Lucille Ball, the iconic redhead and first lady of comedy during the Golden Age of Television, made her name on TV, but she also had a radio show called “Let’s Talk to Lucy.” She died 32 years ago, but a trove of old reel-to-reel tapes has been pulled from her archives. They include interviews with the biggest stars of the day — like Carol Burnett, Dick Van Dyke, Gene Kelly, and Julie Andrews — but also her close friends and co-stars, such as Vivian Vance and Gale Gordon.
Most of these conversations haven’t been heard since they originally aired in the mid-1960s. Now hundreds of them are airing on SiriusXM and will eventually be available wherever you get your podcasts.
Lucie Arnaz, the daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, spent years managing her parents’ archives. She’s also a TV/film/theater entertainer who starred in “The Jazz Singer.”
Arnaz kept many of her mom’s belongings in storage over the years following her death. But once she learned that new films about Ball were in production — including a documentary by actress Amy Poehler — she opened up the archives and began to sift through them.
“I did a little investigating, and I got a list from an old archive somewhere. … And I went, ‘Oh, my god, there’s 240 shows. Just some of the biggest names in show business at the time, even now,” Arnaz tells KCRW. “The Barbra Streisands of the world, the Dean Martins and Frank Sinatras and Red Skeltons and Bob Hopes and Bing Crosbys. But there's also these wonderful conversations with other people who people don't even know who they are right now.”
What struck Arnaz most was how natural and conversational many of the recordings were.
“The most incredible thing about it is that it's a conversation. People aren't there to plug their book or their movie. She's asking them what their backyards look like, and how they raised their children, and what they like to eat, and where they like to vacation. And you get a really incredible sense of the time. You know, some of it kind of makes you cringe and think, ‘Oh my god, the way we talked about women back then, or gays or whatever.’ But all in a friendly, wonderful, joyful, sensitive approach. [It was] human. Very human.”
Arnaz then made a phone call to her lawyer Dixon Dern, and they launched plans to turn the tapes into a podcast.
Today, the project includes modern-day celebrities, including Tiffany Haddish and Ron Howard, and segments are framed as if Ball were interviewing them on tape.
Learning more about her mother
Arnaz says she initially didn’t understand the breadth of what she was working on.
But as Ball describes in her first episode, “Let’s Talk To Lucy” was a way to learn about life through her guests’ eyes and connect with fans.
Ball said in a monologue during the first episode: “Through the years people have written me thousands of letters asking about my personal life, my family, my home, my friends, my experiences in show business. And now radio gives me the opportunity to answer them in person. So you see, you really gave me the idea for my radio show. And I hope you continue to write me letters.”
Arnaz says she learned more about her mother by listening to those tapes.
“I think I enjoy hearing her talk about her loves and likes and desires as much as I enjoy finding out about everybody else's. And she … shares an awful lot about herself. … Generally, I was quite impressed with mom. She's so eloquent and literate. She didn't really even finish high school. But she loved words. … And she had an incredible vocabulary that she used very well. And she did a lot of writing. She wrote all the intros.”
Lucille Ball was “flying blind” as a mom
In interviews with parents such as Jeanne Martin, the wife of singer Dean Martin, Ball discussed what it meant to be a mother and how to support her children. According to Arnaz, Ball used the interviews to gauge how well she was taking care of her kids.
“She was always searching for answers herself. So she would talk to Jeanne Martin … or Debbie Reynolds, other women who had children, and she asked them, ‘How do you do it?’”
Arnaz adds, “I always felt that [Ball] may have thought, ‘Jeez, I had kids really late and I don't have much time, and so I have to shove all this information in their brain.’ And some of the other people she talked to — men too — would say, ‘How do I get [along with] my kids? I just like to spend time with them. … I just like to sit with them and listen.’ ... And I thought, ‘That's the one thing that she didn't find a way to do really.’ And so some of these interviews, I think, are her way of trying to see how she's doing as a mom and a housewife.”
Arnaz notes that her mom was always trying to figure out how to be a parent, especially since her father died when she was 4 years old, and her mom often wasn’t around because of work. Thus, Ball stayed with her strict grandparents during the day.
“From a very young age, she had to be very responsible, to take care of all the stuff plus her younger brother. And so she didn't have much of a happy-go-lucky, bonded childhood with her own mother. So when she decided to have kids, she was kind of flying blind, as most of us are.”
Ball’s catalog of A-list guests and lack of jealousy
Ball featured her close friends on the show, including Vivian Vance, her co-star on “I Love Lucy” and “The Lucy Show.”
“[They were] close friends. Like sisters. It really killed my mother when Vivian passed away. She had weeks and weeks where she was just inconsolable,” Arnaz says. “They were all married, all four of them on the set because they had to work so tight together and in such a short amount of time and create what they created. … She always talked about how much fun it was.”
Due to Ball’s level of stardom, Arnaz says it was relatively easy for her mother to book big-name guests and have deep sit-down conversations with them. She made a list of who she wanted to talk to and then figured out how to make it happen. Other times, guests were recommended to her.
“How do you get these people if you're not Lucille Ball, who's at the top of her career? You can't just pick up the phone and get Frank [Sinatra] to sit down and do an interview with you on your silly little CBS radio talk show, right? But people were friendly, and they loved her. … So if Lucille Ball wanted to talk to you, I guess you'd give it a thought, you know?”
Ball also booked newer stars at the time, including a young Mary Tyler Moore.
“She absolutely appreciated all this other talent. There was never a bone, not a fiber, not a cell of my mother's body that had a jealousy towards somebody else who might be better than she was. … She was one of the most generous performers with other performers,” Arnaz says. “You can tell from … mom's voice when she talks to some of these people this incredible respect that she has for other people's talent, whoever they are — Mary Tyler Moore, Eva Marie Saint, Robert Stack, Lauren Green, [or] Dick Van Dyke.”
What makes Lucille Ball enduring?
Arnaz thinks that part of why her mother and her shows have remained popular is because they’re comforting.
“It's about unconditional love. And people really are attracted to that when they see it. They want more of it. And it's funny, which is extremely valuable and a healer. Laughter is a tremendous healer. But more than funny, it's full of love and forgiveness. And we love how much trouble this woman can get into. Like, we all can get into trouble. And somebody at the end of the day will go, ‘Okay, I love you anyway. Come here, give me a hug.’ And that's just wonderful.”
Some of that legacy has branched out into new ventures. A Barbie line pays tribute to Ball herself, and a series of educational programming includes segments from “I Love Lucy.”
“That's the kind of thing I dreamt about. There must be more that we can do with the value. And not to mention finding these episodes, these radio shows, right? That's what I'm talking about. There's more value behind the making of ‘I Love Lucy’ — the people who did it, what it was about, what did it matter to the universe. And I just wanted to find a way to manifest that. … I just gotta say somebody up there wanted more to happen too.”