Friday, January 17, 2014

Memories of Lucille Ball - Wanda Clark

Wanda Clark was Lucille Ball's personal secretary for more than 25 years (1963-1989). Did she like the job? Let's put it this way: Wanda said that if the Queen of Comedy were still alive, she'd more than likely still be working for her. "I can't put into words what I miss about her - she was a great force in my life that I appreciated, and miss very much," Wanda noted. Wanda worked with Lucy's cousin Cleo Smith (who Lucy thought of as a sister) at Look magazine. When Lucy needed a secretary, she asked Cleo if she knew anyone, and Cleo recommended Wanda for the job. No interview was necessary; Lucy told Cleo, "If you like her, she's good enough for me." As Wanda reminded me, Lucy liked having her family and people she trusted in her immediate circle.
          Wanda had actually met Lucy once before she went to work for her, at a baby shower the redhead held for Cleo. Her first day on the job happened to include a photo shoot for Look - the photographer and interviewer came to Lucy's house. "I basically sat and listened," Wanda recalls. "I didn't need to do anything, but Lucy thought if I was interested in being there, I should be. So I watched Irma Kusely [Lucy's hair stylist for many years] do her hair. Lucy's home salon consisted of a dryer and shampoo bowl. Lucy could do her own hair color and hair, which she did frequently. But in fact she wore wigs at most appearances, because her own hair was fine and soft, and the hot lights would make it wilt. Putting on a wig is a very specialized thing -- it has to be done right or it won't look good. And hers always looked wonderful. Irma put them on so carefully. Lucy's own hair had to be pin-curled up tight, as close to the scalp as possible, and over that was wrapped some material, and then the wig was attached."
          Wanda's first day at the studio went something like this: "We went to the studio at 780 North Gower - now Paramount; there was just a little fence between Desilu Gower and Paramount. It was a regular office and office duties; it just happened to be for a very wonderful and well-known celebrity" Part of her job was taking phone calls, and preparing the mail for Lucy to look at - "when she had time, she would," Wanda says. Running interference is what any secretary does for the boss, of course. Wanda adds, "I've never had a job I could put a description on, and working for a celebrity like Lucy, the duties are whatever happened to come up: travel, setting up interviews with the publicity department, making doctor's appointments and seeing that she would get to them." And fielding the many, many phone calls: "Some Lucy couldn't possibly take and some she had to - it was a busy job but I had a good time doing it."
          As you might expect, Wanda met many other celebrities during her time with Lucy; as any self-respecting fan already knows, shows during the last few seasons of "The Lucy Show" on into "Here's Lucy" featured an army of guest stars. "Carol Burnett was everyone's favorite," Wanda says, "She was just a joy -and everyone loved it when she would guest star; when Lucy would do her show, I got to go there with her and watch. Ernie Ford, Mel Torme -- all the musical stars were fun. I fell in love with Donny Osmond when he guest-starred on 'Here's Lucy.' He had a crush on Lucie Arnaz at the time, and he was just a darling young man." Bob Hope and Jack Benny were particular favorites of Lucy's, Wanda says, and they were always "so much fun to be around. I enjoyed meeting them all." Lucy "just adored Dean Martin," Wanda adds, "but Dean [guest-starring on "The Lucy Show"] didn't work the way Lucy did -- he tried to get off without any rehearsal and Lucy insisted on a lot of it. Still, they liked and respected each other so much it turned out to be a great show." Wanda's one regret is not collecting all their autographs. "I wish I had. Actually, I have very few pictures of Lucy and me together-just one of those things I didn't think about when it was happening. But I sure wish I did now!"
          Lucy always spoke kindly of those "other stars" she worked with for so many years, you know, her co-stars on that littleshow called "I Love Lucy." "She was so respectful of them all, she appreciated their talents," Wanda says. "She thought Vivian [Vance] was the best script doctor in town; she counted on Vivian to help fix something whenever a script problem came up." She recalls a "heartbroken" Lucy going to visit Vivian just before Vance passed away. "She counted on Desi [Arnaz] for his good advice and ability to recognize good and bad material. She liked [William] Frawley be cause he did his job, did it well, never caused a problem." She adds that if Frawley had a drinking problem, it never impacted his TV job.
          There were many memorable experiences working for Lucille Ball over more than a quarter of a century, but several stick out for Wanda. She actually got to perform on an episode of "Here's Lucy," which she says "was memorable for me because that wasn't my thing - I didn't do well in front of a camera. But it was a wonderful experience." In the second season of "Here's Lucy," episode #38 aired on December 22, 1969, called "Lucy Protects Her Job" [see picture]. Uncle Harry ("Lucy" regular Gale Gordon) thinks Lucy Carter (Ball) needs some help in the office, but she of course fears he is going to replace her. Wanda plays the secretary Lucy interviews in the first scene. She explains how she got the part: "The actress Lucy hired for the part couldn't type, and to Lucy the important part of the character was having someone who could type fast, like a demon. Lucy wouldn't allow her to fake it, she wanted the real rhythm, she thought it was something I could do, because she knew I was a good typist." One thing Lucy hadn't taken into account: Wanda had been typing on an electric for many years, and she "wasn't used to working with the carriage [of an older, non-electric typewriter], and thrusting the carriage return back at the end of a line and all that, so I had to kind of fake it myself, but at least I had the rhythm down."
          Another memorable experience for Wanda happened after Lucy broke her leg, while skiing at her condo in Snowmass (Colorado) up near Aspen in the early 1970s. Lucy asked Wanda to come up and help her close up the apartment so she could come home. Wanda remembers, "Lucy was in a huge, full-leg cast. She was practically helpless in that huge cast, but it was great being there and helping her out. Eventually they shortened the cast, and gave her a walking cast so she could move around, and she ended up doing a dozen 'Here's Lucy' shows with the broken leg written into the show."
          What was "the real" Lucille Ball like? She was warm and wonderful and generous, Wanda says, to all of us that worked with her, and her family, of course. And she was loyal - that's why we were all so loyal to her. While Lucy's writers were an important element of her career, and she always gave them credit for her success, Lucy herself was a funny lady, Wanda says, refuting what Lucy herself often claimed, that she wasn't a particularly funny person. "She didn't go around doing 'I Love Lucy' shtick, but she had a great sense of humor and she loved to have a good laugh." Wanda's favorite moments spent with Lucy included the parties Lucy threw at her Beverly Hills house, "especially when the kids were still at home. They were a lot of fun, planning them, she'd do themes, like a hoedown, with traditional music and costumes. Those were great parties."
          Wanda especially enjoyed the times she got to spend alone with Lucy. Wanda says that every Thursday night after the show taped Lucy and Gary [Morton, her second husband] would head for Palm Springs. "For one reason or another she might want me to come down the next day, to bring her dog to her, or maybe to drive back with Lucy if she was not driving with Gary, and that was always fun. There were a lot of word games; when she couldn't play backgammon, she used to love to play Jotto. It boggled my mind -- and still does -- that she could keep all those letters in her head (while she was driving!), but we played it all the way from Palm Springs to LA.
          I asked Wanda if Lucy ever expressed any regrets about her career or life, and the answer was, not surprisingly, no. "I never heard Lucy say she was sorry she did or didn't do something. She was always sorry she didn't finish school, but she was so well-read, and could spell better than anyone I ever worked for -but as far as her career goes, I can't say she ever discussed any regrets about it with me. I know it hurt her a lot to hear the reviews of 'Life with Lucy' [Lucy's final sitcom, and her only misfire]. She took pride in her work and she worked so hard - she just couldn't find the right material for a character of her age [at the time of the show, Lucy was 75]."
          Wanda last spoke to Lucy the morning she went into the hospital: "We just thought it was another regular day - and Lucy was looking forward to a trip to Jamestown, where she was getting an honorary degree. She had the reservations made, Irma had been alerted - and Fred Williams, her makeup man - they were all set to go. That day she was stricken with a ruptured aorta, and they rushed her to the hospital. They repaired that one and she was on her way to recovery; her children was with her and she knew they were there and was happy they were all right, and then she had a second rupture and was taken instantly." 


 Asking Wanda what she misses most about Lucy is probably not a fair question for someone who became a close friend over more than 25 years. Still, when prompted she gives you the answer you expect: "Just everything about her - it was a very long and happy association." I want to thank Wanda from the bottom of my heart for the generous amount of time she gave me during the interview. She's a great lady.


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  2. This is such a great interview, thanks so much for posting it for us Lucy fans!

  3. Did you interview Wanda personally? She is my biological Aunt and I'm trying to find her.