WHY I LOVED LUCY – GARRY ARMSTRONG

I’ve got the mid-winter blues. It’s only January, so it’s not nearly the end of it yet. I need to perk up.

LUCILLE-BALL

Melancholy. Melancholy Serenade. Serenade of the Bells. The Bells of St. Mary. A silly word link game I play to lighten things. Suddenly, it reminds me of another time, an assignment more than three decades ago.

The assignment? To cover Lucille Ball’s arrival in Boston. The nation’s favorite red-head was visiting her daughter, Lucy Arnaz, who was opening in a pre-Broadway show.

It was pushing 9 pm, another long day. I had the end of summer blues.  Lucy finally arrived at Logan Airport, surrounded by her entourage and a gaggle of media.

I hung back, beckoning with my TV smile and waited for things to quiet down. I was looking down at my feet for a long moment when I heard the familiar voice. “What’s the matter, fella, long day?”, Lucille Ball inquired as I looked up, face to face with that very familiar face.

We smiled at each other. Real smiles. Not the phony ones. I didn’t realize it but Lucy had already cued my camera crew and things were rolling along. I’m not sure who was doing the interview.  Mostly we chatted about the “glamour” of TV, celebrity, long working days and Boston traffic.

I signaled the crew to shoot cut-aways, beating Lucy by a second. She winked. We shook hands and Lucy gave me an unexpected peck on the cheek … and another wink as she walked away with her entourage.

Lucy showFast forward to the next afternoon and the end of a formal news conference. Lucy seemed tired as she answered the last question about the enduring popularity of “I Love Lucy” reruns.

I was just staring and marveling at her patience. She caught the look on my face and gave me a wry smile. As the room emptied out, Lucy beckoned me to stay.

We waited until all the camera crews left. She offered me a scotch neat and thanked me for not asking any dumb questions during the news conference.

I asked if she’d gotten any sleep and she flashed that wry smile again along with a “so what’s the problem?” look. I muttered something about being burned out and a little blue because summer was fleeting. She laughed. A big hearty laugh. Her face lit up as she pinched my cheeks.

Lucy showed me some PR stills from her “I Love Lucy” days and sighed. I showed her a couple of my PR postcards and she guffawed. Another round of scotches neat.

Lucy talked quietly about how proud she was of her daughter. I just listened. She smiled as she realized I was really listening.

A PR aide interrupted and Lucy looked annoyed. We stood up. I reached out to shake her hands but she hugged me. She pinched my cheeks again and gave me that smile again as she walked away.

The blues just vanished. How about that!

31 thoughts on “WHY I LOVED LUCY – GARRY ARMSTRONG

  1. What a spectacular encounter. She always seemed very real to me. She knew you were too and obviously appreciated it and your reticence and respect. You have enjoyed some very special and rare moments with the “real” person behind the persona. What a blessing! What delightful memories to look back on. I can’t thank you enough for sharing this one!

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    • Covert, thanks! Yes, we CONNECTED! We were both very tired at the airport that night. No doubt, Lucy was more tired than me but she picked me up, She must’ve seen my face beyond the media horde. The bond, I think, was “going on fumes”. What a nice lady!

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  2. Great story. As you know,Lucy was a family friend, and I also worked for her as a publicist at Desilu. One day, I was outside in the studio when she came by and asked me, “Can you use some dresses?” I said that I could. She ushered me into her dressing room and started going through her closet, pulling out dress after dress until she had a huge pile for me to carry to my car. Her first cousin, Cleo, whom she always introduced as her sister because she had been raised by Lucy’s mom, was my best friend. My boss was Cleo’s husband at the studio. Lucy was so incredibly talented as a comedienne and always was willing to learn from the best ones. She was truly one of a kind.

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    • YOU are so on target about Lucy as a person. She was so generous.
      That airport interview scenario really was the pits. It was a very humid summer evening and it HAD been a very long day where it almost didn’t matter who was the subject of interest. Your brain and body were dragging, you wanted to be home in your jammies and maybe watching an “I Love Lucy” rerun. It was also the time of day, forgive me, when people who didn’t use deodorant — stood out in the crowd.

      All of this preoccupied me as Lucy and entourage arrived.. I immediately saw the tired look on her face beneath the bright, professional smile. I also noticed how she summoned strength from the tired cross-country traveller to the spunky red-headed legend. I recall being impressed by all of this in a blur of seconds as she greeted the media horde. Even at that late hour, it was a bit of a frenzy with fans battling the media with cries of “Lucy! Lucy! Lucy”. I was both spectator and reporter. I waited for a shot at interviewing Lucy, thinking she would blow past me and was looking down at my feet when she greeted me. I know it sounds so very corny but we must’ve had one of those out of body moments when she saw ME. Tired star sees tired local reporter. Lucy’s compassion kicked in for me. It rarely happens that way. Usually, the celeb, understandably, just wants to get the hell out of that situation. Not Lucy. One of a kind.

      My Mom was a lifelong Lucy fan. I could almost sense her beaming over the phone when I called to tell her my Lucy story.

      We ended our phone chat with Mom saying, “I Love Lucy”.

      (Robert Osborne, the late “Turner Classic Movies” host used to tell wonderful anecdotes about Lucille Ball’s generosity. Osborne credited Lucy with guiding him from being “just another B actor” to find his strength as a movie lover and historian. Lucy’s counsel led Osborne to his greatest success as the standout host of Turner Classic Movies.)

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    • Becky, thank you. It’s hard not to be perceptive in those scenarios unless you’re blinded by the “Get the Star interview”. I wasn’t above that fray – just more sensitive because I felt so tired given my LONG day. You would have to be very insensitive or starstruck.
      I think my awareness of those moments gave me a link to some of the celebrities.
      Marilyn has always mentioned how tired (and maybe haggard) Charlton “Call me “Chuck” Heston looked when he greeted her with a big smile and a little peck (I think).
      The celebs in those days logged lots of miles and myriad local interviews when promoting their films, books, or shows. They HAD to be so tired even though it was part of the job. Most detested that part of the job. One celeb, I forget who, told me he/she felt like a vacuum cleaner salesperson when – on the road – peddling their product. You don’t really noticed that when you see stars on the late night talk shows. They’re all smiley and buoyant. Besides, those late night shows are the peak moments on their PR stints and, frequently, they are friendly with the hosts.

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        • Becky, thanks. Keep that in mind when you’re watching your next late night talk show. Any talk show for that matter where celebs are being interviewed. Is the host/ess really listening or checking out the cards with prepared questions? They usually say, “..Ya know, somebody told me….” and then go on with some insipid query.

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            • Becky, Carson and Steve Allen were my favorite “Tonight” show hosts. Steverino was my favorite. I loved his skits as “Biff Allen, Sports reporter”. Steve would insanely crack up into giggles. Allen was a prolific musician. Pianist, composer, actor, writer, pundit. One of a kind. I was so sorry when he left the show. I didn’t care for Jack Paar. Johnny Carson was so refreshing. he actually did interviews, promos and “sig ID’s” for our college radio station.

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  3. She can still make me laugh at her reruns. She is such a beauty too and sounds like a really nice person. That must have made your day Garry. What a memory.
    Leslie ❤

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    • Leslie, I still love Lucy. We don’t watch the reruns because..because we have other things but I love watching Lucy in old movies like “Stage Door” (’39/RKO). Lucy, a young comic pistol, holds her own with Katherine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Eve Arden and other legends.
      Lucy is also sharp in “Without Love” (’45/MGM) with Hepburn, Tracy and Keenan Wynn.
      MGM didn’t know what to do with her.
      One of Lucy’s best starring roles is in a film called “5 Came Back” (’39/RKO). She’s a wise-cracking Jean Harlow type opposite Chester Morris. The film was remade in the 50’s as “Back From Eternity” with Anita Ekberg in the Lucy role. Anita had a bigger chest but nothing else to compare with our favorite redhead.
      I just remembered “Yours, Mine and Ours” — 60’s comedy about a widowed man and woman with mega families who hit it off. Lucy and Henry Fonda. A really enjoyable film with Lucy at her peak and Fonda, as always, just wonderful. Check it out – if you haven’t seen t. It’s run frequently on the tube.

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    • Thanks, Slmret. It’s hard to forget those stories since I’m such an old movies fan boy. I see some people on the TV screen and my mind says, “Hey, wait a minute–remember when we met him-her..?”

      And, it’s not just the stars. I met a lot of memorable character actors/actresses. Ruth Donnelly–who used to play the ditzy friend in the 30’s WB comedies headed up by Hepburn, Rogers and Lombard.
      Ruth (“Call me Ruthie, Dear”) was so flattered I remembered her she shared many stories about life in Hollywood’s ‘golden years’). Donnelly was as familiar to audiences as Thomas Mitchell, Charles Coburn, Zazu Pitts, and S.Z. Sakall. Ruthie’s stories were delightful. She was living in a dingy, one room Manhattan apartment in 1969 but it could’ve been the penthouse suite in Los Angeles.

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    • Sue, like you!
      I found a kinship — when able to suppress my own fanboy self (great acting effort, I must say) and just relax with the celebs. They always had a sense of when you were being yourself and not just another local mic holder with prepared questions.
      I frequently had to battle with the newsroom suits to get those interviews. They weren’t impressed, for instance, the day legendary director George Cukor showed up for an interview. The lobby receptionist, “Garry, there’s some old guy named Kewker her to see you. Doesn’t look too important. Want me to send him packing, hon?” I had to grab the elevator and/or race down three flights of stairs before Cukor exited. He looked bemused as I offered my apologies and told him what a genuine thrill it was to meet him. I managed to get him a good studio and we did a wonderful interview with Cukor sharing many stories about Louie B. Mayer, Garbo, Hepburn, Tracy, Gable, etc. I just let him talk – without any questions. When he paused for tea (I knew what kind and how he liked it), he gave me a smile – ‘thanks for this–how did you know?’ look. I just smiled and asked how he had gotten along with Gable. Movie lore has it that Gable “felt uneasy” working with Cukor because the director was gay. It was a ‘known within the industry’ thing. Cukor was the initial director on “Gone With The Wind”. Gable fretted that the film needed more of “a man’s man grip” to Louie Mayer and David Selznick. They caved and replaced Cukor with Victor Fleming, one of Gable’s drinking pals. Decades later, Cukor offered a small wince and “It’s the nature of he business” reply — one that I’ve heard many times.
      I countered with – “I understand. I have similar issues in my career — regarding racism and my sometimes acid attitude with executive suits”. Cukor’s smile brightened and he continued chatting about Hollywood as a place to work rather than his impressive body of work.
      It’s that type of bonding that got me some of those interviews. Person to person stuff instead of prepared questions on an index card.

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        • Sue, Dick Cavett used to draw stars like Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis for repeated visits. Those ladies couldn’t abide talk shows with idle chit chat that lasted maybe four or five minutes and they were ‘politely’ bid goodbye. Cavett devoted his entire show to one guest and let them talk. I wasn’t always thrilled with his “choir boy” approach but it was cute and apparently worked with celebs who didn’t want to swap a few cheap jokes, pitch their vehicle and then walk off.
          When I worked at ABC Network News, The Cavett show taped nearby. I’d sneak out of work when I had the opportunity and walk a very short distance to where Cavett was taping. I caught part of one his Bette Davis interviews, standing in the dark — at the back of the theater. What a thrill. I had to remind myself to get back to work — with a good excuse — if had been away too long. Not a smart thing to do.

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    • Tas, yes. I used to roll my eyes watching some of the standard celeb interviews on TV. They were so damn bland, repetitive and uninteresting. I saw some of the reaction from the stars who clearly were distancing themselves from any intimacy with the interviewer. Some of he interviewers gushed over their guests. Had to be a bit embarrassing.. It’s one thing to be a fan, another to be a ‘journalist’ or host. Example: Almost every time Robert Mitchum was interviewed, the ‘savvy’ mic holder would ask Mitchum about his arrest and jailing for “Mary-Jane” use in the 40’s. It was old, old, old stale news. But the interviewer seemed to think it was new and a “sharp” thing to ask. Mitchum was always gracious but, golly, very bored with the tired question. I didn’t ask Mitch THAT question. Ultimately, he wanted to know WHY I didn’t ask that question. I parried with, “I don’t do stupid questions”. Mitch with a smile, “Cool, Dude”.
      As I’ve said, I usually was a fan but forced myself to repress ‘fanboy’ and keep my professionalism – just to do a good job. Marilyn’s been around me when I’ve gone all fanboy — the day we spotted Patricia Neal on Martha’s Vineyard. But we were on vacation and I felt okay just to be staring fanboy – not on the job. Eventually, we has an acquaintanceship with Ms. Neal. She shared more with Marilyn than me on the topic of “Men”.

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