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Monday, August 6, 2012

Happy Birthday, Lucy ♥

Today, Lucille Ball would have turned 101 years old.

What can I say about her that hasn't been said? She was incredible. She touched the lives of so many people - and continues to. She passed away twenty-three years ago and yet she still seems very much alive. When Sammy Davis Jr. toasted her on a televised "all star party" in 1984, he stated, "The sun never sets on Lucille Ball," and he was entirely correct. Maybe it's because that at any time of the day, some where in the world, a television set is playing I Love Lucy. Maybe it's because her face has been seen more often by more people than any other person who has lived.

Or maybe it's because the public never saw her as a "star." No doubt she was one, one of the brightest in the galaxy, but our (the audience's) relationship with Lucy was different than going to the movie theater to watch a feature film. Lucy visited us in our homes, in our living rooms, weekly, just like a friend or a family member. In the days long before VHS and now, DVD, Lucy began what was to become perhaps a infinite, intimate relationship with us. You watched Lucy on in your own home, on your sofa, with your family. You were safe in knowing that there would be happy ending. For many people, Lucy is like that best friend we can always count on. We didn't call her "Lucille Ball"; we called her "Lucy." She's one of us. 

"The red hair, the giant eyes, the rubber face: Those were the physical tools that Lucille Ball used to ply her comic craft so expertly. In the process of trying to make people laugh, she also stole their hearts… The depth of feeling for Ball spoke to the power of the medium she helped popularize…Viewers around the world formed an intimate bond with the comedienne, thinking of her not as a star, like Bogart and Bacall, but as part of their extended family who dropped by on Monday nights," said Vanity Fair, best explaining our love affair with Lucy. 

Was there any other person who so helped shaped television? There were many who also started out in the medium's infancy, but none who have risen to such fame as Lucy. I read an article last year, on the occasion of her birthday, that acknowledged her comedic talent but put the question, "Why Lucy?" Its author wondered why none of the other early pioneers of television are so applauded as she. While this may seem unfair, it was something that occurred naturally. From the 1950s, audiences have taken akin to Lucy with a great passion, and continue to do so while those other television shows have faded into our past. She had a special quality, a certain 'it' factor, that made her the darling of the public.  And while there will continue to be television programs that are just as popular and actresses who will win more Emmys than Lucy, it was Lucy who was there at the start. "Let’s face it: any comic actor on TV today, male or female, who claims not to have been influenced by Lucy/Lucille is lying through his or her teeth," said TV Guide. And they were right. Without Lucy, there would be no Carol Burnett, Mary Tyler Moore, Betty White. There had to be someone to set the wheels turning. 

Before Lucy, comedy had always been a man's profession, but she challenged this stereotype. "Bob and I once told Lucy that  she was a beautiful clown. She didn’t want to hear it because it embarrassed her, but it was true. She might be dressed in a baggy suit and a battered top hat and wearing big, funny shoes - but she was still beautiful," Madelyn Pugh Davis, scribe to many Lucy projects but most famously I Love Lucy, wrote in her autobiography. Lucy's comedy was tasteful and she never compromised her femininity. "She was such an amazing clown, we sometimes forget she was also such a beauty. Ball went from bombshell to grande dame, but she never relinquished her crown as the all-time queen of comedy," said TV Guide.

There is a song, Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning? referring to the 9-11 attacks. In it there are lyrics representative of a person's reaction to first hearing of the attacks. Did you turn off that violent old movie you're watchin' - And turn on "I Love Lucy" reruns? This makes sense for, Lucille Ball and Lucy have always been a comfort to us. There will always be that sense of security in knowing you can laugh until your sides hurt, but there will always be a happy ending - Lucy & Ricky will kiss and make up. Maybe this lyric corresponds to this quote: "The world not only loves Lucy. The world, as it is today, needs her very much," which was penned in 1976, about thirty-five years ago. And in the decades that have passed, I think we can come to the conclusion that we need Lucy even more now than we needed her then. Besides the fact that comedy has lost class and finesse and has quite often resorted to sex and racism for laughs, the world is constantly changing. It does sounds cliche to say it, but we're lost in our digital age, we're whistling in the dark, and we could all use a laugh now and then.

We love Lucy because she was far more than a "star." We love her because she's our Lucy, our favorite redhead, the beautiful clown, the girl we can always turn to no matter what. She is timeless. To me, it is unfortunate that only a few stars from the Golden Age are still vividly remembered in the general society (rather than a smaller cluster of film buffs). These are the icons, and they will always live on no matter how long they've been gone. Lucy is an icon, but it's not because she died prematurely or took a famous photograph - it's because of the years and years of laughter she has left us. We love her and thank her with our laughter, and she loved us back, and though she is gone, she has left us many a valentine.

Now that I have talked about what she meant, and continues to mean, to the world on the public stage - I want to reflect on what she means to me personally, which is a lot.

Have you ever looked at someone for the first time, and yet there was something about them that made you just love them? You could call it "love at first sight," I guess, but that sounds really cheesy. Anyways, that's very nearly what happened with Lucy, from the first episode I saw of I Love Lucy, I was infatuated with her type of comedy, for it was something I've really never experienced before, and I was taken with her. How could you not, because she looked like a living doll - with those humungous blue eyes and cupid's mouth - and all the while this beautiful lady was preforming the most hilarious of pratfalls and delivering the wittiest of lines with the best of them.

I don't think I can even explain how much I love her, because I really do have a deep affection for her, even if it seems silly. I don't think it's frivolous because I don't think I'm alone in this sort of a love for her. And I feel like it makes perfect sense to love her for all she's given me. In my really sad moments, she's the only the person who can cheer me up. I love to laugh; and I love to laugh hard, it's one of my favorite feelings in the world, but I don't always laugh easily. Silly jokes and dumb gags never get me, but Lucy always does. And how can I not love someone who has given me so much laughter? "One of the greatest gifts to mankind is laughter, and one of the greatest gifts to laughter is Lucille Ball," Bob Hope said.

When I'm a fan of a person, I must actually love them both in their profession and in their personal life. This is perhaps unnecessary - I've heard many a person say, "They're a wonderful (insert career) but a terrible a person" - but it's just something I can't help but do. I can't feel happy in enjoying someone who was good in their craft but then realizing I can't respect them in reality, which is why I think of many of my favorite actresses not just performers I like best, but people I truly admire. And Lucy is on the top of that list. There are, obviously, many actresses I have a great affection for but Lucy always is first, no matter what, no matter who I'm currently obsessing over, she's always my number one.

She's my role model, even though I have no plans to become a actress or a comedienne. It is more that I desire so many of the qualities she exhibited that got her to the top. I don't think any ultimately successful actress had such a long and bumpy road to stardom. Lucy faced so much failure in her path, so many people who told her she wasn't better than average, that she couldn't do it, etc., but she never let any of this stop her. And she had patience, so much of it, which is a virtue I'd easily give an arm and a leg for because I don't have it. She had drive, determination, and passion. When she was fifteen they kicked her out of drama school because she wasn't on the same par as her classmate, Bette Davis. They told her mom she was "wasting her money" because Lucy had "no talent." If I were in her shoes, I could imagine feeling like my whole life was coming to an end, but Lucy simply got back up and decided she'd climb the ladder in her on way. She modelled and became the face of Chesterfield cigarettes until a talent scout picked her up to be one of Sam Goldwyn's girls. She went out to Hollywood and never came back.

Even there, though, it was difficult. When she began to get starring roles, they were in B pictures. So many, in fact, she was nicknamed "Queen of the B's." When RKO was through with her, they sent over to MGM, who consequently dyed her hair its famous red color and tried to make her a star. But it was seemingly like trying to jab a square peg into a round  hole, and it didn't work. Everyone knew that MGM was Lucy's last hope at becoming a star, and within a few years they, too, dropped her. She then free-lanced, but still never rose to the title of a "movie star." By the time she became world famous, she was forty. Yet she never regretted or looked back on these years with remorse; she instead took it as a learning experienceFor, because she was a B movie queen, she wasn't typecast like the A list stars but put into any sort of vehicles that the studio wanted to put in. So, Lucille Ball in the 1940s made dramas, comedies, film noirs, musicals, and even a Western. She never refused to do any sort of gag or costume, even if it made her seem unglamorous. 

She took risks and she never let anyone tell her she couldn't do something. Going into television was a big risk; because in those early years of the medium, Hollywood saw it as their biggest rival and a war was waged. Lucy knew that if she went into television and she failed, she wouldn't be able to fall back on her lukewarm movie career. And there was her insisting that Desi should play her husband, even though CBS felt that no one would buy them as a couple. They had to go on tour with a vaudeville act to prove their point, but make it they did, and now "Lucy & Ricky" are probably the most famous television couple of all time.

I love her home movies. For those of you that may be unaware of this, in 1993 Lucy & Desi's daughter, Lucie, made a documentary about her parents to refute a disgusting TV movie that exploited their worst faults. In it, she used private home footage of the couple, personal film taken with their own cameras, mostly at their ranch in California. In this, we see Lucy totally candid and raw; what she was like outside of the public's eye, because she likely never excepted these home movies to become public. (Not to sound as if I'm rebuking Lucie for doing it; I'm SO glad she did). She's unscripted, she's herself, and this is the Lucy I love best. Frolicking around the ranch in costumes, making funny and kissy faces at the camera, cuddling playfully with Desi, snuggling with her cats and dogs. I feel like these clips tell more about the private Lucy than any biographer could ever try to.

I think I'll close this post with some of my favorite Lucy stories. I have many, but here are just a few that I think best reflect her personality.

There was the time that Barbara Eden had a role on one of the final episodes of I Love Lucy. (If anyone needs a refresher, she would later play Jeannie on I Dream of Jeannie). She was supposed to play a suburban siren, and the dress the set had chosen for her was tight and showed off her curves, but dull looking. Lucy decided to make it more glamorous, and so within breaks, she spent the entire time with her assistant manually applying little rhinestones all over the dress so it would sparkle and look more beautiful. 

Lucy was loyal with her employees, whether they worked for her on set or at home. She hired her housekeeper, Harriet, in the early 1940s and kept her for decades. As time passed, Harriet grew protective of Lucy, and their relationship was more than employer and employee, but friends, gin rummy partners, and confidantes. Whenever the two were in the Bay Area they would drop by Harriet's best friend's house. Her name was Dot, and she had a little girl named Barbara. Knowing Lucy loved barbecue, Dot would make ribs. "I kept staring at this beautiful lady eating messy ribs," Barbara recalled.  She also added, "Lucille loved children and she always treated me like a princess. She had her dressmaker make me pinafores and she sent socks to match. My mother was afraid I would be spoiled rotten, and I was. Lucille made people feel important in her company, because if she liked you, she loved you." Barbara also remembered her mother and aunt Harriet reminiscing about their dancing days, and Lucy about her Goldwyn days, and then they would "push the furniture back and form a chorus line, laughing and giggling and dancing." When Lucy visited Barbara some years later, Barbara had by then given birth to a son. Lucy, who had suffered several miscarriages, was still childless at the time and yearning for one of her own, so she doted on the offspring of others. Barbara recalled of this visit, "When she met my son, she loved him so much she kept stuffing money in his pockets. He was five or six and she thought it a great game."

I think that's the type of a lady she was, and that's why I love her so much. The most beloved performer? Easily. I know it sounds biased coming from me, but I think it's true. It will never be fair to judge the  "best entertainer", because they were all unique and special in their own ways. But "beloved" means  "a much loved person", and our admiration for Lucy was never basking in her intimidating glow, as if she was an idol or a diva, as it with some stars - but true love and affection. She didn't just entertain us, she gave us love. She gave us laughs and smiles. 

I can't think of a really good way to wrap up this post, so I think I'll just end this post with something simple.

Thank you, Lucy, for all the laughs you've given us. Have a very happy birthday and know that we'll always love you. Thanks to television, we'll always have you. And your memory will always be very much alive because you were just that amazing; you'll never be forgotten.

Happy birthday, my queen. 

"I have had every big star come on my stage through the years. Looking back, I have to say that the most beloved star by the American public was Lucille Ball. No one else has captured the hearts of the people out there the way Miss Lucille did, and probably never will again."


Happy Birthday, Lucy

[NOTE: all GIFs in this post are mine]


Anonymous said...

what a beautiful post. i grew up watching i love lucy and yes she always felt like a family member. she's lifted me up through my difficult moments and been my soul food. happy birthday to a great lady.

Marcela Costa :} said...

This is absolute perfection. Your love for Lucy is so inspiring, so beautiful. I'm sure she'd cry her eyes out if she read what you wrote about her and I'm sure she'd be thrilled to know a wonderful girl like you felt this way about her. She'd adore her birthday celebration if she could see it. And you know what, Ri? Maybe she can.

Rianna said...

Alyssa: I think that's the way so many of us feel all about her :) She's my go-to-girl, always, when I need cheering up. Thanks for your comment!

Marcela: So I'm crying right now. Thanks for making my day with your comment :D And if she could & knew how much we all love her, still love her, after all these years.

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