A day in Jamestown with Lucy Ricardo

When you were a kid, didn’t you used to have dream situations you dearly wished would happen? Perhaps you dreamed of being locked up overnight in a candy store. I had one of those dream experiences recently, and I can’t wait to tell you all about it.

Two weeks ago, we ran in the column, an interview with the two leading actors in the national touring company of the show “I Love Lucy – Live on Stage. Sirena Irwin and Bill Mendietta have been cast as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, the characters performed by Jamestown native Lucille Ball and her husband, Desi Arnaz, in a company which is currently in residence at 710 Main St., in Buffalo, but which will soon be folding their tents and heading off to Toronto, to light up the giant Royal Alexandra Theater.

The interviews were both enjoyable, and when I reviewed the show itself, I found the entire company to be very talented and outgoing. When the performance was over, I went backstage to meet in person my two interview subjects, and got a surprise invitation.

“Next Monday is our first day off, from performing the show, so a bunch of us are going to drive down to Jamestown and look at ‘everything Lucy’ that we can find,” Mendietta said. “Why don’t you come along with us. It should be a lot of fun.”

“Beside that,” Irwin chipped in, “You probably know where everything is.”

So I spent one very long, very entertaining day with the Lucy and Ricky look-alikes and 20 of their fellow actors, musicians in the Ricky Ricardo Orchestra, creative backstage personnel, and others.

Joanna Daniels, who is portraying Ethel Mertz in the show, brought along her two young children, whose fresh eyes were experiencing all this Lucy business for the first time in their lives.

We started in the Desilu Studio, the double museum on West Third Street, at the intersection of Main Street. The western-most museum deals with the private lives of the actors who first played Mr. and Mrs. Ricardo. The eastern-most museum contains close to perfect replications of the sets on which the entire world envisions the Ricardos and their friends the Mertzes, going about their zany business.

When she’s not in costume as Lucy Ricardo, Sirena Irwin is a lovely, mobile-faced lady with long, flowing blonde hair, not the orange-red curls of her character. Mendietta, on the other hand, has to carry his strong resemblance to Desi Arnaz, along with him. What’s more, among the group of more than 20 visitors was the actor who was cast as his understudy. The two men looked so much alike, two visitors to the museum from North Carolina came up to me and said, “Does everybody in this town look like Ricky Ricardo? We just saw a guy in the previous room and commented on how much he looks like Ricky, then we came in here and there he is again, but he couldn’t possibly have gotten past us?”

I can’t tell you how energizing and exciting it is to be surrounded by people who want to see, want to hear and want to know. Having taught in public schools and colleges for more than 30 years, I am used to people telling me that they don’t have to learn, and I can’t make them do it. That is true, by the way. A person can lead a horse to water, but if he happens to have the wrong end of the horse, under no circumstances will it drink.

All of the actors in the group wanted photos of themselves with giant posters and other portrayals of the characters they are playing. People read every word of the written descriptions attached to the museum exhibits. The musicians were especially interested in exhibits showing musical scores from the original show, which they eagerly compared with the musical parts they are playing in the musical version of the original scripts. One young man was deeply impressed that photos of the Ricky Ricardo Orchestra show that most of the musicians were quite young – most of them obviously younger than age 40.

The group had made arrangements with the staff of the Lucy/Desi Museum to eat their lunches in the Tropicana Room, the second floor re-creation of the nightclub where Ricky Ricardo earned the money his zany wife spent, by beating on a conga drum and singing Latin tunes. The tour group members were aware of eating places in Jamestown which had specific connections to Lucille Ball, and they ordered their food from them.

While they ate, the museum staff showed a video of scenes from “I Love Lucy,” including a couple of scenes which have been incorporated into the touring show which they are performing in Buffalo. It was impressive to watch the actors who perform in the scenes jump up from their lunch and deliver their speeches in tandem with the original actors, each checking carefully that their timing and inflection match those of the actors on the video.

When the tour of the museum resumed, after lunch, it was wonderful to see Sirena Irwin place herself on the set of the famed Vita-Meata-Vegemin commercial and recite the little speech which was printed on the wall, while her colleagues swarmed around her and coached her on the authenticity of her delivery.

Eventually, we left the museum and swarmed the streets of downtown Jamestown, seeking out the many murals which are painted on downtown walls by artist Gary Peters Jr. As we walked, they overflowed with questions, about the age and architecture style of buildings, which businesses were changed from Lucy’s day, the location of the helicopter landing which brought Ball and Arnaz to Jamestown for the world premiere of “Forever Darling,” and similar questions, which not only revealed acute intelligence, but which also demonstrated how deeply they had researched the history of the characters whom they are playing.

That accomplished, we jumped into the rented cars which had brought them down from Buffalo, paused briefly at the house on Stewart Avenue, in which Lucille Ball was born, and then headed for Celoron, to visit the house where the actress had spent most of her youthful years.

That property, on Lucy Lane, is privately owned by Mary Rappaport, and is not open for the public to visit, but the cast had met Mrs. Rappaport when she came to see their performance in Buffalo, and told her they were coming down, so we all were invited inside and allowed to roam about the historical property at will. The owner spoke intelligently about restoring the wallpaper to what it was in the 1920s, when Lucy lived there after her father’s early death, with her mother, her brother, and her maternal grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Fred Hunt. She showed the print of a Utrillo painting which once hung above the fireplace in the Ricardo’s television apartment, and talked about restoring original linoleum and finding kitchen cupboards, which had been torn out and used as part of a basement workshop, by owners, intent upon “modernizing” the house.

Meanwhile, actresses were trying on clothes which originally belonged to Lucy, which had been bought at auction in California, and which fit Ms. Irwin as though they had been tailored to her form. Both women are tall and elegantly thin. The house’s owner searched around and found a pair of aprons which still had Lucy’s and Desi’s names sewn in them, and which they had worn in one of the episodes of the television series in which the couple moved to a home in Connecticut, and in which Ricky and Fred Mertz had constructed a disastrously distorted brick barbecue. While Mendietta and Irwin tried on the aprons, she invited everyone into the back yard, where a nearly exact copy of the barbecue stands.

Once again, cameras flashed.

Mrs. Rappaport gave the visitors bags of sponge candy, promising them they wouldn’t find it in any other part of the country, and giving Mendietta and Irwin, a small lilac tree, which had been sprouted from one of the original plants in the yard, which date to Lucy’s residence there. Knowing that lilacs were always the comedienne’s favorite flowers, they took the lilac to Lucy’s grave, in Lake View Cemetery, where they left it in her honor.

By now, many hours had passed, and members of the group were breaking away, either to eat dinner, or to head back to Buffalo. Such was not the case, however, with the quartet who had invited me to join them. We toured past addresses where Ball’s grandparents had lived, and where she had done various activities when returning to our area, after establishing her career in New York City, and Hollywood.

We went to Celoron Park and exchanged stories about when Lucy had sold hamburgers as a short order cook at the park, and where she liked to go canoeing with her dates, because if they tried to get too friendly, she could overturn the canoe and cool things off in the lake.

Finally, we ended the day at the Lucille Ball Little Theatre of Jamestown, where they politely requested to be allowed inside, and roamed around, discussing most effectively the architecture of the building and the modernizing which it has undergone, to serve the needs of New York state’s largest community theater.

I hope I’ve captured the energy which the day involved, and the many things which are available for us to do nearly every day of the year, if we just make up our minds to do them. I hope I’ve captured the warmth and the friendliness of the large group, and the way they flowed around independently, following their own interests, yet keeping the needs of the group in mind, so that no one was left waiting nor found himself left out of activities.

If I had to choose between being locked overnight in a candy store and spending an entire day with a substitute Lucy, Desi, Fred, Ethel, and all the other members of the cast, I’d take the field trip to Jamestown, in a heart beat. How about you?

WINKS

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