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Lucie Arnaz Interview: Recollections of Christmas with Her "I Love Lucy" Mom and Dad

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Image attributed to Lucie Arnaz

Lucie Arnaz

Actress/singer Lucie Arnaz is the daughter of comedy legend Lucille Ball and Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz. She had walk-on parts in her mother’s television series The Lucy Show and made her first acting appearance in a continuing role on Here’s Lucy (1968-1974). Other TV appearances included Murder, She Wrote, Marcus Welby, M.D., Sons and Daughters, Fantasy Island and Law & Order.

Arnaz also made some feature film appearances, the most prominent of which was 1980s The Jazz Singer opposite Neil Diamond. She has had a lengthy career in musical theatre with roles in Annie Get Your Gun, They’re Playing Our Song, My One and Only, Seesaw, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Master Class, just to name a few.

“After my parents were divorced, I thought that Christmas would end, and it would all be horrible, that there wouldn’t be the same kind of compassion and love. But what actually happened was that we got two Christmases.”

We got the Christmas at mom’s in Beverly Hills, and then three days later, we got in the car and went down to dad’s to have another Christmas there. That was really funny because that was the Cuban Christmas, which is a lot more ‘fiesta.’ My mother had the white flocked tree and the blue lights, and my father had the silver tree that was fake. You’d pull the arms down and put the green, yellow and blue spinning light underneath it and sing, ‘Feliz Navidad.’”

The multi-talented artist most recently appears as an interviewee in the first film biography of composer-conductor Marvin Hamlisch (June 2, 1944 – August 6, 2012), American Masters Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did for Love, which premieres nationally December 27 at 9:00 PM on PBS.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Lucie, before we discuss Marvin Hamlisch, I understand you had a connection to Tom Laughlin (known for his series of Billy Jack films), who passed away on December 12.

Lucie Arnaz: Oh yeah. That was surprising news. First of all, I had no idea Tom was 82. I thought he was closer to my age (laughs). I really did. I was shocked. When we were working together, I had no idea I was a whole lot younger than him. But I was sorry to hear that. I hadn’t spoken to Tom in a few years, but he was a character. I’m sorry to hear he’s gone.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I recently watched Barbra Streisand’s Back to Brooklyn concert on PBS, and she said that Marvin could always make her laugh.

Lucie Arnaz: Marvin was hysterically funny all the time whatever the situation if he just arrived in a room, whether it was a rehearsal or opening night or even if he had just been to see a competitor’s work on Broadway and it irritated the hell out of him because it was so good. He would come in and be funny about it. Marvin would make you laugh.

The man had a sensational sense of humor. You don’t meet to many people who are really that funny. He didn’t even go into show business to be a clown. He went in it to be a great composer. Multi-talented was an understatement where Marvin was concerned.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You made your Broadway debut in Neil Simon’s They’re Playing Our Song, music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager.

Lucie Arnaz: Yes. We started rehearsals October 1978, and we opened on Broadway February 11, 1979.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was that the first time you had ever met Marvin?

Lucie Arnaz: I had known him a little while before that. We weren’t close friends by any stretch. I didn’t really know him personally, but I had worked with him when he was the musical director or arranger on some TV specials I had been in. Our paths had crossed through the years, but that was the first chance I really got to meet him. I auditioned twice. I was the first person they thought of and one of the last people they brought back.

I was nervous to sing for Marvin because I knew him a little bit, but he wasn’t a friend. I was like, “My God. It’s Marvin Hamlisch for God’s sake. It’s Chorus Line. It’s The Way We Were.” He was a taskmaster. He wanted things right and didn’t just hire me because he liked me. I had to prove myself to him. But we became fast friends after that and Carole Bayer Sager too. We stayed friends through the years.

Marvin has helped me put shows together and written arrangements for me. We’ve performed in concert together all around the country with his symphonies, and we’ve been at each other’s houses for dinner. He knew my children, and we used to go out to the Hamptons. Once you knew Marvin, it was kind of a forever thing.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In the documentary, Marvin’s wife Terre speaks of his generosity. Apparently he was a celebrity who gave back.

Lucie Arnaz: Well, he had the money, and he had the ability, and he was brought up right to always give back. When you’ve been lucky enough to have things go well in your life, and you’ve gotten, you need to give. He was one of the most generous people ever. He picked up all the checks (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Marvin’s driving force throughout his life was his father?

Lucie Arnaz: His mom, too. She was a force. She really was. He adored his mother, and she was a strong woman. But he admired his father. He looked up to his dad. I think his dad was the one who basically said, “You must learn to be a classical pianist. You have to study this music. I don’t care if you don’t like it. You need to learn it so that you can go off later and write your own songs. I know you want to write your own songs, but you have to learn this stuff so that nobody will every play your songs better than you.” He created the Marvin we knew which was not only this genius composer but was also one of the finest piano players, arrangers and accompanists on the planet because he understood the instruments so well.

Have you read Marvin’s book, the children’s book? It’s charming. It’s called Marvin Makes Music. It’s his story of how he grew up and tried to get into Juilliard, his audition and what his parents said to him and how every single sound he ever heard anywhere around the world made him think of music. He wanted to compose. He wanted to replicate the sound of rain, the sound of lemonade stirring in a glass or the sound of a plane flying low. He was a composer before he was 10 years old. He was hearing it in his mind. It’s a terrific children’s book, but it’s very impressive. Then he wrote a song to go with it.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Marvin was quite a genius.

Lucie Arnaz: He really was. Prolific as prolific gets. Some melodies came so easy to him that you wondered if there was some sort of reincarnation or if the greats were channeling through Marvin. Now he’s one of the greats, and he’s probably channeling through somebody else.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Lucie, are you still doing any Broadway work?

Lucie Arnaz: I did Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in 2006 and haven’t done a Broadway show since then. I’ve been doing my concerts most of the time.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your Latin band?

Lucie Arnaz: It’s just me. Sometimes it’s the Latin Roots show, the Big Band Latin Roots show which I’m starting to do around the country with a 12-piece orchestra. It’s a tribute to the Latin heritage I grew up with and the songs that my dad sang. It’s original music now but with a Latin bent. It’s just me in concert singing whatever I sing. But that’s basically how I’ve been making my living for the last 25 years and in and out of Broadway once in a while.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You appeared on Here’s Lucy and other TV shows in the 70s and 80s, so when did you decide you preferred to perform music rather than act?

Lucie Arnaz: Part of what I talk about in my Latin Roots show is that whole thing like how did this happen? Why am I here? What am I doing? If I trace it back, it all goes back to my dad and the music I grew up with. There was so much music around the house all the time. Even after my parents separated, I used to spend summers with my father down in Del Mar. We would be surrounded with these wonderful composers a lot of the time.

Jimmy Durante lived next door, so his best friends were Sammy Fain, Sammy Cahn and Burt Bacharach. Bing Crosby was down the street. These guys would come and hang out at the piano and play and sing this stuff, this amazing music. I grew up with that live entertainment, so I kind of always gravitated toward the live performance aspect in grammar school and in high school.

My mother was changing series, and she wanted us to be closer to home. I think she was scared if I went to college, I’d get shot because it was the year of Kent State. I’m not kidding. She literally put us on the show so we wouldn’t get shot (laughs). It’s funny, but when I think about it now, that’s what happened. She’d say, “You’re gonna get shot if you go to college! Don’t go to college! They’re going to shoot you!”

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Her worst fear at the time.

Lucie Arnaz: I swear to you. So she was changing her format and asked us to go on the show, and I thought, “Well, it’s a live audience, and I like live audience stuff, so maybe I can learn something. Then I’ll go to college. I’ll go to Northwestern, and I’ll study theatre.” That was the plan. And the show went well.

I was there 6 years, and at summer vacation time, I wouldn’t go to Mexico and Hawaii and all the other places that everybody else went because Vivian Vance would say to me, “Listen. When you get a chance, you’ve got to get back to the theatre. I know you love the theatre. Get back to live performing. Don’t let that lapse.” So I’d go audition every chance I got for summer stock.

I did several years of that, and then that led to an audition for Michael Bennett for the first national company of Seesaw with Tommy Tune and John Gavin. I did that for 6 months on the road, and I did Annie Get Your Gun at the Jones Beach Theatre on Long Island for the summer of ’78 which led me to my audition for Neil Simon and Marvin Hamlisch in They’re Playing Our Song, and boom! I was doing theatre. It was like, “Oh wait! I forgot to go to college. I worked and worked and worked.”

We went through a period in the 80s when the Broadway thing kind of calmed down and I would joke that you had to have whiskers or skates to get a Broadway show because the only shows that were lasting were Starlight Express and Cats. I went back out to Los Angeles and did a little television work, but what really happened when I was there was that I put together a nightclub act, and it was like it was just meant to be. It was like it was just waiting for me all this time like, “Oh you finally got here! Well geez, it took you long enough!” It’s just where I love to be. I love to be on stage in front of a big band doing great arrangements.

My father died in 1986, and this happened to me in 1988. It’s an interesting thing because he died, and I started listening to the CDs that his band recorded back in the 30s and 40s. In those days, they were cassettes. It inspired me to want to go and do that, so I just switched gears a little bit. I went back to Broadway every once in a while for a small period of time, but basically, my heart was in concerts, and that’s where I’ve been ever since.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): When you say, “1988,” I take it that your mom knew you loved performing the concerts?

Lucie Arnaz: Oh yeah. She got to see the first shows I did, and then she died in April 1989. We were living out in LA at the time, so it was nice because she had a chance to spend more time with my kids and see the show and all that. She loved it. She thought it was great that I was doing that.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I believe I have a VCR copy of Luci and Desi: A Home Movie that I taped when it came out on television.

Lucie Arnaz: The home movie won an Emmy in 1993, and then it aired in various places. Sometimes we do screenings for special events. I’m very proud of that. I do have a lecture circuit I do from time to time. I had a talk I used to give called “Surviving Success,” which I still give occasionally and then there’s another one which is just basically about my life and about my mom’s life and our life together. I do that when I have a schedule that permits, and I enjoy it. I do my talk for about 40 minutes and then take questions from the audience which is always an interesting part of the show. The home movie is out on DVD now, and it has the extra stuff on it.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you been auctioning off your family heirlooms?

Lucie Arnaz: I’ve done it a couple of times. Listen, they’ve been gone 20+ years, and you can only keep so much. We keep paring down. We just moved, and we have a big house, but it has more glass and less walls. There are things I don’t want to keep hoarding anymore, so every time we move someplace, we think, “Oh I’m never going to use this. I don’t have a space for that.”

I created two museums with their leftover things and had an auction at Christie’s about 10 years ago of some of my mother’s jewelry that is too glittery and expensive for me to ever wear. I don’t wear stuff like that. With all that’s going on in this world, I think that people showing up with big rocks on their fingers is a little disturbing. So I just don’t like that. I decided to sell the stuff and put it back in the bank to help the kids pay off college.

Two years ago I realized there was lots of my mom and dad’s memorabilia coming at me at various locations, so I called a friend of mine who has an online ebay site, and she said, “Let’s do an auction.” We did, and it turned out great. I said, “Well, that’s it.” Then we started to pack up for this move, and I thought, “It’s not all gone.” As you get older, you start to feel okay about letting different things go, and it’s nice to share it with other people who cared about them.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You were associated with the museum in Jamestown, New York?

Lucie Arnaz: We created the first board of directors up there and helped them put the original one together, and then it became the Lucille Ball/Desi Arnaz Center, and now it’s the Lucy Desi Center for Comedy. There’s a brand new board of directors, and they’re all on their own now. They’re building the first one ever national comedy center. There’s never been a comedy hall of fame ever, and they’re building this beautiful building. They’re turning the old train station into this national sensation honoring comedy. They’ve done a great job.

They have two full buildings of memorabilia and one of them houses the sets that traveled for the 50th anniversary. They’re identical replicas of all the main I Love Lucy sets down to the original colors and everything and tons of other stuff. You can do a Lucy town tour in the two houses she lived in. It’s nice, and it’s a beautiful part of the country.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’d love to know some of your favorite memories from Christmases past with your mom and dad.

Lucie Arnaz: I’m glad you asked that as opposed to, “What is your favorite episode?” I thought that was where you were going, and I’d have to haul out the same old answer (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): For the 10,000th time (laughs). I do try to be different.

Lucie Arnaz: Good for you. I was just telling my husband yesterday that Christmas is one of my favorite times because it really was a good time at our house. My parents were not getting along very often, but it was the only time of the year when there wasn’t stress. They were divorced when I was 7 years old. But there were some terrific Christmases that I remember. They went out of their way to make them beautiful and memorable when the whole family and extended family would be around.

We always had a white flocked Christmas tree with blue lights and those big ball ornaments that reflected the room behind it, you know? We had Christmas Eve night, and when all the people would show up, we’d do the dinner. We’d do traditional Christmas Day as well with more people and friends coming over. After my parents were divorced, I thought that Christmas would end, and it would all be horrible, that there wouldn’t be the same kind of compassion and love. But what actually happened was that we got two Christmases.

We got the Christmas at mom’s in Beverly Hills, and then three days later, we got in the car and went down to dad’s to have another Christmas there. That was really funny because that was the Cuban Christmas, which is a lot more “fiesta.” My mother had the white flocked tree and the blue lights, and my father had the silver tree that was fake. You’d pull the arms down and put the green, yellow and blue spinning light underneath it and sing, “Feliz Navidad.”

It was a whole other world! There was a roast pig instead of a turkey. But we had the best of both worlds. There were always way too many presents for everybody, so I grew up thinking if there were not 57 presents under the three, it wasn’t a good Christmas. My kids were spoiled rotten until I realized that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What are the Christmas traditions in your family today?

Lucie Arnaz: Christmas Eve is the dinner, and everybody gets to open one tiny little something, and we do the stockings. We spend pretty much the whole day hanging out together as grown ups now opening presents, even if it’s only stockings, and talking about stuff. We take our time. It’s the polar opposite of when the kids were little and when they had too many gifts and it was just insanity of ripping paper and screaming. There’s no more of that. That was really crazy.

I don’t think kids have any respect really for what they’re getting if they get too much, and they don’t take the time to appreciate where it comes from and who gave it to them. I love to cook the Christmas dinner, decorate the tree, put the lights on, the whole ritual. It’s a ritual. Like Larry just asked me, “When are we going to get the tree?”

We’ve got a brand new house, so this year, the ritual is like born again because we don’t know how we do Christmas here, where we put the tree or where we hang the lights. There’s no mantle! Where will the stockings go? We have a fireplace that just goes straight up! But it’s exciting because we are going to create Christmas new again. Some of our kids will be here and some won’t because they’re grown up now.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’m sure that everything will be beautiful. Your home in Connecticut was gorgeous.

Lucie Arnaz: Yes, a real traditional colonial where we had many good Christmases, holidays, birthdays and summers. But we sold it to friends, so I get to go back and visit whenever I want. And they bought half my furniture, so it’ll be very strange when I go back to visit (laughs).

© 2013 Smashing Interviews Magazine. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the express written consent of the publisher.

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