FRESH YARN presents:

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

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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