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“Autumn in New England” Chap. 19 – Lucy, I’m Home!

 

Jamestown, NY

Founded in 1814 by James Pendergrast, who built a grist mill at the base of a steep hill on the north bank of the Chadakoin River, Jamestown, NY, is a now a town of around 35,000 people situated just downstream from Chautauqua Lake. The pattern that I have seen across the Southern Tier is repeated again. Jamestown is another one of the villages that grew in the late 1800’s around mills powered by the rushing rivers of southern New York. Most of those factories are long gone and the vestiges of that era line the northern bank of the Chadakoin at the bottom of the steep main street falling down from the north.

Standing on Main Street near the bridge I turn and look north up the hill.

Once grand structures line Main Street as well as the primary east/west grid of 2nd-5th streets.

At the top of the hill along 5th Street the wealthy of the day built large mansions, most now offices or other businesses.

Also on 5th is the James Pendergrast Public Free Library, one of the first free libraries in the United States. A legacy of the grandson of the same name as the original founder of Jamestown, the front steps of the library are cut from a single block of stone.

One of the most memorable legacies of Jamestown is not a building, but a person. On August 6, 1911, Lucille Ball was born in Jamestown. Two museums, one dedicated to Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz and the other focusing on the “I Love Lucy” show, anchor the downtown area at the corner of 3rd and Main.

 

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz
While Lucille was born in Jamestown, she spent most of her early life in the village of Celeron a couple of miles west. Her father, a factory worker, died when she was four and after her mother remarried Lucille and her brother moved in with their grandparents in Celeron. This is a picture of her fourth grade class, somewhat blurry, she is the first student on the left in the second row from the back.

Lucy attended Jamestown High School and participated in plays and musicals. In 1926 at age 15 she quit school and moved to New York City to attend acting school and work her way up the ladder of show business. Desi Arnaz was born in 1917 to a prominent family in Santiago, Cuba. His grandfather was one of the early landowners in southern California (owning much of present day Beverly Hills), his father mayor of Santiago, Cuba, and his mother heir to part of the Bacardi Rum Empire. An early life of affluence and privilege came to a sudden halt in 1934 when the Bautista revolt overthrew the government of Cuba and the Arnaz family was forced to flee to Miami. Desi was hired to play guitar and sing in a small rumba band just as the conga “craze” was hitting New York and in 1940 Desi was asked to star in a movie, “Too Many Girls” and Lucille Ball also auditioned for a part. They met and their tumultuous relationship began. The museum documents their life together in pictures and displays of personal possessions.

This movie projector was state of the art when it was installed in their Beverly Hills home in 1956. The thing is mammoth, taller than I am (6 feet!)

Next door is the partner museum, dedicated specifically to the iconic television show “I Love Lucy”

“I Love Lucy”
“I Love Lucy” debuted in 1951 and originally ran for six years, was later re-incarnated for another three years, and seemingly ran in re-runs forever ( I suspect that if you look hard enough, you can find it playing somewhere even today!) It was the most watched television show four of its’ first six years and was the first television show to end at the top of the ratings (matched only by “Andy Griffin” in 1968 and “Seinfeld” in 1998.) Originally shot in black and white, a colorized version of the Christmas show ran in 2013 and was watched by over 8 million viewers. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz played Lucy and Desi Ricardo and their friends were Fred and Ethel Mertz. The show was initially shot in Studio A at CBS Columbia Square in Hollywood, California, home to some of the most popular shows of the day. This is the actual door of Studio A and a list of the media stars who touched this door on their way in and out of performances is replete with names that defined entertainment in the decades after World War II.

The “I Love Lucy” show won five Emmy’s (1952, 1953, 1955, 1967, 1968) and Lucille Ball was awarded the Governor’s Award after her passing in 1989.

Lucy, Desi, Fred and Ethel were the television stars of the day.

The Ricardos “lived” in an apartment at 623 East 68th street in New York City for 168 episodes. Since most of the stage and props have long ago disappeared, the set has been faithfully recreated to look as originally built.

Amongst those of us at a “certain age”, who doesn’t remember the polka-dot dress?

Lucille Ball is one of the most recognizable faces in television history, her face graced the cover of TV Guide 36 times, more than any other star.

When Lucy Ricardo had her baby Ricky the episode drew more viewers than the inauguration of President Eisenhower. It sparked a merchandising rage as America wanted its’ children to have the same baby items that Ricky used.

It wasn’t just Ricky’s things that people wanted to copy, there were lots of other merchandising opportunities. This ad lured viewers interested in replicating the Ricardo’s apartment. I’m pretty sure I recognize the furniture, I think the bed and low dresser graced my parents’ bedroom in the early 1960’s!

In later years the Ricardos moved to the Beverly Palms Hotel (Room 315), scene of some of the most famous episodes.

Don’t under-estimate the fervor of fans. With her permission I photographed this lady who had dressed up in a polka-dot dress to visit the museum a her long with her very patient husband…

She then stunned me as she sat down and spoke the words from a scene, faithfully caught for posterity by her husband on his cell phone…

Just a fun little visit back in time!

This concludes my trek through “Autumn in New England”.  It has already snowed a couple of times back home in Montana (though thankfully non of it has stuck!) so it’s time to head west.  Only about 30 miles west of Jamestown I rejoin I-90, which will take me directly back to Billings.  As always, thanks for traveling with me as I explore the quirks and oddities of the backroads of America!

 

Next up:  The Wall?  It might be “Huge…!”