We Love Lucy & Desi
We Love Lucy & Desi
The Associated Press | August 29, 1999

Jamestown, N.Y. - Say what you will about the Lucy-Desi Museum, but one thing is undeniable: There are few other gift shops where you can buy a Vitameatavegamin Christmas tree ornament. Or a Vitameatavegamin tie. Or a Vitameatavegamin clock.

But here, in Lucille Ball’s western New York hometown, you can buy these souvenirs of the "I Love Lucy" episode in which our heroine repeatedly tried to make a commercial for an alcoholic elixir, getting more soused each take.

This is one of the joys of the Lucy-Desi Museum, which tracks the lives of a local girl-turned-showgirl-turned-beloved comedienne, and of the handsome Cuban bandleader she married.

Here, you can take a Desi computer quiz: Who was Desi’s best friend in high school in Miami Beach? Al Capone, Jr. And yes, Desi was the first person to do the conga in the United States.

You can watch a show from Lucy’s last television series, the short-lived "Life with Lucy" from 1986, and see the actual rhinestone-bedecked gown that she wore at the taping.

And you can contribute your own jokes to the compendium of humor. Writes Ellen Marot of Chicago Heights, Ill: "What did the 500-pound parrot say" Polly want a cracker now!" Rejoins Elaine Steffen, of East Lansing, Mich: "Why don’t cannibals eat clowns? They taste funny."

As you can see, the Lucy-Desi Museum is highly interactive. There are buttons to push, computer mouses to click, dials to turn.

At its heart is the story of Lucille ball, born in Jamestown on Aug. 6, 1911. Her father, a factory worker, died when she was 4; her mother remarried and sent her to live with her grandfather in nearby Celeron.

Her grandfather took her to vaudeville shows, kindling her showbiz dreams. She quit high school at 15 to go to drama school, quit after one year, then worked as a secretary, Ziegfield showgirl, and model.

Meanwhile, Desi Arnaz’s father was mayor of Santiago, Cuba, and his mother was the daughter of one of the founders of Bacardi Rum; the plan was to send Desi to Notre Dame law school, but the family went into exile after the coup that brought Fulgencio Batista to power in 1934.

Desi played in a rhumba band in Miami, where he was discovered by bandleader Xavier Cugat.

Lucy and Desi met on the set of the movie "Too Many Girls" in 1940; he offered to teach her the rhumba, and that was that. They married that year.

Museumgoers can listen to a tape of Lucy’s radio show "My Favorite Husband," I which she played the scheming, middle-class wife of a bank vice president. CBS wanted to bring the show to television, but balked at Lucy’s insistence that Desi play her husband.

She carried the day, and "I Love Lucy" was born.

It was a landmark show. In those days, shows were broadcast from New York, and then kinescopes were shown later on the West Coast. But Lucy and Desi wanted to stay in California, so they used three cameras to film their show for later broadcast the birth of the modern-day sitcom.

The museum opened in 1996, and has had 30,000 visitors. Its origins lie in the spring of 1989, when Jamestown geared up for a visit from its favorite daughter, who was to receive an honorary degree from Jamestown Community College. But Lucille Ball died that April.

In its mourning, the community resolved to sponsor Lucy-Desi Days each spring to showcase new comics. But when people came, they expected to be immersed in Lucyana, and were disappointed.

Lucy-Desi days were changed to focus on the redhead, and with the aid and support of Ball’s family, which donated much of the collection plans were laid for a museum.

"Everybody is in such a good mood when they’re here, and when they leave they have smiled on their faces," says Ric Wyman, the 30-year-old director of the museum.

But there’s more to this museum than laughter. The current exhibition (it changes each year) explores the couple’s later years, after the breakup of their marriage. Somehow, there is heartbreak in Desi’s monogrammed frayed robe.

The museum, a single floor of a storefront, is billed as an hour-and-a-half experience, but Wyman hopes to expand if only to find a place for Lucy’s Mercedes-Benz. Wyman, who wrote a book on Ball and was recruited for this job by her daughter, Lucy Arnaz, knows that he has a good thing going.

"There’s not a whole lot of places in this country where you can come and be a Lucille Ball historian," he says.
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