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The Pink Gorilla
(Tuesdays with Lucy)

By Taylor Negron

In 1977, every Tuesday at 7 pm for eight weeks, Lucille Ball was my comedy teacher.

To this day I still remember things she said, or how she reacted to things, but more importantly I remember what she "felt" about things. She was a woman who wore her heart on her sleeve.

Lucy taught us how to play drunk: "Say every word slowly and clearly. Drunks don't want people to think they are slurring." She told us, "Everything you see me do on I Love Lucy was practiced and rehearsed for days! Know you props!" Her tone was serious.
Lucille Ball taught me how to be happy, because she was so damned sad.

The first time I saw her she was crying. But let me digress back to 1977 when I was 19 years old, and a slimmer, more bell-bottomed me. I was lean, I was mean, and I had a shag. The year that Saturday Night Fever came out, before AIDS and cell phones, when there were only 13 channels on TV and afternoons were meant for love making and hitchhiking. Hollywood Boulevard was still an old fashioned street then. Japanese gift shops were tucked in between musty bookshops, and old ladies in ancient silk dresses walked down the street with Andrews Sisters' hairdos. Male hustlers clogged the front of the ice cream store on the corner of Las Palmas Avenue that sold peppermint candy ice cream in those sweet waffle cones.

I worked at the Sherwood Oaks Experimental Film School on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Ivar Street, upstairs from a Tom McCann shoe store that sold only platform shoes that summer. I would bike there from the apartment on Van Ness Street that I shared with a dwarf actor named Corky, who I had met in my improv group. He traveled around with a rough crowd that included Herve Villechaize. I recall people mentioning that, "Herve carries a pistol."

I needed help paying the rent so I asked Corky to be my roommate. When he moved in he had nothing more than a box of porn magazines and a large bottle of Vicks Vapor Rub. My only complaint about my new roommate was that he left footprints on the toaster. When you live with a little person, everything becomes a step.

Working at the film school was a big step for me. It was my second job (my first was being a cartoon model at Hanna-Barbera, which required no thinking, just arduous posing). I was paid to run errands for the director of the school, a man named Gary. I helped him track down celebrities to come and lecture for a nominal fee.

The school's floors were covered with yellow Formica and the discreet remains of well-smoked joints; a signed poster of Taxi Driver was taped to a shiny wall, and beneath it, arranged just so, were two plastic-covered sofas where, at night, the students made love with the professors.

One of my tasks was to read Celebrity Service, which was published daily, and let Gary know who was in town. "Louis Malle is at the Beverly Wilshire," I would tell him, not looking up from the paper. Gary would then call the Beverly Wilshire and directly ask for Louis Malle. Then, he would be connected to Louis Malle only to launch into a pitch-plea for Louis to come down to Hollywood Boulevard and give a lecture. Louis Malle did.

In the far simpler 1970s, the divergent concepts of Hollywood monetary excess and the new Hippie decoration had finally melded. The successful people of the day who did agree to come to our school, sought to impress by a lack of display, an absence of possession, except for crocodile cowboy boots and turquoise. The who's who of that golden age walked through the doors, and for a short time it was I who went down to greet them, and bring them up the steps.

These days, it's hard to believe that people, no less celebrities, would show up and share of themselves practically for free. But in the late '70s we are talking about another time, when Sunset Boulevard was considered a short cut, and the worst thing you could ever do to someone was "bum them out" or bring in "bad vibes".

One stifling hot afternoon, a pleasantly overweight girl named Pam, who also worked at Sherwood Oaks, ran into our cluttered office.

"Lucille Ball just walked into the optometrist's on Ivar!"

"What?" Gary stood up and then disappeared out the door. Pam followed, leaving me alone to read the morning copy of the Hollywood Reporter in peace.

Gary reappeared smiling and confident, looking like the cat that swallowed the canary. "Lucy is going to teach a course here," he stated calmly.

"He's right. I was there," Pam said. "Lucy said she would do eight Tuesdays." My mind reeled. Lucy Ricardo was going to teach here at this school. I asked Pam if Lucy was nice. "No. She seems stern," Pam said.

A few months later, Lucy's sold out class began, at $125.00 for eight weeks. I arrived at work that day and could barely contain my excitement. Gary was nonchalant when he asked me to go to the store and buy Lucille Ball stuff for the green room that we had arranged for her. Lucy had requested a pack of Pall Mall non-filtered cigarettes, a bag of Chocolate Pogen Cookies, and a bottle of Scotch.

"I can't get alcohol, Gary. I'm not 21."

"Oh. I'll get it and you get the rest." I did get the rest and placed it dutifully on the brown table in the makeshift area hidden behind drapes off the side of the stage.

Then Gary asked me go down and wait in the alley behind the school for her car so that I could welcome her and escort her up. I was shocked that I was given such a task. I controlled myself and waited at the appointed time of 6:30. A green Country Squire Station Wagon with wooden doors appeared and parked.

A portly, serious man got out of the car. This was Howard, who ran Lucille Ball Productions. He shook my hand. He waited a moment before he opened the car door for Lucy.

Her hair was pink. Pink like a clown. Pink like the inside of a flamingo's hairbrush. I have never to this day seen any color hair like that. But what was truly shocking to witness was the fact that Lucille Ball was crying. She was wiping tears from her eyes; then she applied lipstick on a mouth that was painted like a kidney bean. Her lipstick was over-painted on her very thin lips, giving the impression of having been placed there with a stencil.

I spied her taking out a jar of Vaseline from her purse, opening it, and taking a dab of the stuff to rub all over her teeth. She did this quickly, patting her eyes again with a Kleenex. Then Lucille Ball got out of the car. She was taller than I expected; she was wearing an orange Polyester pantsuit that flared at the foot. It was all shocking. I had imagined her in black and white and with false eyelashes. Her blue eyes, entirely void of make up, gave her face a strange, reptilian look.

Lucy walked in front of me as if she knew where she was going. Howard and I followed her up the back stairs through the throngs.

The packed class was made up of people of all ages and both genders. Lucy went right to the tall director's chair and the audience stood on its feet. Lucy seemed shocked and slightly disturbed by this adoration, and her face looked like a snake that had come out of a curl, an ancient creature that had suddenly been woken up by an oncoming parade. Then she sat down, looked out at the crowd and began to cry... again.

A hush came over the room. Some people thought it was a gag and laughed nervously. Howard shifted the weight on his foot and looked on. I felt a knot in my stomach.

Lucy spoke. "The kindest, most lovely woman in the world died an hour ago. Lila Rodgers. Ginger's mother."

The class was thunderstruck to witness such an unexpected show of raw emotion. All of us hung on Lucy's every word. She had a rage in her voice. She gestured as she continued: "In the early '30s when women came to Hollywood and they got off the train, they were met by men who impersonated agents and studio executives offering them rides. The men raped these women." Lucille let the tears roll.

"Lila Rodgers created the Hollywood Studio Club, a place were young actresses could live, and be safe from these rapist-men. In those days, when you were raped, a girl never mentioned it." She began crying again and Howard stood at attention with his hands in his pockets. Her face was a mask of dissociated pain and suffering. Her intelligence was keen, as she looked out at the crowd like an old pink gorilla.

This class was not going to be a class about Vitavetavegiman.

There is an old saying: "Spare me what goes into the sausage -- just let me enjoy it." This is what it was like to meet Lucille Ball and get to know her in those weeks, long ago. I saw what went into her sausage

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