Lucy Desi Museum and Desilu Studios
Jamestown, New York
The Lucy Desi Museum and Desilu Studios preserve the memory of Jamestown's favorite daughter, Lucille Ball, and her nutty Cuban first husband, Desi Arnaz (aka Ricky Ricardo). You could argue that it's hardly necessary; streaming video will ensure that teevee's most beloved comedienne will never fade from public view, even though she died a generation ago in 1989.
Lucy worked in Hollywood for over 50 years, leaving behind truckloads of comic props, costumes, awards, and mementos -- so many, in fact, that her museum is split into two different collections: the Desilu Studios (which focuses exclusively on her hit TV show, I Love Lucy) and the Lucy-Desi Museum (which covers everything else). And even that's not enough; the staff routinely cycles displays in and out, bringing back old favorites and adding new discoveries.
"The archives are right next door, and we're always going down there," said Steve Neilans, the museums' marketing guy. "We'll find something, watch an episode, zoom into the picture, and say, 'Oh, that's what that is.'"
A good example of Lucy archeology is the saxophone on display seen in I Love Lucy episode #38. "Lucy does not want to be left home while Ricky tours with his band," explains an accompanying sign, describing the plot. "You can still see some red lipstick on the mouthpiece that was left from the Queen of Comedy."
Visitors are dazzled right inside the entry door with a showcase of Lucy's many glittering gold Emmy awards. There's an "I Love Lucy Bedroom Suite" that viewers in 1953 could buy for $198 (it was donated by a deceased fan) and meticulous recreations of the sets used for Lucy and Ricky's apartments in New York and Hollywood, "where Lucy set her nose on fire trying to disguise herself from William Holden" (episode #115).
Steve told us that with TV's habit of recycling props, it's possible that some of the kitchen appliances or lamps may have been part of the original show. We were surprised to see that the sets weren't built in black and white.
Interactive exhibits in the Studios allow visitors to reenact Lucy's famous Vitameatavegamin commercial (episode #31), which can be viewed on an old black and white TV set -- or dress up as Lucy and her pal Ethel as they try to keep pace with an accelerating candy factory assembly line (episode #37). Steve cheerfully cranked up the motor and fake chocolates flew at us like a 4-D terror ride. One wall is filled with a photo of an I Love Lucy studio audience from the perspective of the performers, enlarged to life-size. Pretend you're on TV with Lucy!
The atmosphere on the museum side is more sedate, with oil portraits of the Arnaz family that once hung in their Beverly Hills mansion, and Lucy's Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded to her by Bush 41. Exhibits offer glimpses of their private lives: Lucy "would play backgammon for hours" while Desi "spent a lot of time at the track." Visitors can listen to stories told by Lucy's childhood pals, and readings from Desi's autobiography, titled, "A Book." A display of TV Guides features all 36 covers with Lucy's face, and exhibits pay tribute to her less-loved Hollywood films such as Mame (a musical flop) and Stone Pillow (where she played a bag lady).
But there's no avoiding the First Couple of Comedy's innate goofiness for long. Showcases feature the bunny ears worn by Lucy during her appearance on Circus of the Stars and her mugging commercials for Milton Bradley games such as Pivot Pool. Desi's burnt-orange leisure suit is displayed along with his oil painting of a Teddy Bear and the hat that he wore when he led a conga line on Saturday Night Live.
Outside, Jamestown -- which now also calls itself "Lucytown" -- keeps up the consecration. Signs and banners are everywhere, and anyone you ask can give directions to the museum. Five giant murals cover the walls of downtown buildings, each depicting a scene from a favorite I Love Lucy episode.
We'd visited a smaller incarnation of the museum years ago, and although we detected a bit of interim image burnishing (no more giant photo blow-up of Lucy with her teeth painted black), the quantity and quality of exhibits should satisfy any fan of Lucy or TV history. We were impressed by the lasting popularity of a celebrity whose signature show ended production in 1957. "Look," said Steve, pointing to one of the Studios' I Love Lucy viewing stations. "There's somebody right there, just sitting and watching, watching."