(Tuesdays with Lucy)
By Taylor Negron
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.
Ball taught me how to be happy, because she was so damned sad.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Ball just walked into the optometrist's on Ivar!"
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.
reappeared smiling and confident, looking like the cat that swallowed the canary.
"Lucy is going to teach a course here," he stated calmly.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
pointed to her with her cigarette, then stabbed it out in the ashtray.
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.
"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".
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
Again, Lucy started to cry.
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."
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.
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
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
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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