Lucy-Desi Comedy Center to Expand

By Mary Heyl

What event would bring such celebrities as Jerry Seinfeld, Nick Offerman, Melissa Rivers, and Regis Philbin to Western New York?

The Lucille Ball Comedy Festival, which took place from July 30 through August 1, brought these and several other comedians to Jamestown to celebrate the groundbreaking of the National Comedy Center.

This brand new center, scheduled for completion in spring 2017, is an instrumental part of the “Legacy of Laughter” vision for the Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum & Center for Comedy. Jamestown, NY, the hometown of legendary comedienne Lucille Ball, is excited to welcome this multimillion-dollar project to the downtown area, where the Museum has been upholding Ball’s legacy for many years.

According to Journey Gunderson, executive director of the LucyDesi Center for Comedy and the National Comedy Center, the idea for this new center has been in the making for several decades.

“The celebration of comedy was always known to be something that Lucille Ball wanted for Jamestown, but the real substance of progress toward the vision becoming a reality began in 2011,” explained Gunderson.

After a feasibility analysis of the concept of a comedy center, the LucyDesi Center for Comedy began searching for the appropriate site for such a project.

Around this time, the historic Jamestown Gateway Train Station, formerly known as the Erie-Lackawanna Train Station, underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation, leaving ample space beside it for construction of a new building. And its location was perfect.

In addition to reflecting the history of Jamestown, the structure of the National Comedy Center will provide a beautiful space for the history of comedy. In all, the National Comedy Center will occupy about 30,000 square feet among three buildings.

In Gunderson’s words, “The National Comedy Center will celebrate the craft and its legendary contributors through its world class exhibit experience, but also celebrate contemporary comedians.”

Although the center will have different artifacts commemorating the influence of such great comedians as George Carlin, Robin Williams, and of course, Lucille Ball, the center is not artifact-dependent.

“While there will be that element,” explained Gunderson, “the experience will be driven by multimedia and interactive experiences.”

For example, the center will have a touchscreen wall called “The Comedy Continuum,” where visitors can interact with different content that commemorates influential comedians over the years.

On Saturday, August 1, local officials and several celebrities from the comedy festival broke ground on the National Comedy Center before hundreds of attendees.

State Senator Catharine Young, Chautauqua County Executive Vince Horrigan, Jamestown’s Mayor Sam Teresi, among other area officials, lauded the new center’s impact on the area. Horrigan described the center as a “game changer,” as it is projected to bring in 114,000 visitors annually and generate 218 jobs.

Funded by a $1.5 million New York State Economic Development Grant and several other foundations, the National Comedy Center has been formally adopted as part of New York’s long-term statewide tourism strategy; the total impact on Jamestown’s local economy is anticipated at $23 million a year.

Gunderson and several of the comedy festival’s celebrities literally broke ground together on the new center. Kelly Carlin, daughter of the late comedian George Carlin, Melissa Rivers, and the family of the late Harold Ramis, influential comedy writer and director of such beloved films as Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, and National Lampoon’s Vacation, partook in this momentous event that brought Ball’s vision for Jamestown to fruition.

In addition to celebrating the lives of comedians who have shaped the entertainment industry, the National Comedy Center will develop the future of the art form with resources and professional development for aspiring comedians. Indeed, the road to success for most comedians is not an easy one; no one knew this better than Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, who forever changed the face of comedy.

Ball, born in Jamestown in 1911, began her career as a model and actress in small motion pictures. In 1948, when she wowed CBS with her performance as a quirky wife in one of their radio programs, Ball was offered the opportunity to develop her radio show role into a television series.

When Ball insisted that her Cuban immigrant husband and bandleader Desi Arnaz star as her husband, CBS balked at the request, so Ball and Arnaz took their show on the road in true vaudeville fashion. Impressed with the traveling I Love Lucy show’s national success, CBS accepted Ball’s stipulations, and the television show became part of CBS’s popular lineup throughout the 1950s.

Ball, Arnaz and their production company Desilu Productions, one of the most powerful studios of its time, made an incredible impact on the entertainment industry. Not only did Desilu Productions pilot the three-camera sitcom technique, but it also produced many of the great television shows of the 1960s, including The Andy Griffith Show and Star Trek.

Perhaps even greater than Ball and Arnaz’s impact on the entertainment industry is their indelible impact on American culture. Ball’s characters in her various television series portrayed a woman who was always striving for more.

According to Gunderson, “Even during the 1950s and 1960s, the themes were always about Lucy wanting to be more than a wife at home; she was never complacent in this role.”

Indeed, the television series’ funniest episodes show Lucy making her way in the workforce or trying to be a part of her husband’s musical career. Comedy made Lucy’s efforts at independence and equality more palatable to a conservative audience who were more accustomed to sitcom wives like June Cleaver and Donna Reed.

Even Ball and Arnaz’s marriage was a first for American viewers, who had never seen a multicultural marriage on screen before. Ball continued to push her way through the glass ceiling when she had her two pregnancies written into the script of I Love Lucy. This bold and controversial decision sky-rocketed ratings, despite CBS’s hesitation about showing a pregnant woman on television.

According to Gunderson, “Lucille Ball made it okay for women to be funny and not just attractive starlets. By that point in entertainment, women were mostly cast for their value as beautiful women to be sought after in the plot. Lucille Ball showed us that a series in and of itself could rest on a female role.”

The stars of several television series and movies, Ball and Arnaz are celebrated at the Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum, which is open 7 days a week. For more information about the museum, visit www.Lucy-Desi.com and visit www.ComedyCenter.org for details and updates on the progress of the National Comedy Center.