“I’m just a lucky slob from Ohio who happened to be in the right place at the right time,” Clark Gable once told a reporter. Gable became known as “The King of Hollywood,” but like many motion picture and television stars, he grew up an average guy who hit it lucky.
My wife, Brenda, and I enjoy visiting museums off the beaten paths and reliving for a brief time the Golden Age of Hollywood. Many of the stars are long deceased, but long remembered by hometowns that run museums dedicated to their movie star resident.
We have been to the John Wayne Museum in the small town of Winterset, Iowa, where I made a speech at the dedication ceremony one lovely spring morning in 2015.
In Fairmont, Indiana, the home of James Dean, we climbed the stairs of the gray and blue three-story Victorian home with the wide front porch, the porch where a person could sit in a rocker and watch an Indiana downpour in the summer. We knocked at the door. An elderly man peered through the blinds.
“Are you open?” we asked. He only shook his head.
He closed his eyes and the blinds, and we saw the doorknob turn as the door lock clicked. Being keen to non-verbal communications, we knew our time at the James Dean Museum was over.
We had better luck at the Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield, North Carolina, and the Jimmy Stewart Museum in Indiana, Pennsylvania, across from where his father ran his hardware store for many years.
I grew up a “child of the ’50s” and one of my favorite television shows was “I Love Lucy.” Lucy Ricardo’s landlord was a man by the name of Fred Mertz, played by William Frawley, not only a character actor, but a character in real life as well.
Years before “I Love Lucy”, Bill Frawley pulled a large wooden door open that led onto the sooty, rambling sound stage, which was a way of life for Frawley, a gruff Irishman, song and dance man, comedian, and gifted character actor with over 100 movies to his credit. This sound stage gave a much-needed shot in the arm to his show business career, a career with more twists and turns than Snake Alley in his hometown of Burlington, Iowa.
The year was 1946 and the sound stage was in New York City and he was playing the character of Charlie Halloran in the classic Christmas film, “Miracle on 34th Street.”
Frawley dressed in a dark suit, walks onto the set and sits in the front row of the make-believe courtroom with a scowl on his face as Judge Henry X. Harper (Gene Lockhart) contemplates the question: “Does Santa Claus exist?” Judge Harper clears his voice and looks at Halloran, who shakes his head — knowing as the judge’s political advisor, that the voters of New York City would unfavorably remember a judge on election day who ruled there was no Santa Claus.
According to friends, five years later Frawley found himself on a second sound stage, this time on Gower Street in Hollywood. According to Hollywood lore, Frawley heard that Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball were developing “I Love Lucy”, and Frawley wanted to be part of it. His hand shook as he picked up the phone and called Lucy.
His heartbeat returned to the low hundreds when Lucy’s deep voice responded, “Bill Frawley, how are you?” to a man she barely knew.
They spoke for several minutes and Lucy promised to discuss the matter with Desi Arnaz.
Arnaz agreed that Frawley personified the Fred Mertz role, but Desi knew of Frawley’s reputation for unpredictability and excessive drinking.
“Bill, I’m going to be honest with you,” Arnaz told Frawley. “If you are late to work, arrive drunk, or unable to perform except because of legitimate illness more than once, we will write you out of the show.”
The hours were long, the work hard, but not once during the filming of the entire run of the series did Frawley ever arrive at work drunk or late, and each week he mastered his lines after only one reading. Arnaz became one of Frawley’s few close friends.
Sixty-three years later, Bill Frawley’s spirit is alive and well on his last sound stage along with his so-stars, Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, and Vivian Vance in a small theatre and museum in Lucy’s hometown of Jamestown, New York.
If you ever get to Jamestown, stop and visit The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Museum and National Comedy Center.
After all, we all love Lucy.
Pat Haley is a Clinton County native and former county commissioner and sheriff.
His book, “Around the Fire: Stories from Here and There” — comprised of his nonfiction stories in the News Journal through the years — is available through the Clinton County History Center in Wilmington, or you can reach Pat directly at 937-205-7844 or via email at [email protected] to purchase a copy.