Lucille Ball was an archivist's dream.
She saved everything, including the stationery from the Detroit hotel where she honeymooned with Desi Arnaz.
The late comedian had so many scrapbooks that daughter Lucie Arnaz is building a special closet in her Brentwood home to hold them all.
"My mother's things started to overwhelm me," says Arnaz, who began sifting through them shortly after Lucy died April 26, 1989, at age of 77. "I don't think there's a hope chest anywhere big enough to hold all this stuff."
Ball's memorabilia has found a home in a new attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood in Universal City. Officially called "Lucy: A Tribute," the attraction is not a ride, but a 2,200-square-foot museum in which the life of Lucy is shown through costumes, photos, clips from her TV shows, bound scripts, Emmys, home movies and re-creations of both the original "I Love Lucy" set and the corner of Lucy's real-life living room where she played countless games of backgammon.
Inside, the building is shaped like a heart, just like the one that appeared at the beginning of every episode of "I Love Lucy," and there is a big red heart smack in the middle of the black marble floor.
Opening March 22, the new Lucy exhibit is part of a multimillion-dollar expansion of the studios' lower lot that will culminate June 1 in the opening of the new $36-million ride, "E.T.'s Adventure."
(A new special-effects show, called "The World of Cinemagic," also opens Friday, as does the park's revamped transportation system, which includes a shorter, zippier tram ride and a quarter-mile-long escalator linking the upper lot and the newly developed lower area.)
Unlike the "E.T." attraction, which will fill a mammoth, 60,000-square-foot sound stage, the Lucy tribute is on a human, not an intergalactic, scale.
Basically, it is a building people can walk through, lingeringly, if they are among the late redhead's hordes of admirers, or quickly, if the kids are threatening to go limp.
"If you're really a fan, you can be in Lucy heaven," says project manager Ed Olsen. Among the choicest artifacts is the one-page premise, registered 40 years ago with Screenwriters Guild, for a radio or TV show about an ordinary housewife and her Latin musician husband, whose happy marriage is marred only by "her desire to get into show business and his equally strong desire to keep her out."
The resultant "I Love Lucy," which originally ran from 1951 to 1957, was so popular in its heyday that some stores closed their doors Monday nights because so many Americans stayed home guffawing at their black-and-white TV sets. Since Desi insisted that the shows be filmed, not blurrily kinescoped as was standard practice, and because the shows were masterpieces of physical comedy, the 179 original episodes continue to be recycled around the world, creating new generations of Lucy fans.
Intimacy and elegance are the desired effects of the $1.4 million project, says Olsen, although the attraction is not without its bells and whistles. One high-tech feature is an interactive video game called "California Here We Come."
The game is based on several "I Love Lucy" episodes in which the Ricardos and their friends, Ethel and Fred Mertz, make their first trip from New York to California. Up to six players at a time can test their mastery of "I Love Lucy" minutiae, advancing across an electronic map of the United States by answering questions such as: "What was Lucy's maiden name?" Answer incorrectly and your electronic car overheats.
But the core of the exhibit are the images of Lucy and her things, from her early years as a platinum-blond starlet to her 1985 lifetime achievement award from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
"None of the memorabilia has been fabricated," says Olsen. "They are all originals." There are certain gaps that will inevitably disappoint aficionados who know chapter and verse of Ball's work. Desi's conga drum is there, along with Little Ricky's smaller one. But gone forever--broken or simply lost in prop-department purgatory--is the bottle that held an alcohol-laced tonic (actually apple pectin) that Lucy sipped until hilariously tongue-tied in the Vitameatavegamin episode of "I Love Lucy."
Most of the personal items are on loan from Ball's family, which began discussions with Universal about some sort of memorial shortly after her death. "I didn't want to build a small shrine to my parents' memory in my living room," says Arnaz, who describes the wrenching process of going through her mother's drawers and closets, deciding the fate of every Q-tip, as "horrific and wonderful and comical."
"I think we've personally stocked five hospices in Los Angeles with linens," she says. She laboriously catalogued the items to be kept, grappling with such dilemmas as determining the replacement value for insurance purposes of such irreplaceable bits of TV history as the costume jewelry that glittered on Lucy's Gypsy fortune-teller costume. The jewelry will be on display at Universal. The costume has disappeared into what project coordinator Bernadette Bowman refers to as "prop Narnia."
Bowman is the resident Lucy expert, a lifetime admirer who dresses as her wacky heroine every Halloween. "I can't remember to buy eggs at the supermarket, but I can you tell you in which episode of 'I Love Lucy' she wears a particular pair of earrings," Bowman says.
For her, the high point of the project occurred while she and Olsen were going through one of the outdoor closets at Ball's Beverly Hills home. Bowman saw a royal blue formal suit, an oversized version of the kind maestros wear. And her Lucy sense began to tingle. Bowman tried on the jacket.
"I put my hands in what looked like the pockets, and they turned out to be the seal flippers from the Professor routine," she recalls. She looked inside the jacket, and there was a narrow pocket for a cello bow.
She started jumping up and down, yelling at Olsen, "Rosebud! Rosebud! "We found Rosebud!"
Bowman had found the original costume Lucy wore as the Professor, a vagabond musician (actually Lucy Ricardo in disguise) whose sole desire is to play the cello in the Ricky Ricardo Orchestra. The classic bit was in the pilot for "I Love Lucy," filmed at the Arnazes' own expense because the networks insisted nobody would go for a series about an all-American girl married to a guy with a Cuban accent.
To prepare for the Professor routine, Ball had sequestered herself in a room in the Hotel del Coronado with Buster Keaton, the master whom she credited with teaching her the secrets of physical comedy, including the primacy of props.
At first, not everyone agreed with Bowman that the unlabelled costume was the original Professor suit. But she successfully made her case. "I'm such a Nancy Drew about Lucy," Bowman says proudly. She showed the doubters a telltale double row of stitches at the sides of the pants.
"Lucy was pregnant with Lucie when she wore the costume for the pilot. But when she repeated the routine during an episode of the series, she had had Lucie, she was thinner, and the pants had to be taken in."
Olsen and his staff have gone about their task with the knowledge that there are people out there who know more than they strictly need to about Lucy's collected works. In reproducing the Ricardos' New York apartment living room from the first season of the series, they have paid meticulous attention to detail, always aware, says Bowman, that "people have a photographic memory for that show."
As Olsen points out, everything on the set was gray, except for the people, the furniture and the props. "Rumor has it that even Ricky's newspaper was gray," Olsen says. The show's cinematographer, Karl Freund, who had shot such films as "Camille," used a special optical device to determine how the scene would look in black and white. A painter stood by, ready to slap any discordant element with a more pleasing shade of gray.
Another contributor to the attraction is Michael Stern, 30, whose personalized license plate still declares him Lucy's No. 1 fan. Stern, who works as a production assistant for Viacom, first met Ball when she was at Universal filming the series, "Here's Lucy," with Gale Gordon. Stern, who was 12 1/2, approached Lucy's mother Dede, who introduced him to Ball backstage. She became a second mother to him, Stern says, often giving him sound personal advice he might not have listened to from his own parents.
The best counsel she gave him, Stern says, was to become something more than a Lucy groupie. She got him aside when he was still a teen-ager, he recalls, "and she told me, ' Be my No. 1 fan. I like you. But get a job. Get a life.' "
He did. The job was in the linen department at the May Co. in North Hollywood. "One day Lucy came over the hill in her Rolls-Royce with her friend Mary Wickes," Stern says. "Lucy spent $600 on linens that day. I still have the receipts."
Ball taught him to play backgammon, which she did at all hours of the day. "A couple of times she cheated," Stern reveals. He was also with her when she was doing the Joan Rivers show and someone came to Lucy's dressing room to tell her Nancy Reagan would like to see Lucy now. "OK, send her in," the comic said.
Over the years, Stern invested in Lucy posters, photos and other memorabilia. She also gave him mementos. Most valued is a reminder of the time she broke her leg on the ski slopes in 1974. "About 10 years ago," says Stern, "she found her cast in a closet. She said, 'Michael, do you want this or should I throw it away?' When she gave it to me, she said, 'Now you've got the cast of 'I Love Lucy'!"
Universal declined to borrow the cast but will exhibit other rarities from Stern's collection, including "The Lucy Show" board game.
Inevitably, the attraction focuses on Lucy, whose popularity has skyrocketed since her death. But the late Desi Arnaz is also a presence, despite the fact that he and Lucy fought even as they were achieving TV immortality and divorced in 1960. Desi beams through the home movies, which Olsen describes as "just like anybody else's home movies except you recognize the faces." Among the Desi memorabilia: Hand-scored original music that Lucie Arnaz found in his guitar case after his death in 1986.
Arnaz does not hide her anger about the portrayal of her father as a boozing philanderer in the recent CBS TV movie, "Lucy & Desi: Before the Laughter." She and actor husband Laurence Luckinbill are completing a musical about Desi that she hopes will give a truer, more balanced picture of her father.
Bowman says she is glad the Universal exhibit documents Desi's business acumen and other positive aspects of his career. "He was a genius," Bowman says. "JFK cheated, too," she adds.
Arnaz has nothing but praise for Olsen and his staff. She was consulted at every turn, she says, even as to the nature of Lucy souvenirs. "I said, 'No toilet paper, please," she recalls, with a laugh.
"Believe it or not, we still have a ton (of Lucy and Desi items) left," Arnaz says. There is enough, in fact, to fill yet another Lucy museum, to be opened next year in Jamestown, N.Y., near the tiny town of Celeron, where the legend was born.