What is Jamestown’s identity? • For generations, it was a hotbed of manufacturing. But much of that has dwindled. • Every summer, the nearby Chautauqua Institution draws thousands of visitors and dozens of big-name speakers. That’s nice – but that’s seasonal. • There are good things going on in the 31,000-person Chautauqua County city, especially in terms of downtown development. But ask the typical Western New Yorker what’s happening in Jamestown, and you’re likely to get a shrug. • Soon, however, that answer may become a laugh. • And that’s a good thing. • The one brand long associated with the city is that of Lucille Ball. The comedian was born in Jamestown in 1911; her legacy (and that of her husband and
“I Love Lucy” co-star) is celebrated there in the Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Center. Go there now and you’ll see a lifetime’s worth of memorabilia connected to Lucy, who died in 1989.
Come back in a couple of years and you may see much more.
The center’s board of directors and its executive director are aggressively pursuing a plan that could transform Jamestown into a hotbed of laughter by building a National Comedy Center that will include interactive, high-tech exhibits celebrating past and present comics; a theater with year-round programming; an “industry incubator” where would-be comics can take classes and perform and record shows; and perhaps the most expansive comedy store anywhere.
They expect to draw more than 100,000 visitors a year and deliver an economic impact of $26 million.
Before you laugh, remember that Cooperstown (population: 1,800) built a museum and hall of fame for baseball, based on the legend of a boy named Abner Doubleday inventing the game there.
So can the comparatively larger Jamestown, with its real-life Lucy legend, become the Cooperstown of comedy?
It has a shot.
The comedy industry – which, for obvious reasons, is prone to laugh at many things – is taking this seriously. Legends like Jerry Seinfeld and Carol Burnett have offered positive feedback on the plan. So has “Blues Brothers” and “Ghostbusters” icon Dan Aykroyd, who’s keenly interested in the idea and offered pages of thoughts on the plans.
Ball’s daughter Lucie Arnaz, a celebrated performer, is helping promote the plan.
“What a brilliant, brave, courageous idea for a smallish town to take on this giant idea,” she said. “But what better place than the birthplace of one of the greatest comedians that ever lived?”
The chairman of the Lucy Desi Center board of directors, Tom Benson, said they have “solid leads or commitments” for $20 million of the construction costs for the center, which will be built around a historic renovated train station in downtown Jamestown. (Benson declined to reveal the overall cost, but said $20 million is a “significant portion.”)
Now, Benson and the center’s executive director, Journey Gunderson, are regularly meeting with foundations and political officials to line up funding, and networking within the comedy industry at the highest levels to reinforce the support of Hollywood.
There’s a sense of urgency: They want to break ground in 2015.
“We’re up to bat, we’ve got two strikes, and there’s a high, hard pitch coming,” said Benson. “We’ve got to hit it out of the park or we go back to the dugout.”
Legacy of laughter
Pushing the idea this close to reality has been a gargantuan task in itself. Just a few years ago, the Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Center was mired in a mix of small-town politicking and loving Lucy perhaps a little too much.
The backstory: Near the end of her life, Ball had endorsed the idea of having an institution in Jamestown that celebrated her legacy by promoting the art of comedy. What she didn’t want was a museum that was a shrine to herself or to “I Love Lucy.”
Over time, however, many people (including Ball’s daughter Lucie and son Desi) think that’s exactly what happened. The center’s annual festival was focused on all things Lucy. Ideas with a larger vision “couldn’t get off the ground,” Arnaz said, adding that she used to warn, “What are you going to do when everybody who knew Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz are dead and you can’t have any more interviews with those people? You’ve got to start thinking beyond that.”
Ultimately, Lucie and her brother left the board of directors, which triggered alarms in Jamestown: They were losing the support of Lucy’s family. Over the next couple of years, and through a multitude of financial issues, the board’s makeup and the center’s leadership changed.
In late 2009, at the urging of foundations that had the money to keep the center afloat, Benson – a successful Jamestown businessman who is founder of the consulting firm the Vineyard Group – joined the board and became chairman. The new board created a plan to redefine the center’s annual Lucy Fest comedy festival and, ultimately, to build the National Comedy Center.
But first, they needed a leader.
The Journey back home
While these plans were being made in 2010, a local-born young professional with a New York pedigree was working in the center’s shadows.
Journey Gunderson, who grew up in nearby Bemus Point, graduated from Maple Grove High School in 2000 and went on to Ithaca College and then six successful years working with top female athletes at the Women’s Sports Foundation in New York, had come home for the summer.
Originally, her plan was to begin building a Web development consulting business and then head with her soon-to-be husband to a bigger market. The Lucy Desi Center was among her first clients. She was contracted to spend 10 hours a week redeveloping the center’s website but put in much longer hours.
She saw the global power of the Lucy brand.
“All I could see in working with the Lucy Desi Center was opportunity,” Gunderson said.
Though she didn’t fully realize it at the time, when Gunderson said things like that in meetings, she was speaking Benson’s language. As an observer, he had long wondered why the center hadn’t done more with the Lucille Ball name. Now, with his fellow board members, he was determined to change that.
“Here we’ve been presented with the brand name of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz,” said Benson, 58. “That’s like Coca-Cola.”
In late 2010, Benson sat with Gunderson and asked her to consider becoming executive director of the center. She began in 2011 and immediately began promoting the board’s larger vision.
The first step was to redefine the annual Lucy Fest each August to focus on contemporary comics. Along with the traditional “I Love Lucy”-themed activities such as chocolate wrapping and grape stomping, the festival now includes comedy classes, showcases for rising comics, and full-theater shows with headliners like Joan Rivers, Paula Poundstone, Billy Gardell and Bill Engvall.
In the process, the center gained back the support of Lucie Arnaz and her brother, who oversee the license to use their parents’ likenesses. Though Arnaz doesn’t sit on the board of directors, she lauds them for being business-minded and “not just Lucy fans.”
And she sees real value in Gunderson’s youth. At 31, Gunderson didn’t grow up watching “I Love Lucy,” so there’s no danger of having too much hero worship.
“It’s helpful that the person running the show now is thinking in a bigger picture: What does this whole thing stand for? And how can we keep it running for the next 100 years?” Arnaz said. “It’s good that she’s not just a fan.”
A serious pitch
Nowadays, Gunderson is regularly pitching the comedy center plan at every opportunity. A couple of weeks ago, she attended “Simpsons” producer Dana Gould’s stand-up show at Helium Comedy Club in Buffalo. Afterward, she approached Gould, introduced herself and shared the vision. Gunderson and Benson have done the same with virtually every headliner they’ve brought to Jamestown.
And with the help of Lucie Arnaz, the center also has sent the plans to an impressive list of comedy icons that includes Aykroyd, Seinfeld and Burnett.
Aykroyd particularly took to the idea of creating a comedy education program. Growing up in Canada, he took improv lessons as a young teen at Ottawa Little Theatre, and later at the Second City in Toronto, before becoming an original cast member of “Saturday Night Live.”
“Wherever these programs are available and properly exploited, people are going to show up,” he said. “I can speak from first-hand experience that having that available to me through Ottawa Little Theatre and Second City helped me to get ready for ‘Saturday Night Live’ and everything that happened after.”
Though the National Comedy Center isn’t intended to celebrate Lucille Ball specifically – in fact, the Lucy Desi Center will likely remain open in a separate location – most observers would assume the comedian’s name is still vital to making it happen.
Aykroyd, however, sees it differently. The industry in which he made his name is taking off. Comedy clubs are cropping up around the country. Comedy shows are airing all over television.
“Humor is bigger than ever,” he said.
And that simple, human desire to laugh is, he said, the marketing.
“The body of what will be housed there will take care of the appeal and the marketability of it,” Aykroyd said. “I think a center of comedy will be a natural magnet to people.”
And he said that without a laugh.