The Disasterpiece


Arts & Culture

The saga of Scary Lucy.


Illustration by Ellis Rosen.

In a no-frills park in Celoron, New York, where Lucille Ball grew up, there stands a four-hundred-pound bronze statue with a puss that’s been likened to Darth Vader, the demonic doll Chuckie, and Kim Hunter in her Planet of the Apes makeup. Scary Lucy, as the figure has been dubbed, bears no great resemblance to the comedienne who once hooked America with hennaed poodle bangs and balletic slapstick.

In early April 2015, some six years after Scary Lucy was installed, the local paper ran a story about the village seeking funds to improve or otherwise replace the statue. The A.V. Club picked up the development the next day, and nationwide coverage followed, from the New York Times (“NY Village Wants to Give Its Lucille Ball Statue a Makeover”) to Gawker (“Drunk, Leering Lucille Ball Statue Menaces Small Village”) to NPR (“In New York, A Sculptor’s Got Some S’plaining To Do”).

It was funny. But it was more than that. The black magic of statuary is in how the fact, myth, and memory associated with its flesh-and-blood celebrity can get canned inside it. Spark that with controversy, and presto: Lucille Ball’s Bronze Age.

I Love Lucy ran on CBS from 1951 to 1957. Though Lucy could affect regal composure and wryness of wit, she’s obviously remembered for her physical comedy; the show’s head writer and producer, Jess Oppenheimer, called her “a wonderful combination of beauty and clown … Her hands, her feet, her knees, every cell would be doing the right thing.” Aljean Harmetz once said, adoringly, that Lucy’s laugh blended “a strangling airdale with a porpoise.”

“Every once in a while,” The Hollywood Reporter pronounced after watching the first episode, “a new TV show comes along that fulfills, in its own particular niche, every promise of the often harassed new medium.” When Little Ricky was born, in season two, 71 percent of households with TVs tuned in. Even Ball’s FBI file, which dates to her brush with the House of Un-American Activities Committee in 1953, “seems to have been assembled by a Lucy worshiper,” a scholar notes. It reads not unlike a scrapbook filled with clippings of good press, including the later headlines “Lucille Ball’s Ratings Hold, CBS and Sponsor Back Her” and “They Still ‘Love Lucy’—Public, Sponsor, Gov’t, CBS Assure Ball As Storm Subsides.”

The show’s finale saw the Ricardos dedicate a statue of a Revolutionary War soldier to the colonial plaza in their Connecticut hometown. Lucy, in Lucy fashion, breaks the statue, and, desperate to have one to unveil, suits up as a blue coat and paints herself stone gray.

A 1952 memorandum alleging that Lucille Ball had been a registered Communist.

In 1960, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz divorced; in ’62, she bought her ex out of Desilu Productions for three million dollars. As studio head, Ball acquired the concepts for Star Trek and Mission: Impossible, properties still very much what the industry lovingly calls “robust.”

The critic Rex Reed joined her there at the complex one day in 1968, just after she’d sold to Paramount. “In five years she had moved into Howard Hughes’ old offices,” Reed impressed readers, “and, flitting back and forth from the sets of her TV shows to the green-chintz chairs in her executive suite, had turned thirty-six soundstages and sixty-two acres of real estate losing nearly a million dollars a year into the biggest gold-mine TV-producing facility in the world.”

For Lucille Ball with sky-blue eyes and red-wax candy lips, crowned with an apricot do and frocked in polka dots, was a fast-minded and hard-nosed businesswoman. “When she thinks of something,” Reed wrote, “she jots it down and sticks each message to herself on the steering wheel of her car with Scotch tape. It’s not unusual to find ten of them taped on at the end of the day.”

Ball spun herself into a franchise with three more increasingly unsatisfying television series, all under the mantle of a titular character named “Lucy.” She became a member of television’s ancien régime, damning All in the Family for reintroducing dago, wop, and kike because she didn’t get it. “The things you see now are horrifying,” she told Reed in another of their interviews, “and you’re supposed to laugh at them … They’re buying tickets and lining up to see sex and violence, and the new generation is already sullied with hopelessness. There’s no going back for them … If Walt Disney was alive, he might have some answers,” she added. “I don’t.” Lucy hated the “007 stuff” Hollywood was hot for. The lady with the show that invented the rerun didn’t necessarily know how to pass the baton.

“Ball wasn’t the first TV personality not to know when it was time to leave the stage. But she was the first woman on television to know when it was time to leave the house,” Daniel Ruth wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times on April 27, 1989, the day after Ball had died. Fans showed up in Celeron and next-door Jamestown, the actress’s birthplace, in numbers. They were on a kind of pilgrimage, Ruth reported, “just to get as close to her as possible.”

Two decades later, a couple commissioned the sculptor Dave Poulin, then early into his career, to make Lucille Ball. The result was donated sight unseen to the village of Celoron and installed in 2009 at Lucille Ball Memorial Park, where it recently drew international attention.

Today, Scary Lucy is patinated as if by gangrene. She wears a smile like the rictus on a zombie. Poulin chose to render an iconic but an especially tough scene—he depicted her in season one as the TV spokeswoman for the elixir Vitameatavegamin, which the Lucy finds to be 23 percent alcohol, and gross. The elastic shades of drunken disgust on her face are hard for anyone to do justice to, in words or metal.

Poulin conceded that it’s “by far my most unsettling sculpture.”

“At least the statue [is] holding a bottle of Vitameatavegamin,” Dave Itzkoff allowed at ArtsBeat.

“I thought it was Andy Griffith holding a flask,” a commenter said.

A paper bag was placed over the statue’s head. People suggested melting the figure down or throwing it in a lake. The administrator of the Facebook page “We Love Lucy! Get Rid of this Statue” hoped TV Land would step in and order a respectable portrait, just as the rerun cable network had commissioned bronzes of Mary Tyler Moore for downtown Minneapolis and Elizabeth Montgomery, as Bewitcheds Samantha Stevens, for a public square in Salem.

Sam was the work of the sculptor Stuart Williamson, a fellow of the Royal British Society of Sculptors whom I FaceTimed one morning at his home to talk about the fine art of likenesses. Though sculpting and teaching often bring him stateside, Williamson lives on an extinct volcano in Ecuador, just outside the capital between two expansive green valleys. His wife tried to hush the rooster outdoors. Now in his sixties, Williamson started out some thirty years ago at the wax portrait museum Madame Tussauds, where his first job was Elizabeth I. The work occasioned sittings with Pavarotti at his home in Pesaro (“like a gentle bear”) and Donald Trump at his office in the Trump Towers (“curiously, he was quiet”), and once saw Williamson carrying the late Leonard Bernstein’s tailcoat back to measure, sacredly, like the Shroud of Turin. When he begins sculptural work on someone, he reads and collects as much information about him or her as possible. “It’s fed into the likeness,” he says.

“Getting aspect across in bonze is a real tricky number. Attractive women are the hardest—and you come into the use of makeup. I was looking the other day at some film of Lucille Ball: she was wearing those long false eyelashes. To show those lashes, you can’t just put on a lump of clay and gouge it; you have to imply them. This is where many portraitists fall down: they tend to be literal.”

“If we go back to Salem and the witch, absolutely this same difficulty came up. Once you have your structure and you deal with the forms, there’s the expression. It’s a massive, complex issue with all the musculature going on in the face, especially around the eyes, which creates these bubbly and interesting persons like Elizabeth Montgomery.”

Williamson’s voice is leavened with a certain amount of awe. “If you do it really well, the sculpture has a kind of presence—you nearly think it will speak to you.”


Illustration by Ellis Rosen.

The late-night Comedy Central show @midnight, which films on I Love Lucy’s old soundstage, wished to acquire Scary Lucy. But a better twist saw the small town opt to permanently loan the controversial bronze to the new National Comedy Center in Jamestown, an expansion of the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center for Comedy. The venue just broke ground; it will open next year.

The statue will remain in the parkland until the arrival of its replacement, which has been funded by a Massachusettsan car czar who put up twenty thousand dollars for another portrayal. Celoron has formed a committee—consisting of an art teacher, a local artist, a village resident, the chairwoman of the county’s artists guild, and the executive director of the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center for Comedy—to vet the submissions of some sixty sculptors. “I would hope that they will have a recommendation in a couple of months,” the village’s clerk-treasurer replied to me.

Aside from artistry, the sculptor who wins the bid should be aware of the baggage and power that can inform, or even animate, statuary. “Statues have lives beyond their original intention,” Williamson told me. He mentioned Fallen Monuments Park, a graveyard in Moscow for more than seven hundred statues dismissed from public spaces. An upcoming vote will decide whether or not to recover the figure there of the KGB head Felix Dzerzhinsky, which was erected in the twenties and pulled down by demonstrators and cranes with the Soviet collapse in 1991.

The lives of statues can be as unpredictable as those of the men and women they’re modeled on. Consider the bronze bust of Bill Cosby, wrought in one of his Dr. Huxtable sweaters, expelled from Disney World two months ago. In Afghanistan there were the monumental Buddhas obliterated by extremists: one was emotionally, if temporarily, restored by Chinese millionaires with powerful projectors in June. Or the giant bust of Edward Snowden, surreptitiously mounted atop a war monument in Brooklyn in April, taken down and later revived as a hologram. That same month, at a mall in London, we couldn’t really say if the compulsion to lick and eat fingers off the chocolate-made statue of Sherlock-made Benedict Cumberbatch had more to do with the fact of its being Belgian chocolate or its being Benedict Cumberbatch. And how about the fairly redeeming line at the end of The Monuments Men? They’ve rescued the marble Madonna and George Clooney propositions her like a lady in a bar. “Let’s get out of here,” he coos.

No one wants to forget the antics of Lucille Ball’s phenomenal hausfrau: that’s the point of her statue. There’s no metric for assessing slip in the collective conscious, but aging out is like a slow, irreversible drop in Nielsen ratings for television habitués, and a bad bronze of the beloved redhead isn’t doing anyone any favors by deforming her memory. But Lucy wanted showbiz in real life and in character, and Poulin’s statue seems to have inherited that desire. The statue faces two park benches like front-row seats, so you know this poor, camera-wise thing doesn’t crave your flesh, just your audience. And maybe she looks like a member of the walking dead, but a statue raised in tribute, put up posthumously, is a zombie vehicle anyway.

Certainly Williamson would love to redo Lucy, but he wonders if the committee knows what to look for. “The artist needs to be very good at faces,” a ceramist on the committee told me, “as that has really been the problem area.”

Chantel Tattoli is a freelance journalist. She’s contributed to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Oxford American, Orion, and Opening Ceremony’s blog.