Heritage Moments: Jamestown's own Lucille Ball rises to superstardom

Dec 21, 2015

In the 1950s, when she was a famous comedienne with the most popular show on television, Lucille Ball liked to say she was from Jamestown. But for much of her youth she lived in Celoron, the little village next door to Jamestown on the shores of Chautauqua Lake.


Growing up in the little lakeside community, Lucille loved to perform – acting, singing, cutting up for her friends, and, as she got a little older, dressing up for herself and the boys. At 14, she started going out with a local 23-year-old named Johnny, who was rumored to be involved in illegal booze and gambling. They would go to see Vaudeville shows at Jamestown theaters like the Shea and the Palace. 

Lucille’s mother, DeDe, disapproved of the relationship, but Lucille and Johnny kept dating. Finally, after a year, she hit on an idea that would use her daughter’s love of show business to get her as far away from her boyfriend as possible – she would send Lucille to acting school in New York City. Lucille excitedly agreed, and DeDe arranged to have her stay there with family friends. It was that in 1926 at age 15 that Lucille Ball went off to Manhattan and the prestigious John Murray Anderson School of theater and dance.

But school was difficult. Teachers denigrated her dancing and her Great Lakes accent and she and most of her classmates were overshadowed by the prodigious talents of another young student, Bette Davis.

“All I learned in drama school,” Ball remembered many years later, “was how to be frightened.”*

One day DeDe received a letter from the school administration. “Lucy’s wasting her time and ours,” it read. “She’s too shy and reticent to put her best foot forward.”

After six months at the John Murray Anderson School, Lucille returned home. But within a year, determined to make it in showbiz, she went back to New York. By 1928 she was a successful model, starting the trajectory that would eventually make her a Broadway chorus girl, a big-screen actress in Hollywood and finally, in “I Love Lucy” and several other comedy series, America’s most beloved TV star.

Through it all, she never forgot her hometown. Today, Jamestown is the home of the Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum, the annual Lucille Ball Comedy Festival and, starting in 2017, the National Comedy Center. None of that would exist had young Lucille not persevered in the face of rejection.

“It was funny to think of how awkward and tongue-tied I had been in drama school,” Ball recalled. “Here in my beloved Jamestown, I didn’t have a shred of self-consciousness.”

*Several sources provide details of Lucille Ball’s life, including “Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball,” by Stefan Kanfer; “Lucy A to Z: The Lucille Ball Encyclopedia,” by Michael Karol; and Ball’s own autobiography, “Love, Lucy.”

Cast (in order of appearance)
Neighbor: Darleen Pickering Hummert
Dede Ball: Connie Caldwell
Narrator: Susan Banks

Sound recording: Micheal Peters and Connor De Junco (WBNY, Buffalo State)
Sound editing: Micheal Peters
Post-production: Kim Ferullo (Chameleon Communications, 510 Franklin St., Buffalo)
Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839)
Performed by Aaron Dai

Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project
Written by Jeff Z. Klein
Assistant producer: Karl-Eric Reif
Casting: Darleen Pickering Hummert (Pickering Hummert Casting, 234 Carmel Rd., Buffalo)
Jesse Tiebor (Casting Hall Productions, 2014-15 academic year; Buffalo State Theater Dept.)

Special thanks to:
Brian McDermott, WBNY general manager, 2014-15 academic year
Connor De Junco, WBNY production director, 2014-15 academic year
Anthony Chase, assistant dean, School of Arts and Humanities, Buffalo State
Ronald Smith, professor, and Thomas McCray, assistant professor, Buffalo State Communication Dept.  

Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein