Lucie with an
Growing up as the daughter of an American icon isn't easy. Add in the spotlight of TV's favorite fictional family (the Ricardos) and you've got quite the Hollywood heritage to live up to. But Weston's Lucie Arnaz has handled her fame well, earning a place in showbiz history all her own.
Photo by Visko Hatfield
Growing up as the daughter of an American icon isn’t easy. Add in the spotlight of TV’s favorite fictional family — the Ricardos — and you’ve got quite the Hollywood heritage to live up to. But Weston’s Lucie Arnaz has handled her fame well, earning a place in showbiz history all her own.
Here’s an old show biz adage that says who you know gets you in the door, but what you’ve got keeps you there. Although, as she dryly comments, “It didn’t hurt that Mother put me in her TV shows,” Lucie Arnaz has been a working performer since she was a leggy teen in a miniskirt. Her mother, of course, was Lucille Ball, an icon if ever there was one, the gifted and glamorous star of MGM’s golden era and television’s infancy. Her father was Desi Arnaz, the charismatic and suave Cuban bandleader with his own brand of comic timing and a head for business. Mom and Dad to Lucie, but to the Baby Boomers who have been watching I Love Lucy since kindergarten, they are now and forever Lucy and Ricky, those wacky Ricardos. It’s a common confusion and Lucie addresses it in her cabaret act with the patter song “Lucie with an IE,” a pastiche she penned of Liza Minelli’s “Liza with a Z” in which she humorously shoots down the FAQs of being a famously famous offspring. “No, Mom wasn’t funny at home,” she says. “And my brother is not Little Ricky.”
The first thing you notice about Lucie Arnaz is that she’s showgirl tall — five feet nine in her flip-flops — and naturally slender. “I’m not preoccupied with the whole body image thing anymore. I’m not sure I ever was,” she says bluntly. Onstage and off, she is that rare combination of earthy and elegant, as much at home wrapping her warm, throaty voice around a Berlin ballad as she is chatting with friends in the cozy kitchen of her house in Weston. There is a directness about her best expressed by the cliché: What you see is what you get. You don’t have to strip away the layers. No surprise that a photo shoot/interview turns into an impromptu party, with Lucie passing platters of shrimp and deviled eggs and perking the coffee. “I’m a mom,” she says with a husky laugh. “I’m used to feeding people.”
Lucie and her husband of twenty-eight years, actor-director-producer Laurence Luckinbill, moved to Weston from Katonah last year. Their house is roomy and welcoming, with California-cheery colors throughout and a “put your feet up” atmosphere. The only hint of her Hollywood background is a few photos here and there of her parents and, on a bookshelf in the living room, a Thurber-like cartoon of Harvey the rabbit drawn by Jimmy Stewart, who lived next door when she was growing up. Rosemary Clooney was across the street in the former Ira Gershwin house, and Hedda Hopper liked to drop in for a cup of tea when she was out taking a stroll. After her parents divorced and Lucy married comedian Gary Morton, Lucie would hide at the top of the stairs and eavesdrop while he and Bob Hope and Milton Berle tried out shtick in the living room.
“They were not celebrities,” she says. “They were just regular, hardworking people. They got up early and they came home late, and on the weekends it was put on jeans and an old sweatshirt and walk the dog. So not what I watch on Entertainment Tonight; it was the polar opposite of what Hollywood is now. Strong values, hard work. My only regret is that my parents worked so damned hard I never saw them. They left this wonderful legacy of laughter in their wake,” she adds, “but the tough part is that they were so famous and so busy.”
Not that Lucie Arnaz sits around letting the grass grow. She’s a triple threat — she sings, she dances, she acts — with a versatile résumé that includes her own TV series, films, national tours of dramas, comedies and musicals, a critically acclaimed nightclub act; and a new cabaret act in collaboration with composer David Friedman knocked the proverbial socks off the audience last October at the Pathways benefit for the mentally ill. She became a full-fledged name-in-lights Broadway star in 1979 with the Neil Simon musical They’re Playing Our Song, for which she won just about every theatrical award but the Tony. When she was passed over for the Tony nomination that everyone assumed she’d get, her mother took her for a hansom cab ride through Central Park. “We’re from television,” Lucy consoled her. “They don’t respect us here.”
She’s been on and off Broadway ever since, most recently in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and along the way headed tours of Seesaw, Whose Life Is It Anyway? and I Do! I Do! The night she and Tommy Tune opened the Gershwin musical My One and Only in Los Angeles before a celeb-packed hometown crowd, she fell onstage, popped up immediately and hissed at him, “Keep going.” “I didn’t sleep that night,” she says. “I only relaxed when he fell down the following week — the great Tommy Tune!”
Lucie’s TV roles have ranged from Murder, She Wrote to Law & Order to a recurring role on the drama Sons and Daughters. In 1975 she played murder victim Elizabeth Short, to whom she bore an uncanny resemblance, in a made-for-TV film noir that has become a cult classic: Who Is the Black Dahlia? “I had a friend who worked at ABC who was kind of a guardian angel,” she says, “and he told me his friend was making this picture. ‘Come on,’ he said, ‘nobody should play this but you.’” They walked into the office of the producer, who took one look at Lucie and said, “Oh my God. Please tell me that you can act.”
In 1993 she and her husband won an Emmy for coproducing Lucy and Desi: A Home Movie. She coproduced with her brother Desi Arnaz Jr. the I Love Lucy’s 50th Anniversary Special, which aired on November 11, 2001, and received an Emmy nomination. “We were in the middle of producing the special when 9/11 happened,” Lucie says. “And I remember thinking, this couldn’t be worse timing. I mean, how do you now do this show and put it on the air? But within three weeks, it was so obvious that it was beneficial — we needed to laugh.
“If I have any humor at all, it’s from my dad,” she comments. “He was the one with the wit. Mom was not witty, but she totally understood how to make a believable situation funny. ‘I couldn’t have done it without my writers,’ is all she would ever say; she would never take credit for herself. Taking that brilliantly written material and bringing it to life as a great clown, that was her talent. My father, even sitting around the dinner table, had a wonderful way of incorporating humor into everything he did.”
Lucie started doing her nightclub act in 1988. “It’s funny how it happened,” she says. “There wasn’t that much on Broadway that I cared about, so Larry and I moved out to L.A. so I could be closer to my mom and she could be closer to her grandchildren [Simon, Joseph and Kate]. I told my managers and agents that I wanted to do a nightclub act, and they sat me down to give me a stern talking-to. ‘You don’t want to do that,’ they all said. ‘It costs too much money, you’ll never amortize it, the old clubs are closing.’ Negative, negative, negative. And I said, ‘But I want to do it. I grew up with it — my father had a band.’ But they said, ‘Please rethink this.’ So I went home and thought, Oh, I guess they’re right.”
Fast-forward all of four days. “I got a phone call out of the clear blue sky,” says Lucie, “asking me to fly to Palermo, Sicily, to perform at the Teatro Verdi outdoors for 4,000 people and do a ninety-minute show on Irving Berlin. And I thought, Why are they asking me? Alphabetical? They went to Arnaz? They must have thought I had a nightclub act.” At that time, putting together an act, with costumes, arrangements, music director, choreographer and back-up singers and dancers, ran a cool $100,000. Teatro Verdi was offering $30,000. “Long story short,” Lucie says, “I’d just met this amazing music director, Ron Abel. ‘Would you like to go to Sicily?’ I asked. ‘Here’s what they’re going to give me, and I’ve never done this before.’
“We went through the whole Irving Berlin library,” she remembers. “I did Tin Pan Alley, all the Fred Astaire numbers, a mini-musical of Annie Get Your Gun. Put together this amazing show for $30,000. Before we left I had to do a sound check in a studio. And mind you, I’m doing this all by myself because my managers don’t want to be bothered with my stupid nightclub idea, but I invited them to come and listen. By the time I finished the sound check, I was thinking I could book this in Atlantic City, I could go on the road. And my managers,” she ends triumphantly, “said what a good idea!
“They were right,” she admits. “You don’t make a lot of money doing this. But I love it; I love getting up in front of a band and singing. Then somebody said, ‘You should do cabaret.’ ” She pauses and gasps dramatically. “ ‘I don’t know if I can do that; I need the big arrangements.’ But now I’ve done everything from the big to the medium to just piano.”
Enter David Friedman, the prolific songwriter and film and theater composer who conducted and wrote vocal arrangements for four Disney animated musicals and the songs for four more, including Aladdin and the King of Thieves. David was also the musical director for the Broadway runs of Grease and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and he wrote songs and produced the CDs for legendary cabaret artist Nancy LaMott.
“We knew each other peripherally, to say hello,” says David. “Whenever I saw Lucie, she would say, ‘I was just listening to Nancy and I love all of your songs,’ so we were friendly for God knows how many years. But we actually lived across the street from each other in New York and didn’t know it.”
Their relationship, both personal and professional, was cemented at the tenth annual Help Is on the Way AIDS benefit in San Francisco, which is named for a song David wrote. “We were at the introductory party, a big fancy party,” he says, “and somehow Lucie and my partner Sean Moninger, who’s a minister, connected and had this three-hour conversation about matters spiritual.”
“Not to be confused with religion,” interjects Lucie, who refers to herself as a recovering Catholic. After the benefit the following night, Lucie, her former assistant Keith Dodge, and David and Sean passed on the bar scene and decided to go out to breakfast instead. “It was three hours of into-the-night talking about love and life and David quoting lyrics that he’d written,” Lucie remembers. “And we were thinking, we’re sitting with David Friedman and talking about his work, and it doesn’t get better than this. And I loved Sean and I loved his humor and his outlook on life. You know, people light your life from different angles.”
“It was one of those things that was just meant to be,” says David.
At some point, Lucie uttered the classic line, “Hey! Let’s put on a show.” The result is their new cabaret act, which incorporates numbers from her nightclub performances, like the snappy Billy Stritch arrangement of “ I’m Beginning to See the Light” and “Moonglow,” with David’s material, which fits her like a kid glove. David and Lucie have performed it only twice so far, at the Pathways benefit and at a fundraiser for the Summer Theatre of New Canaan, of which David, who teaches at the Performing Arts Conservatory of New Canaan, is music director. “We’re trying it out in town before we go on the town,” she cracks.
The show begins with a montage of film clips that Lucie edited for her fiftieth birthday (“my mockumentary,” she calls it). She then takes the audience on a tour of her emotional landscape through They’re Playing Our Song and the aforementioned 1940s standards and weaves in David’s songs, including the tender ballad “You’ll Always Be My Baby,” the wickedly wry “Rich, Famous and Powerful,” and the tour de force “Listen to My Heart.” She ends, simply and movingly, with Dan Fogelberg’s “Leader of the Band” in a tribute to Desi, and when the lights dim and she places her father’s famous “Cuban Pete” straw boater on her head at just the remembered angle, there is a collective sigh.
“This act is the history of her life,” says David. “And what she has is that very rare and extraordinary ability to do what cabaret is, which is that when she’s on the stage, she’s the same person as off the stage. She is so present with an audience.”
“I’ve wanted to sing these songs for the longest time because I like to leave people with a little something that’s enlightened,” says Lucie. “There’s a difference between feeling good and walking away with something that helps you get through your life. This takes it to a whole other level for me. If you’re on the right track and you’re singing about things that are true, good stuff happens. It’s about bringing joy and peace. And having fun.”