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.
And so Nash’s drama had become (as Ball described it in her autobiography) “a musical with some really great songs by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh” — at that time, a new writing team. Another renovation: the protagonist, a 20-something who cared for her teenage sister, had — presto-changeo — morphed into a woman on the run from 50.
Problems trailed the production from the first. In rehearsals Ball suffered from exhaustion, checked into a hospital, had trouble remembering the script. And her vocal coach suggested she confine her singing to only “one note, while the orchestra played the melody,” Coleman said in Kathleen Brady’s biography, “Lucille.”
Not that she wasn’t committed: she leased an apartment on East 69th Street, and, though it was only a rental, she knocked down walls onto a view of both the Hudson and East rivers; the plan was to give Broadway five years.
But as the queen of the sitcom, she had grown used to majestic yuks; when it became clear the show wasn’t going to produce royal-size laughs, she decided to make her own. An onstage dog had an accident one matinee not long after opening night, and Ball grabbed a stage-prop broom and addressed the audience. “It’s in the small print in my contract,” she said, Lucy Ricardo-style. “I have to clean up the dog [expletive]!”
Another night, her character asked a supporting player, “Say, do you know a fellow named Fred Mertz?” The joke got a laugh (Mertz being the name of her “I Love Lucy” neighbor), but made no sense: Who in the play’s 1912 Texas border town would know Mertz, and why would she ask? Ball was also given to holding up her hand to the audience when she lost her place in the dialogue or lyrics, and would start over.
Needless to say these antics broke cardinal rules of the theater. But it wasn’t the amateurish touches, nor even the bad reviews that doomed “Wildcat” (Variety: “Failure,” New York Herald-Tribune: “The rueful silences are many”). The show was a commercial hit. People wanted Lucy. This was the closest they’d get. But the production sank anyway, thanks to its original sin: relying on a miscast non-theater actress to carry a musical.
The gig was too grueling. “The most physically strenuous of my career,” Ball would later say. She caught colds, had crying spells, broke two fingers; she sprained her ankle three times, pulled a tendon, and sweated off 19 pounds; she came down with a virus and went on hiatus while she recovered at the beach. Then she fainted onstage. Then she fainted onstage another time — and the production set up an oxygen tank for her in the wings. Then she fainted again. It happened during a number called “Tippy Tippy Toes”; a castmate tried to catch her and broke a wrist. By that point in the performance, Lucille’s understudy had gone home …
All the success and popularity in the world can’t save a misbegotten idea. Maybe there’s a moral here, a general lesson for 21st-century theater. However much admiration Hollywood stars have for Broadway — and however much profit stage producers might have gained in luring a Lucille Ball to their relatively runtish world — identifiable triumph in one medium may actually undermine work in another. Talent is not necessarily transitive.
And yet, I still find Ball’s effort admirable. In 1986, when Ronald Reagan gave her the Kennedy Center award — the highest honor America offers its performers — Walter Matthau introduced her with a line quoted in numerous obits and biographies: “There’s no dream she wouldn’t reach for.” He added: “And no fall she wouldn’t take.”
Darin Strauss is the author, most recently, of “Half a Life.” His book, “The Queen of Tuesday,” comes out on Aug. 18 from Random House.