When my grandparents were first married in 1968, they rented a forest green, two-story home on Highland Avenue in Jamestown, New York. Gramps had just returned from Vietnam, and he was bartending at his friend Sam’s bar–called Pilly’s Harbor–downtown. One evening, while he was having a few beers with friends, Lucille Ball–the Lucille Ball of I Love Lucy–walked in, pulled up a stool and ordered a drink. Gramps doesn’t remember what they talked about anymore (it was too long ago) but he did tell me that she “seemed sad, very sad.”
What was Lucille Ball, a famous actor, comedian and film producer, doing in a small-town bar in Western New York in the late 1960s? Lucille Désirée Ball was born at 69 Stewart Avenue in Jamestown on August 6, 1911 to Henry Durrell Ball and Désirée Evelyn Hunt. Henry and Désirée both descended from a long line of Chautauqua County residents: Désirée’s maternal grandfather, William Cyrus Orcutt, was drafted into the Union Army in 1863 in Hanover, and Henry’s paternal grandfather, Clinton Manross Ball, moved from the state of Vermont to Fredonia in the mid-1800s. The Ball family moved around the country for Henry’s job–he worked as a lineman for Bell Telephone Company–until he contracted typhoid fever and died in 1915 at the age of 27. Lucille was only 3 years old at the time, and while she did not remember her father’s passing, she did recall a bird getting trapped in the house on that “saddest of days.”
After Henry’s death, Désirée returned to New York and married Edward Peterson of Ellicott and Jamestown (of no relation to my Peterson line in Pomfret and Fredonia). Lucille and her younger brother, Fred (b. 1915), lived with Edward’s parents while he and their mother searched for work; Edward’s parents were strict and puritanical, and they stifled Lucille’s creativity and independent spirit during this period. It wasn’t until 1923, when Lucille’s stepfather encouraged her to audition for a chorus line at the age of 12, that she got her first start in showbusiness.
And the rest is history. Lucille attended Drama School in New York City and started working as a model for Hattie Carnegie; later, she moved to Hollywood and starred in a number of small movies, stage productions and radio shows to pay the rent. She met and married actor Desi Arnaz in 1940, and the pair starred in the wildly popular I Love Lucy series on CBS. The series was her “big break,” and everyone in her hometown continued to follow her for the rest of her career. The Dunkirk Evening Observer published announcements on the front page each time Lucille traveled back home to visit her mother or attend a family member’s funeral, and staff writer Erskine Johnson regularly conducted interviews with her for the “In Hollywood” column:
It took 10 years for Lucille Ball to travel five years to stardom. There’s a smooth, concrete highway all the way with only an occasional boulevard stop. “But it’s the toughest five miles,” Lucille says, “that I’ve ever traveled in my life.” With, she added, plenty of stops and detours and barriers and tears.
The story of Lucille Ball’s 10-year fight along those five miles–between the RKO studio in Hollywood and the M-G-M studio in Culver City–is the type of success story Hollywood doesn’t like to talk about. Lucille was looking back at those 10 years in her dressing room at M-G-M, where she’s receiving the year’s greatest star buildup. In less than six months she has been starred in three million-dollar pictures, “DuBarry Was a Lady,” “Best Foot Forward” and “Meet the People.”
Looking back, Lucille said, without bitterness, “Those 10 years were good for me. A wonderful apprenticeship. But sometimes I wondered.” Ten years ago Lucille Ball arrived in Hollywood as a chorus girl via Butter Montana, the John Murray Anderson dramatic school and modeling in New York City. If you have a good memory, you’ll remember her film debut as a showgirl with Eddie Cantor in “Roman Scandals,” which won her a short-lived stock contract in Columbia studio. When Columbia’s stock company was dissolved, Lucille went to work as an extra.
Then came a minor role in “Roberta,” a long-term contract at RKO and Lucille began six of the dizziest years of her life at a studio where they turned out more executives than pictures. With every role at RKO, Lucille’s performances drew more and more praise from the critics. The pictures were terrible, but Lucille was good. Studio executives were just about ready to elevate her to stardom, when the bankers in New York fired every executive on the lot. Lucille figured it was the end, but she was wrong.
“The new regime called me in and said, ‘Miss Ball, you’re going places with us, just give us time to get organized. And we’re raising your salary just to prove that we have faith in you.'” Lucille was walking on air. This was what she had been waiting for. She gladly played more unimportant roles in unimportant films but the few weeks dragged into months. Then, just as studio executives said they were ready to give her hte kind of roles and films she deserved, the New York bankers again let the axe fall on RKO. All the studio executives were replaced.
Well, thought Lucille, this is Hollywood. You have to expect such things. After all, she had another riase. Again she gladly played small roles, and waited patiently for her new bosses to “get organized.” Not once–not twice–but five times she was on the threshold of stardom when her studio bosses were ousted. And five times in six years Lucille was called to the front office, assured she was RKO’s most valuable property, given a raise and promised stardom just as soon as “we get organized.”
On her sixth visit to the RKO front office, the new boss behind the desk was Charles W. Koerner, who had come up from the RKO sales ranks. “I know what you’ve been going through, Lucille,” he said. “What do you want?”
“I want to get our of this studio,” Lucille said. Koerner understood. A few days later Lucille Ball signed a long-term starring contract at M-G-M, just five miles across town from RKO.
So what was Lucille Ball, a famous actor, comedian and film producer, doing in a small-town bar in Western New York in the late 1960s? She was visiting her hometown: a town that followed her every career move in the papers, painted now-famous murals of her across old brick buildings downtown, made her the answer to a 1944-edition of their weekly crossword puzzle and commissioned a statue of her in their local park. I can’t say for certain why she “seemed sad, very sad” that evening in Pilly’s Harbor, but she clearly led a life full of joy and laughter and heartbreak and tears–just like the rest of us.