about her life that we gleaned from Current Biography — a reference source universally accessible in libraries and as unimpeachable as a set of the World Book Encyclopedia — would hardly be objectionable. Perhaps we were naïve. In any case, we were wrong. For an instant we both felt like emitting one of Lucy’s characteristic “Waaaaah’s”; her forlorn wallow whenever she felt defeated or overwhelmed on TV.
Instead, we redirected — quickly. But in that moment, as flop-sweat began to bead our brows, we experienced firsthand the old axiom about comedians, that often they have no sense of humor about themselves.
Perhaps we “pushed a button” or caught Lucy in a moment of pique about something else; we’ll never know. Offstage she could well have been the funniest person in the room, but the Lucy we interviewed that September day came across as a tough-as-nails, pensive businesswoman who didn’t sugarcoat anything.
As a television pioneer who triumphed over huge odds, battled a paternalistic sexism throughout her career and was the first woman to build and run a bona fide Hollywood studio (Desilu Productions), maybe that was to be expected.
We took a cue from Lucy’s poodle that had rolled deferentially over on her back. We too, in our way, genuflected to the alpha in the room and Lucy, placated, sat back down in her chair.
Reel to Real: Why did the article in Current Biography say: “much of the information about Lucy's early life is vague and contradictory?”
Lucy: You'll find that out if you read some of the scurrilous unauthorized biographies that have been written about me. They take the first two pages and make you out a bum that ran away from home and had an unhappy childhood. You are 80 years old or there must have been some reason why you left. I went to dramatic school when I was 15 and there was nothing vague or contradictory about that, except in the three unauthorized book versions of my career. There is one good book by Bart Andrews (Lucy and Ricky and Fred and, Ethel, Popular Library, 1977).
Reel to Real: Have, you ever had any formal musical training?
Lucy: I never studied, musically, and God knows it looks like it. I attempted to take up what is called eccentric dancing but teachers told me I was ill-equipped for that. They wrote my mother a letter saying that she was wasting her money, which she was, because I couldn't do anything. I've gotten away with my dancing in many musical films only because I could rehearse for weeks. The little stuff I did on my television show was satirically done. I don't mean that each step was out and out satire, but it was easy enough for me to master. Same with my singing. I never could sing, although I've done a lot of singing. My mother also wasted her perfectly good money on piano lessons, which I can't play.
Reel to Real: Were there any tell-tale signs of inherent comedic ability when you were young?
Lucy: I certainly didn't notice any. All I knew was that I wanted to perform and I took every chance that I got at school … church … Kiwanis and Elks clubs. Wherever I was needed — sweeping up, selling tickets — I would pitch in.
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