The Lucy-Desi Museum - Jamestown NY
If you are not familiar with this series and what I am trying to accomplish exploring my backyard, then be sure to check out my "About the Series" post here.
Jamestown is on the eastern tip of Lake Chautauqua. The city's population was just shy of 32,000 in a 2010 census. Jamestown can claim invention of both the modern day voting machine and the adjustable wrench. But many people may not realize that it's also the childhood home and birthplace of one the most celebrated female comedians and actors of our time, the incomparable Lucille Ball.
This small lake town is lovely in its own quiet way, but might be the last place you’d expect a famous and accomplished woman like Lucy to grow up. Lucy and her show were nominated for over 15 Emmys, along with countless other awards and an induction in the TV Hall of Fame. She starred in and created several TV shows besides I Love Lucy like Here’s Lucy and the Lucy Hour. She and her one-time husband Desi Arnaz created with Desilu Studios which went on to produce other iconic TV shows like Mission: Impossible and Star Trek. She is still a recognized and beloved actress even more than 30 years after her death.
The trip was inspired by my mother. She a big Lucy fan and has always expressed interest in visiting her museum.
The sun that day was bright, but it was hot and humid in the typical New York State August weather. We approached the downtown area of Jamestown and exclaimed over the huge of murals of famous scenes from I Love Lucy. They were painted on the highest buildings and are immediately recognizable and very well done. It was lovely to see the town so clearly proud of their famous former resident.
It was a Saturday, but the streets were deadly quiet and practically deserted. The unrelenting sun may have had something to do with the lack of residents out and about. My hair was lying limp and sticky across my neck even with my car’s air-conditioning blasting.
We found a parking garage and took a short, but sweaty stroll two blocks to the museum.
The attraction is actually two museums housed separately a street apart. The ticket gets you access to both. Collectively, both museums are called the Lucy-Desi Museum. The DesiluStudios building is dedicated primarily to I Love Lucy. The exhibit started as a 50th Anniversary Tour and traveled the country between 2001- 2002 before settling in its permanent home in Jamestown. The Lucy-Desi museum has been open since 1996 and is a tribute to the personal and public lives of Lucy and Desi.
Mom and I came across Desilu Studios first, so we started there. The entrance is a small gift shop that is bursting with all things I Love Lucy (of course) and we bought our tickets at the desk from a lovely woman who was more than happy to explain the two museums to us. (We hadn’t realized that they were in two separate buildings.) She then directed us through a plain black door to her right.
Immediately upon entering we saw tall, glass display cases against the far wall displaying props and costumes. There’s a high wall on each side forming a sort of hallway to the open main room, with clips, pictures, and descriptions about the start of I Love Lucy. (Originally the concept came from a radio show called “My Favorite Husband” that Lucy had starred in before CBS offered her a TV show. My mother, uber Lucy fan she was, didn't even know that!)
I headed straight for the cases and my mom was caught up watching the show clips and also stopped and picked up a few of the telephones on the walls, which are playing recordings of “My Favorite Husband”. I stopped on my way to the cases to admire a box that was chest height, filled with glittering Emmy awards that I Love Lucy had won.
Seeing a real-life Emmy was thrilling enough, but as I rounded the corner of the wall, again heading for the cases of costumes, I turned and gaped at what was behind it.
It was a beautiful, huge set of the Ricardo’s apartment in all it’s 50’s glory. Although the exhibit description explained that much of it was a recreation, since many prop pieces had been lost through the years, it assured visitors that the set was recreated using meticulous detail. It was as true and accurate to the original set as it could possibly be.
I was impressed with the set re-creation. It was large and done amazingly well. I pulled my mom away from the film clips to show it to her, and she immediately loved it as well. With my mom busily examining the set display, I headed for the costumes and props on the opposite wall. I was delighted to see, amongst other outfits, Lucy’s famous blue polka dotted dress and the “tramp” outfit and cello from episode 6 “The Audition”. (Fans might know that the “Audition” episode is adapted from a vaudeville act created by Lucy and Desi to convince the studios to allow Desi to portray her onscreen husband. The act was a huge success and, of course, the studio agreed to hire Desi as well after only six months of their touring vaudeville show.)
On the other side of the apartment set is another recreation, this one of the Beverly Palms hotel in Hollywood that Lucy and Desi lived in for one season of their show. I, being an uncultured Lucy fan, didn’t know that they once lived in a hotel. My Mom explained to me that the Ricardos moved there during a season that Ricky was starring in a movie in Hollywood. There's a very famous and funny episode that takes place there where Lucy burns her fake nose when meeting William Holden. (Again, I had no idea who that was and had to look him up. He was a very famous actor in the 50’s.)
There are a few exhibits and background information on the Ricardo’s best friends and neighbors Fred and Ethel Mertz (actors William Frawley and Vivian Vance.) One trivia fact that I didn't know (and of course my mom knew) was that although the Metz's were written and portrayed as a much older couple than the Ricardos, Vivian Vance was actually only two years older than Lucille Ball. Vance was a great beauty much like Lucy was, and got her start in movies and modeling before the role that would make her a household name.
We picked our way through the exhibits. There was a lot to see and read, but we could take our time since we had the place almost to ourselves.
Near the end of the exhibit, there was a “Vitameatavegamin” set, where you could pretend to do the commercial just like the famous episode. Even I, someone with casual knowledge of I Love Lucy, knew exactly what that was. That was a cute and special touch. It brings a great perspective to what a powerhouse the show really was. I would be willing to bet that even if someone had never seen an episode of I Love Lucy they’d at least be familiar with the “Vitameatavegamin” episode.
We exited out of the same gift shop we had entered walked down the street to The Lucy-Desi Museum, easy to spot by its black and white awning and sign.
There was a lot to be seen in the Lucy-Desi Museum, but it as much more personal information about Lucy and Desi’s lives before and after meeting and developing the show. Some information was also available about their divorces and respective remarriages, as well as their children Luci and Desi Jr. I actually hadn’t realized they had gotten divorced, and it made me kind of sad. They split in 1960 which was shortly after I Love Lucy had ended. The museum exhibits did assure visitors that Lucy and Desi had remained good friends throughout the rest of their lives, so that made me a little happier.
There were some personal belongings in this museum, including some outfits Lucy wore on her other TV shows and public appearances (I love vintage clothes, so I was especially happy to see them.) Her personal vehicle and family photos with her, Desi, and their children were also spread among the many displays. Clips were playing in this museum too, but of The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy and some of the many variety hours and Broadway plays she starred in. There’s a room filled with autographed posters from the comedians that visit Jamestown every year for the Lucy Comedy Fest in August. (Famous past performers include comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen Degeneres, and Ray Romano)
My mother and I wrapped up our visit with a stop by Lucy’s childhood home. The pamphlet from the museum mentioned the address but warned that it was private property. We wanted to take a look but agreed to keep it quick out of respect for the people that live there. My GPS guided us to Lucy Lane, (it was renamed, of course, in honor of her), a very ordinary dead-end side street just outside town. Any doubts that we had about not finding her exact home were squashed when we pulled up. The owners had painted the garage to mimic Lucy’s famous blue and white dress. We stayed across the street and snapped a photo, but didn’t want to linger so we hightailed it quickly.
The museum pamphlet also gave directions to nearby Lucy Memorial Park, right on the banks of Lake Chautauqua. It’s a moderately sized park with plenty of shade, picnic tables, and a playground. Local folks were having a picnic in one of the pavilions, and when we pulled in I could see a bronze statue of Lucy right at the entrance of the main path.
We took a picture and admired the park, but we were hungry, hot, and exhausted and decided to head home. I was giving the information pack a last once-over when I noticed that it mentioned that Lucy’s remains had been moved recently back to Jamestown from Hollywood by her children, and laid to rest at the “Hunt” family plot (her mother’s maiden name) alongside her mother, sister, and grandparents. The cemetery was on our way out of the town anyway, so we decided we should pay our respects to Lucy and her family.
I pulled my car in the cemetery and my mother and I were sort of at a loss of where to go. There was a vague sign pointing in one direction for Lucy, but it was a good-sized cemetery, confusing with twisting lanes, big trees, and of course, many plots. My mom and I drove around for five minutes but didn’t see any other indication or signs that we were even near Lucy’s grave. We were thinking of leaving until we finally saw another sign with a small arrow. So we parked and started to walk in that direction. It was only a minute later when I saw a red heart painted onto the blacktop. I looked ahead, saw another heart further down, and decided we must be close. I called to my mom and we followed them until they made a left turn up a stone path. I saw “Ball” on a marker and we knew we found her.
Some people had left notes or little trinkets and flowers for her and her family, which was lovely and made me wish we had brought something After a day of learning so much about her life, work, and pioneering presence as a businesswoman in the 50s, I held so much respect for her. I always thought she was great, but I didn’t know much about her until that day. I feel privileged that such a wonderful, world-renowned comedian, actress, and writer lived and grew up in a town not far from where I call my home. Jamestown is a beautiful place with friendly people, but it’s an ordinary town for sure. Lucy was from a standard small town, born to a single mother in a small place from Hollywood or New York City. What she did with her life and legacy is the dream of so many. She’s truly an inspiration and I’m so honored we both are from the same corner of New York.