I don’t love I Love Lucy.
Blasphemy! And I should love this sitcom prototype.
I Love Lucy revolutionized television. And, I love TV, especially sitcoms.
I do LIKE I Love Lucy but generationally-speaking, I was out of sync. I wasn’t born when it first aired. Eventually, when I did see it, the series seemed broad, stagey, and past its prime. The best bits had been shown again and again. That’s the thing about TV - catchphrases and comedic bits get repeated until the laughs peter out and the comedy is exhausted. Lucy was a beautiful clown. If you don’t laugh at her, you don’t love her. And so I haven’t … until recently.
A few weeks ago, my social media accounts pulsated with the story of the dueling bronze Lucy statues. Both statues were erected in Lucille Ball Memorial Park in Celeron, NY., just outside of Jamestown, where Lucy was raised. A new Lucy statue was commissioned to replace the old Lucy statue. The original statue had become infamously known as “Scary Lucy." Lucy’s career spanned 20th century media from vaudeville through the Hollywood studio system, radio and television. Now she was on the internet. For someone who has been dead for 27 years, going viral is quite an accomplishment.
My husband Dave and I took our boys (Sam 10 and Cal 4) to the park to see the statues. Here was a new opportunity to love Lucy. The Greek Chorus in the backseat asked, “Who’s Lucy again?”, “Why is Lucy scary?”, “Are we going to see Lucy dead?”. I forgot that Lucy is no longer broadcast as she was when I was a kid with reruns of three different sitcoms, movies and specials. Her ubiquitous phase was over.
The Lucille Ball Memorial Park is ninety minutes south of Buffalo. The new Lucy statue, adorned in a polka-dot dress, long eyelashes and trademark red curls, greets the public as they enter the park. Immediately, the boys were on the look-out for Scary Lucy as if she would suddenly do a pratfall out of a tree and frighten them silly.
Further down the lane, hidden among the bushes, we found Scary Lucy. She has received much deserved criticism - she doesn’t resemble Lucy: no eyelashes or curls, she is round shouldered—thoroughly un-Lucy-like; and her face is severe, not a hint of that famous Lucy smile. But still, I liked the old gal. She’s the Mr. Hyde to the Dr. Jekyll of Bronze Lucy statues. Many fans will travel to see the new statue without strolling the 75 yards to visit Scary Lucy while the story for me is in the duality of the statues. Scary Lucy inspired the boys to distort their faces to match hers. Scary Lucy is a lot of fun.
The Lucy park sits along the shore of Lake Chautauqua where the Summer Wind cruise was docked and taking passengers. Speakers on the boat, played Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra songs loud enough to be background music for the park. Alluring. But after taking pictures with Scary Lucy, I wanted more Lucy.
Lucille Ball Memorial Park does not house The Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum. We had to drive into Jamestown to see that. The boys wanted lunch before they got more schooling in all things Lucy.
Where would we eat? I don’t know anything about Jamestown. I asked Dave. He shrugged his shoulders. Yelp?
I parked the car near the museum and glanced to my left. There was the Havana Cuban Cafe and Pizzeria. So on theme. On point. En talla. All this talk about Lucy, I almost forgot about the innovative Desi Arnaz who introduced Cuban music to mainstream America, married Lucy, and produced I Love Lucy in front of a live studio audience (the first show to do so). We walked into a Havana haven. The decor was colorful, festive, nostalgic, full of memorabilia - where Cuba meets Desi and Lucy.
We met the owner, Reuben Hernandez. His great grandfather was chef in Cuba in the 1940s and the food is created from this ancestor’s original recipes. Hernanadez remodeled the entire building. He told us, “I didn’t go to college. This restaurant is where I studied.
And the food? Generationally authentic. Dave ate the pickle-layered Cuban sandwich while I had the Havana sandwich slathered in a spicy Havana sauce. The Cuban coffee - cortadito and cafe con leche - frothy, strong and hot, was alone worth the drive. Restaurants that take into account the theme of the town, especially a small town, are the most gratifying. The Havana Cuban Cafe was not an intermission in our expedition but part of the show. I look forward to someday returning to try the Completas - Cuban pulled pork, yucca, and sweet plantains.
Hernanadez talked to us about The National Comedy Center. It broke ground in 2015 and now it hosts the long running The Lucille Ball Comedy Festival. This year’s festival wrapped a week prior to our visit. The festival lasted 3 days with Lewis Black and Trevor Noah headlining. Unfortunately, three days worth of crowds does not make for successful year round businesses.
Many of Jamestown’s storefronts were boarded up. But then I found out that on August 18th, Governor Cuomo announced that Jamestown was “selected as the winner of the 10 million dollar Downtown Revitalization Initiative” (www.governor.ny.gov). And, The Comedy Center is still in development. Last May, it acquired the archives of George Carlin. With this kind of fare, could comedy do for Jamestown what baseball did for Cooperstown?
I hope the whole town revitalizes around Lucy/Desi comedy theme, if only for the Cuban sandwiches.
As Journey Gunderson, Executive Director of National Comedy Center, Inc. said, “Lucille Ball’s vision was that Jamestown would become a destination for the celebration of all comedy and not just about her own legacy. This festival has done just that, attracting more than 10,000 visitors from over 40 states each year — a microcosm of what we will do with the National Comedy Center’s visitor attraction under construction now.” (Ashtabula Current)
We wished Reuben Hernanadez our very best and headed for the museum.
Our four year old Cal was fascinated with Lucy. Here were these larger than life pictures of a woman with big eyes and often a puckered face, her expressions farcical and her clothes glittery. Then we came to the Vitameatavegamin set where there were cue cards, a bottle of Vitameatavegamin and a small vintage TV where you can perform the schtick “Live in Front of a Studio Audience”. The Vitameatavegamin gag in the I Love Lucy Show is one of the most celebrated. The face Lucy made when she drank the Vitameatavegamin syrup was the face that artist Dave Poulin tried to reproduce when he sculpted Scary Lucy. He didn’t get it right. But then again, neither did we.
Sam performed the gag, I performed it and then Cal got up there, waved the spoon in the air and pretended to barf. We chased each other around the set and Dave tried to capture the zaniness on video. I laughed, a lot.
In the gift shop, Cal walked up to an unsuspecting redhead and said, “Are you Lucy? She’s dead.”
Not entirely, Cal. She’s still breathing new life into an old town.