Full disclosure: I still watch the universally beloved I Love Lucy every day. No matter how many times I see each episode (I lost count years ago), I always laugh out loud at the comedic antics of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, and the ultimate “second bananas”: Vivian Vance and William Frawley as Ethel and Fred Mertz. With 180 episodes to choose from (“Lucy Does a TV Commercial,” “Ricky Asks For a Raise,” “Job Switching,” “LA at Last,” “Lucy’s Italian Movie,” “Country Club Dance,” and so many more classics), the pickings are bountiful. In the often tumultuous world we live in, there is no better way to forget about your troubles.
Second full disclosure: I have been wanting to visit Jamestown, New York, Lucy’s hometown, for over 20 years now. It finally happened just in time for The Lucille Ball Comedy Festival (which recently made its glorious return live after a two-year COVID-induced absence).
During our 430 mile road trip (each way) to Jamestown, we never did run into Aunt Martha for some tasty pecan pralines. We did not stop at a rickety motel for some stale cheese sandwiches and a room that shook when the train went by. We did not see the Borden twins, “Teensy” and “Weensy,” or Tennessee Ernie Ford. Nor did we end up behind bars, or visit Ethel’s father (who, if you do the math, was about the same age as her hubby Fred!). But we did make our first official stop in Lancaster, Pennsylvania for a glimpse of life in Pennsylvania Dutch Country. In the simplicity of the lifestyle of the Amish community, it reminded me of another classic episode of I Love Lucy“Pioneer Women”, when Ricky and Fred bet Lucy and Ethel that they cannot live the same pioneer existence as their ancestors.
Once we got to Hershey, Pennsylvania (after stopping off at the Wilbur Chocolate Company in Lititz, Pennsylvania), I certainly don’t have to tell you what episode of I Love Lucy came to mind as we enjoyed our stay at Hershey Lodge and our day at Hershey Park (including a tour of the Hershey Chocolate Factory). Two words: Speed it up!
Five hours (and 243 miles) after Hershey, there we were in the small town of Jamestown which, of course, is on the map, so to speak, because of Lucille Ball. The home she grew up in, in fact, was only about one mile from our hotel. Once you take the prerequisite picture, there is a an area in back loaded with an endless array of I Love Lucy and Lucille Ball souvenirs that, well, you just have to load up on. And, no, this did not include John Wayne’s footprints from Grauman’s Chinese Theater, Richard Widmark’s grapefruit, or that big slab of cheese!
Heading into the hub of Jamestown, only a few short miles away, the immediate observation is Lucille Ball, who is everywhere. On that first night, there we were — my wife Jodi, my daughter Morgan and myself — sitting outside amongst the dozens of other fans watching three classic episodes of I Love Lucy.
Featured at The Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum are the endless costumes, sets, props, films, pictures, awards, jewelry, homes and furniture showcasing Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz). And, in a second location, are recreations of the Ricardos apartment in New York and their hotel room in Hollywood from I Love Lucy, and that classic setting where Lucy did the Vitameatavegamin commercial. It’s so tasty too!
On that first evening of the three-night comedy showcases, Margaret Cho did her standup to a packed crowd, followed by Jeff Foxworthy, and, in a third showing, Saturday Night Lives Kevin Nealon, Rob Schneider and David Spade. Given the family style comedy of Lucille Ball and her I Love Lucy partners in laughter, there was an easy pick who was the most compatible of the five: Jeff Foxworthy. Runner up: Kevin Nealon. But the true “icing on the cake” at Jamestown was The National Comedy Center, which asks for your personal information upon arriving for a true interactive experience. As I walked around the National Comedy Center, I felt like it was immediately targeted to my personal tastes. Every bit of the comedy I enjoy with the artists I truly love was right in front of me.
Since its opening in 2018, the National Comedy Center was named “Best New Museum” in the country in 2020 by USA Today, one of the “World’s Greatest Places” by TIME magazine, and one of “100 Reasons to Love America” by People magazine. Journey Gunderson, the Executive Director of the National Comedy Center, was recognized by Blooloop, the news source for visitor attractions, as one of the Top Museum Influencers in the world.
Gunderson also serves as Executive Director of Jamestown New York’s Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum.
“I was hired for this role in January 2011, which was when the board of directors and I discussed our intention to build this national comedy center,” noted Journey Gunderson. “It was the 100th birthday year celebration of Lucille Ball and it seemed like the right moment to make good on Lucille Ball’s own recommendation and vision for her hometown as the destination for celebrating and studying comedy as an art form.”
“No one has done this; there was no ‘Cooperstown’ of comedy,’” she said. “And just like Cleveland is to the Rock Hall, there was no place like that for comedic artists and their work. Our goal here is to celebrate comedy in all forms and maintain its heritage.”
Dozens of exhibits at The National Comedy Center using cutting-edge personalized technology take fans on an interactive journey through comedic history. Included is vaudeville, film, television and stage; from slapstick and stand-up to satire to edgy, and everything in between. Along with the endless footage of your favorite comedians and performers, guests can try their hand at cartooning, comedy writing, and live stand-up, among other options. You can read a script of a TV series like I Love Lucy, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and M*A*S*H and watch the actors perform the dialogue right in front of you. You can choose you favorite comedic artists and trace their history and connection to others. And, if your taste is a bit more on the R-rated side, there is even a “blue room” to visit.
Recently introduced at The National Comedy Center is the Carl Reiner: Keep Laughing exhibit, featuring never-before-seen archival materials spanning Reiner’s career as a writer, director, producer, author, and performer.
“Before The National Comedy Center opened, I spoke with Carl about the concept and the mission and he absolutely endorsed and bought into the idea that the country was missing this cultural institution on a national level,” noted Gunderson. “His extensive archive allowed us to explore his tremendous comedy legacy.”
Officially launching this Saturday, August 13, meanwhile, is the immersive Johnny Carson Experience, showcasing the artists and personalities who were featured on The Tonight Show.
“For 30 years, Johnny Carson dominated late night. This was appointment television that truly influenced people’s lives,” Gunderson said. “If you did The Tonight Show when Johnny was on it, you life was never the same again. There has been nothing like it ever since.”
“When we designed The National Comedy Center, we naturally targeted the fans of the format (including the sub-categories within it),” noted Gunderson. “But we also focused on the people who might not already be the so-called comedy connoisseurs or aficionados. Regardless of your history of the art form, this is a museum that will speak to you, entertain you, and make you laugh. And it will make you appreciate what comedic artists are actually doing behind the curtain.”
Heading back home, I thought of those moments on the road in I Love Lucy. I remember the admiration of the neighbors to Desi Arnaz as Ricky when the Ricardos and the Mertzes returned from Hollywood. I recall when Lucy missed the boat as the gang set sail for Europe. I smile when I think of Lucy and Ethel heading to Florida in the car with guest star Elsa Lanchester, whom they think might be an escaped hatchet murderer. And I am proud to proclaim that I love Lucy…and I bet you do too!
Next time, though, I do want to stop for some pecan pralines on the way back to Jamestown!