Why We Still Love Lucy

Lucille Ball walked with confidence down Massachusetts Avenue on a chilly February day in 1988, heading to Harvard to claim her title of Woman of the Year at the Hasty Pudding festival. Then in her seventies, Ball could not believe that so many twenty-something students stood shouting their praise from the streets and their dormitory windows. Tears welled in Ball’s crystal blue eyes as she surveyed the scene, at once humbled and gratified. Even in her old age, the world still loved Lucy, and they always would.

Earlier that morning, Ball, sporting a white fur coat, flew into Boston’s Logan Airport with her husband and fellow comedian Gary Morton. “I didn’t expect her to show up in a mink coat, but she was trying to be the diva, to show that she could still be glorious,” says Dr. Larry Barton, Ball’s faculty host when she won the award, as he recounted his day spent with Ball during a recent phone interview.

But though her voice was now dark and distorted from years of cigarette smoke and her face wore a few more wrinkles than before, her fame was eternal, which the Harvard students affirmed. “When she got up on stage, she said, ‘You know, the Harvard students have been bugging me for over 25 years to come here, and I could never work it in to my schedule to make this gig!’” Barton says, chuckling.

The day’s festivities continued, as Ball accepted her award, roared with laughter during a skit put on by Harvard’s comedy club that mocked classic scenes from “I Love Lucy,” and, of course, tasted Harvard’s prized hasty pudding. “It is the worst pudding in the world. I couldn’t even tell you what’s actually in it,” Barton says. “But she took one bite of it and made that horrible face, like it was poison!”

A bit later, Ball exited the theatre to begin her journey home, but she made sure to shake every fan’s hand on the way out the door, a quality that Barton says he’s only seen in one other performer, Bette Midler, and a quality that helped Ball earn eternal respect.

“She said, ‘These are the people who made me, who understood my humor.’ Even on the plane, she shook everyone’s hand. She’s a lady,” Barton says.

Though Lucille Ball was born on August 6, 1911 in Jamestown, New York, she was always destined for Hollywood. As the first woman to own, and successfully run, her own television studio, Ball was more than just a comedian. On her famous sitcom, “I Love Lucy,” audiences quickly fell in love with her fierce looks and witty humor. Those features, accompanied with her impressive intellect, propelled Ball to stardom. And though she died on April 26, 1989, her fame still resonates with fans today.

“I think part of it is her goodness in a very fractured, complicated world. It was wholesome, clean comedy. She didn’t need foul language. I think her longevity is principally because of that ability to make somebody smile,” Barton says.

But what was it that initially propelled Ball to fame? Paul Levinson, a professor at Fordham University who teaches about Ball in his class on television and new media, says it was her ability to combine the different elements of good comedic delivery like “a clown juggling a lot of different balls.” He says though there was something maddeningly enjoyable about the craziness of her skits, Ball also had a highly intelligent sense of humor. “Usually comedians have one or two aspects to their comedy, but it’s rare to have so many, like she had,” Levinson says.

Levinson also credits Ball’s rise to fame to the truthful portrayals of marriage, at the time, that “I Love Lucy” thrived on. In many of the episodes, for instance, Ricky would try to forbid Lucy from butting in to his show business pursuits, but, by the end of the episode, Lucy always seemed to find a humorous way to trick Ricky into letting her do exactly what she wanted. “It was in many ways the classic man-woman relationship,” says Levinson, which is something that Ball confirmed herself in her autobiography, “Love, Lucy.” In her book, she writes, “There was a chemistry, a strong mutual attraction between us [Lucy and Desi], which always came through.”

Ball mentioned that the producers always tried to work the real-life drama of her marriage into the show. She wrote about an instance in which show characters Lucy and Ricky separate for a time and reconcile by the end of the show, which echoed their real-life, at-the-time tempestuous relationship.

Ball believed that the audience was genuinely concerned and hopeful to see Lucy and Ricky’s reconciliation on the show, because maybe that would give the audience hope for a real-life reconciliation between the two, as well: “When Ricky and Lucy were reconciled a few minutes later, in what was supposed to be a hilarious scene, nobody laughed. They were too happy and relieved to see us together again,” Ball wrote.

But Barton says it was not the show itself or her comedic abilities that propelled Ball to fame; it was her eyes. He says before Ball was successful, she studied comedy with Dr. Buster Keaton, an actor best known for his silent films that prominently featured his adept physical comedy, who told Ball that the greatest way for a comedian to express herself was through her eyes.

“If you look at the candy factory episode or the episode where she’s crushing grapes, what brought the audience down was the ability to capture what she learned from Professor Keaton,” Barton says. In the grapes episode, she squints her eyes and scrunches her face into almost unimaginable contortions to convey to the audience her disgust and discomfort as she crushes the grapes with her bare feet.

Though Ball died one year after accepting the Hasty Pudding award on April 26, 1989, the residents of Jamestown (Ball’s birthplace) just celebrated her 100th birthday on August 6th of last year. More than 13,000 fans from around the world traveled to Jamestown to dress and act like the iconic Lucy Ricardo for a day, participating in reenactments of some of Lucy Ricardo’s most famous adventures and paying $14 admission fees to tour the Lucy Desi museum and the Lucille Ball/Desi Arnaz Center.

And twenty-something young ladies continue to sit and watch “I Love Lucy” today, still mesmerized by her charm and comedic abilities. Sarah Beresh, a self-proclaimed 25-year-old Lucille Ball fanatic, says Ball’s ability to connect with her audiences by “just being goofy” allowed her to resonate with fans. “She wasn’t a polished woman on screen, like many other actresses at the time, and that made her more relatable,” Beresh says.

Levinson seems to agree with Beresh. “I think humor has an eternal quality. The “I Love Lucy” show is so transcendently funny that it would still be enormously successful,” Levinson says.

Regardless of the exact reason, we all still love you, Lucy. And we always will.

To See The Published Piece: http://fameology.net/2013/02/26/why-we-still-love-lucy/

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