UB faculty member loves Lucy
By KEVIN FRYLING
Reporter Staff Writer
Bill Rapaport had big plans for Memorial Day weekend.
Each year, the UB professor of computer science and engineering spends the long weekend in Jamestown, as thousands flock to the birthplace of Lucille Ball to celebrate "Lucy-Desi Days," a festival held annually on Memorial Day weekend to honor the beloved comic redhead, her co-star and husband, Desi Arnaz, and their classic television show, "I Love Lucy."
Rapaport, a former resident of Jamestown, and his wife, Mary, are the major donors behind the Desilu Playhousea collection of vintage memorabilia, costumes and set recreations from the iconic TV series that is named in honor of the Hollywood studio where "I Love Lucy" was filmed. The collection is the result of the Rapaports' gift of $500,000 to the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center in Jamestown in 2005.
"We went down to one of the festivals one summer and just really fell in love with the whole thing," says Rapaport, adding that his wife had become a serious collector of "I Love Lucy" memorabilia after watching the show helped to keep her spirits up during a fight against breast cancer in the mid-1990s.
The centerpiece of the playhouse, Rapaport says, is a permanent installation of the "I Love Lucy" 50th Anniversary Tour, which traveled across the United States in 2001-02 and featured complete recreations of the famous living room and kitchen sets from Lucy and Ricky Ricardo's New York City apartment. The exhibit also included a recreation of the Tropicana Roomsite of "I Love Lucy's" famous show-within-a-show featuring Desi Arnazwhich has been converted to host luncheons, receptions and meetings. These attractions, plus the offices of the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center, are housed in the Rapaport Center, a historic building in downtown Jamestown renamed in honor of the couple whose support and volunteerism has helped transform it from an abandoned department store to a vibrant tourist destination.
"It is hard to imagine where the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center would be today without the amazing support of Bill and Mary Rapaport," says Ric Wyman, executive director of the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center. "Their generosity in making possible the development of the Desilu Playhouse has truly transformed downtown Jamestown. They've more than earned the enormous gratitude of all of us at the Lucy-Desi Center, as well as the entire Jamestown community."
Additional memorabilia from the Rapaports' personal collection that has been donated to the playhouse includes Lucille Ball's first Hollywood contract, signed in 1933, and costumes worn by actors on the show, including William Frawley, who played Fred Mertz.
"I grew up watching the original show," Rapaport says. "I remember going to school the day after "I Love Lucy" was on and everybody talking about it. So being involved in thisgoing to festivals, meeting people who wrote the show and meeting some of the people who were on the show I used to watchis a lot of fun."
In fact, Rapaport says that since his wife joined the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center's board of directors several years ago, the couple has become acquaintances with board president Lucie Arnaz, daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. He says she personally asked that he participate in a revision of the organization's bylaws last year
Guests at the festival this past weekend included Arnaz, an actress and singer in her own right; as well as Cleo Smith, a native of Jamestown and close cousin of Lucille Ball; Lou Ann Graham, sister of Vivian Vance, the actress who played Ethel Mertz; and Dann Cahn, film editor of "I Love Lucy." Activities included screenings, memorabilia shows, auctions, photo ops, a picnic, boat cruise and a tour of such local landmarks as Lucy's birthplace and childhood home.
"People love it," Rapaport says, noting that the biggest "I Love Lucy" fans treat the festival like Elvis fans might a trip to Graceland. "For many of them, it's a near-religious experience," he jokes. "People come in costume; it's also a little like the "Star Trek" fan club."
The number of people who travel to Jamestown to participate in Lucy-Desi Days reaches into the thousands, he says, and ticket-buyers for last weekend's event included fans from 25 states, as well as Canada, Australia and England.
In addition to their support of the Desilu Playhouse, the Rapaports also have purchased and preserved Lucille Ball's childhood home in Celoron, a small village outside Jamestown on Chautauqua Lake. Mary Rapaport has worked hard to restore the residence to its original 1920s appearance, Rapaport says, based on the memories of Cleo Smith and Lucille Ball's late brother, Fred, who died several months ago.
"Last year," Rapaport says, "Lucille Ball's brother and cousin, who grew up in the house, came back to see it. [Fred] had not been there in 70 years." Mary's restoration was performed with such care that even the home's wallpaper was chosen from vintage styles available at a local store in Jamestown, he adds.
Although the house is a private residence and not open to the public, Rapaport notes visitors can see it on a bus tour of historic Lucy landmarks in Jamestown.
The Desilu Playhouse is open year-round from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 1-5 p.m. on Sunday. For more information on the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center, click here.