Reporting from Jamestown, N.Y. ——Even though she was born 100 years ago next month and her mega-hit TV show premiered 60 years ago this October, there remains a single truth about Lucille Ball: We still love Lucy.
"I Love Lucy" is in black and white, and the fashions are outdated, but the show continues to air in 80 countries and has been dubbed in 21 languages. Her fans are multigenerational.
"I've just been a Lucy fan all my life," Atkins of Fort Wayne, Ind., said as the couple recalled their favorite episodes while touring the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center in downtown Jamestown, a community of 30,000 about 90 minutes south of Buffalo.
Lucy fans make the trip year-round to western New York state to pay homage to the woman Atkins called "the queen of comedy."
Besides reminiscing about Ball's showbiz career, the faithful also visit the house where she grew up and the Ball family gravesite.
The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center operates two side-by-side museums, one devoted to "I Love Lucy" and the other to the rest of her entertainment career. Of course, the sitcom side, known as the Desilu Playhouse, draws the most attention — and chuckles.
"The center's mission is to promote the healing power of love and laughter," head tour guide Susan Ewing said as she stood in front of a display of 20 "TV Guide" covers, all featuring the remarkable redhead.
Ewing loves to tell guests about Jamestown's biggest star, the girl who dropped out of high school to pursue an acting career.
"She was just thrilled by show business. She was captivated by vaudeville," Ewing said, adding that Lucy's mom, Desiree "DeDe" Ball, paid for her to move to New York City to attend acting school.
"[The teachers] said she had no talent," Ewing said. "[They even asked,] 'Why would you waste your money on this kid?'"
The TV monitors scattered throughout the Desilu Playhouse prove otherwise as they show clips from one of the most successful TV shows of all time.
"I thought that 'I Love Lucy' was a pleasant little situation comedy that might even survive its first season," Ball wrote in her memoir, "Love, Lucy." That, of course, was the ultimate understatement.
On Jan. 20, 1953, 29 million Americans tuned in to watch the inauguration of President Dwight Eisenhower. That number paled in comparison with the viewing figure the previous evening for "I Love Lucy," when 40 million Americans were glued to their sets for the episode in which Lucy — who was, in real life, pregnant with Desi Jr. — gave birth to the fictional Little Ricky.
The Manhattan apartment in which the Ricky and Lucy Ricardo characters lived after the birth of their television son is intricately re-created inside the Desilu Playhouse. Hollywood prop houses were scoured to find replicas of the furniture and even the kitchen appliances. When none could be found, the museum — which opened in 1996 — had replicas made.
Visitors can test their own comedic skills in an interactive exhibit featuring the famous episode in which Lucy gets a job filming a commercial for an alcohol-laced tonic called Vitameatavegamin. With the script and a real TV camera in front of them, guests can test-run the tongue twister that left Lucy fans in fits.
"Do you poop out at parties? Are you un-poopular?" amateurs ask, re-creating the line recited by the apparently drunk Lucy.
The modest two-story house where Ball grew up isn't open to the public, but visitors frequently pose for pictures in front of it. It's
at what is now 59 Lucy Lane in neighboring Celoron, a short walk from the park where
the teenage Lucy sold hamburgers and hot dogs.
Ball, who died in 1989, was originally interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in the Hollywood Hills, but her remains are now buried with those of her mother and other family members in Jamestown's Lake View Cemetery.
Employees at the gatehouse regularly direct people to the family plot. It's marked by a large granite headstone on which, in the style of the famous TV show's opening credits, the name "Ball" is scripted inside a large heart.