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The Pink Gorilla
(Tuesdays with Lucy)

By Taylor Negron

Candid, frank and rough-voiced, Lucy pointed at the students who dared put their hands up. "Girl in the black sweater." "Boy in the paisley shirt."

Every 20 minutes or so she would put more Vaseline on her teeth, and we soon learned that this trick kept her teeth moist so her lips would work.

"Most of you are not going to make it in show business." The crowd hushed quiet. "Most of you aren't that good." She inhaled, then took a bit of tobacco out of her teeth, flicking it into space.

The older members of the crowd laughed. The younger members became sullen, enraged and uncomfortable. America's favorite clown had become a strict governess, a wicked Mrs. Danvers.

Shirley Hemphill was one of the students. Shirley, a rotund girl with a sloppy afro, had yet to make a name for herself as the waitress on the sitcom What's Happening. She was still working at a fast food restaurant on La Brea. She stood up. "I want to be on a TV show now! I am ready. Where do I go? I want to know where to go. You can get me on TV." Shirley's voice was filled with impatience.
Lucy pointed to her with her cigarette, then stabbed it out in the ashtray.

"You're not ready, and you will never make it with this attitude of yours. Terrible. Awful." Lucy rubbed more Vaseline on her teeth. You could hear a pin drop. "Hollywood does not stand for that."

Shirley said, "Oh, shit" and then walked out of the big room and asked for her money back.

Lucy continued: "There isn't enough room for you all. You have to be honest with your chances in this business. I didn't do the pilot for I Love Lucy until I was 40 years old." She lit another cigarette. "Back then I remember thinking that 40 sounded very old."

"Desi and I knew it was our last chance." She inhaled deeply, smiling when she said "Desi".

"We got a sponsor but the network balked at having a 'spic' as my husband and refused to pay for the insurance policy that was needed for the show to be filmed. In order to pay for that insurance policy, we would have had to get a second mortgage on our house in Chatsworth and that was all we had. If the show failed, we would have lost everything. I would have had to move back to Jamestown, New York. Hollywood would have been over for us."

Her voice became ominous as though she were having a recovered memory. There was something cold and brutal in her tone, as though she never got over the injustices.

"For days, Desi and I stewed over the decision about putting up our house as collateral. One night, I fell asleep, completely exhausted, and in the middle of the night, Carole Lombard walked into my room! It was a dream, because Carole had been dead for six years. Carole Lombard walked right into my room with great purpose and sat down on my bed." Lucy spoke with urgency. "Carole was someone who I knew, and looked up to a great deal when we were at MGM. Carole Lombard was married to Clark Gable and died when her plane went down in an ice storm over Nevada during the war." Her voice seemed to soften.

"She looked wunndaful," she said, in a mid-century, mid-Atlantic accent that was probably taught to her by studio linguists.

Again, Lucy started to cry.

"Carole looked at me and said, 'Mortgage this house, Lucy. Sign the papers! This is what you wanted. Sign the papers and you will be free.' Then Carole walked out of the room."

Lucy signed the deal, and in return for paying the insurance policy, CBS gave her and Desi the ownership of the actual footage. They owned the film and became richer than either of them could have imagined.

I recall years later watching a TV biography of Lucy where a colleague of theirs remembered Lucy and Desi having a fight. "Lucy was standing over Desi with her red nails inches from his face saying, 'I wish you were dead.'"

Lucy only wanted a home and kids with a husband who could stay close by. She didn't really get what she wanted. I don't believe she was happy with the way things turned out. Hard work became a kind of salvation for her. When someone in our class asked her what it was like to be the most famous woman of the 1950s, Lucy took a long time to reply. "I didn't know until the 1960s. I was too busy driving over Laurel Canyon twice a day to notice."

Lucille Ball drove herself to work! I remember being flabbergasted to learn this -- that Lucille Ball was just like you and me and drove herself around in a dusty car, her mind filled with sorrow and rage for the hard black rain of the past, of raped starlets and midnight spectral visitations. Lucy paid a heavy price for fame; she knew its depthless, lonely suspension.

There is a large old craftsman house on Laurel Canyon at Lookout Mountain Road. Since my Tuesdays with Lucy, every time I drive by there and see it, I think to myself that Lucy looked at that house when she was driving around the emptier, simpler Los Angeles of long ago; when she went to the studio to make the TV show that Carole Lombard had told her to do. That house is my link to the Hollywood that Lucy tried to tell us about. It is a link to her.

Thinking back now, I feel I learned a lot from Lucy. I learned about being careful about what you want. Because sometimes more tears are cried over answered prayers than unanswered ones. You have to be clear with yourself, because sometimes when the road ends, your destiny begins and then you're stuck living a life that wasn't yours to begin with.

Lucy was a realist who made the world a happier place to be in because she mocked the sadness in life. She was brilliant in the dark of her own silence and in being so, she made the world laugh. She had courage to create hilarity from darkness.

Lucy told us that her favorite episode of I Love Lucy was when the Ricardos went to Hollywood and she met Bill Holden. Years later, I can still watch and wait for her nose to catch on fire. And as she puts it out in a cup of coffee, I know that when she was doing this, she forgot her pain.

When we watch her, we forget our pain, and that is wunndaful.

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