(Darin Strauss’s article appeared in The New York Times, 7/31; Photo: The New York Times; via Pam Green.)
With her sitcom over and marriage finished, Lucille Ball fulfilled an old dream: a stint on Broadway. It did not go well.
Lucille Ball in the Broadway show “Wildcat.”Credit…Everett Collection
This is the story of how the most famous and talented sitcom star of her era — and maybe of all time — failed on Broadway.
The star was Lucille Ball. The year was 1960. And she was in a tough spot — in a “depressed state of mind,” as she later recalled.
“I Love Lucy” had just ended. Her marriage had too. The last kiss with Desi fell on the last moment of their last episode. His face in her hair; her blubbering through tears: “You’re supposed to say ‘Cut.’” The final clinch. The next day she filed for divorce.
When your marriage has been, in a way, America’s marriage, what do you do after the love crash dives? Lucille Ball didn’t know, at first. Biographers say she slept and cried on a friend’s couch. “What I do is so meaningless, so unimportant,” she sighed after slinking out to see a play starring Vivien Leigh. “Look what she can do.”
This envy pushed her off the sofa: a footlights career, as Ball put it in her autobiography, was the “ambition of my life.” This was an ambition Lucille-watchers could track. At 17 she’d left her upstate New York high school for Broadway, only to be told: “You just don’t have it. Why don’t you go home?” Later attempts had failed too; “I never made it,” she told a reporter in 1960, “and I want to prove myself.”
Lucille Ball was not only a superstar by 1960. (One measure of her popularity: The nation’s reservoirs dipped whenever “I Love Lucy” broke for a commercial. A whole country, flushing as one.) She was also a trailblazer, a female mogul. Desilu Productions, the business empire she split with Desi Arnaz, her ex, owned the most TV-studio space and was “the single biggest filler of television time” in the industry, as Life Magazine put it.
Now she just had to find a play to star in.
I LEARNED ABOUT BALL’S largely forgotten theater bid when putting together my book, “The Queen of Tuesday.” It’s a novel-memoir hybrid about Ball — and also about my grandfather, and the thorny romance between them. The affair is all speculation but most of the rest is verifiable. (It was family legend that my grandfather and she met at a kind of doom-swept party at which Donald Trump’s father had celebrities throw bricks at a beautiful Coney Island landmark, which is the book’s opening scene.)
Writing the book led me really to admire this powerful, brilliant woman. But in telling this next bit, even the most besotted Lucyian treads warily.
Ball wanted to shoulder a Broadway musical, starring in nearly every scene, dancing and belting a slew of difficult numbers. There were only two issues with that: she was not a good dancer and she was not a good singer. “Not even in the bathtub,” she recalled in that autobiography, “Love, Lucy.” And yet the show she chose, “Wildcat,” required that she both croon and “just about climb walls.”
Or it would require that. Eventually. A play can suffer all kinds of mutations when the most popular star in America joins (not to say hijacks) the production. The writer of “Wildcat,” N. Richard Nash, had conceived of it as a drama — the story of “a woman in dungarees” who swings into a Southwestern oil town with dreams of striking it rich. Unlike the heroines of other plays Ball had read and rejected, Wildcat “Wildy” Jackson, “the cat with more bounce to the ounce,” as she put it in her autobiography, was the kind of “rough-talking, and unbelievably energetic” character she wanted to play.
A phone call from Arnaz — I love this thing! — and, $400,000 later: “It was all packaged and literally taken out of my hands,” Nash told a writer. “The final product had nothing to do with my original intentions.”
In 1960 attendance on Broadway was starting to wobble. And Lucille Ball was the star of all stars. Celestial bodies of such magnitude pull things into their orbit, so why not the theater world? The posters went for the obvious: “Broadway Loves Lucy!” You can hear, even now, the whir of the old calculator, the swish of receipts.