Niagara Gazette

July 28, 2013

SINGER: The power of nostalgia

By B.B. Singer
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Urban renewal in agglomerations like this one is often an attempt to regain and enhance a sometimes neglected architectural past via herculean, admirable efforts to make that past relevant, pleasing, and useful to the present. Call it perhaps the power of nostalgia, so evident in many other parts of today’s culture.

You see this well as you drive through lush countryside to Jamestown, where the down-sloping Main Street immediately brings back an old-time America that helped spawn the most celebrated expatriate from the area, Lucille Ball. And of course Ball-Arnaz remain great attractions there today.

Fine, old churches and refurbished, brightly painted buildings of yore are simply magnificent here (houses on side streets awaiting their refurbishers remaining a kind of poetic foil). Then you get to the Lucy-Desi Museum, and every photo of Lucy, as well as a magnificent family portrait dominating one room, really shows the character of this sad yet vivacious, intelligent, beautiful, and facile clown-genius, who had emanated from a relatively hardscrabble background in these parts. You also see the symbiotic enhancement produced by a marriage and showbiz partnership with one Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III, hailing from anything but a tough lineage; rather, from one of the wealthiest, most important and privileged families in Cuba, until ruined by the Batista coup of the early ‘30s (Arnaz’ father associated with the previous strongman there).

Onward went the family to Miami, and the world of music for this handsome, noble scion of privilege, who like many in history, was supposed to be a lawyer. Desi’s musical efforts included Latin innovations he brought to America, such as the conga line. And thence to Hollywood, where on the set of “Too Many Girls” he met the lovely redhead who at age 4 had lost her factory worker dad in Jamestown to typhoid fever; but whose grandfather had blessedly supported her fascination with glamorous movies and the possibility of having such a career — even in remote Western New York.

What the French call a lightning strike ensued in 1940 for these two entertainers from very different cultures — suave, handsome Desi and beautiful, high-spirited Lucille; and the couple were soon married, living on a ranch with scads of pets (the museum outlines all this). However, the couple was also hurt by the army’s call and Desi’s band-touring, keeping them apart. At the outset of the ‘50s it was Lucy who forced early TV pioneers to make Desi her hubby on the show that is still hugely popular, revealing an America for all of us dedicated watchers that once seemed to work effortlessly and well.

What helped greatly were Desi’s innovative standards behind the scenes, not least technologically, and those of the head writer and producer, whose large picture here says it all — Jess Oppenheimer, sitting at his desk by a can of sharpened pencils. And of course the great Ball, and Vivian Vance and William Frawley, who played the Mertzes so admirably.

The dominating picture of Oppenheimer is found in an adjoining area recreating the Desilu studios, and most interesting here are the wonderfully reconstituted sets of the show — nostalgic toaster, fridge, stove, mix master, TV (obviously sans remote), couch and the rest. (Funded generously by Buffalonians ...)

Nostalgia? We’re seemingly awash in it these days, even though we now know more (perhaps than we should) about what Cary Grant was really like, about Marilyn Monroe or Spencer Tracy, and indeed, how Desi’s gambling and the rest helped break up a marriage; and yet, it does seem again, an America that worked.

In Jamestown, once an important industrial center, not least as furniture capital of the north, now trying to hold on and evolve by digesting its past, you see the same bittersweet dilemmas as are evident nearer to home. The Richardson Complex building project in these parts, versus today’s “real world” of crack, cacophonous entertainment culture and the rest …

Can our dicey, uncertain, confused, and financially challenged present help reclaim itself via the past? It certainly seems the preferred way to go these days.

B. B. Singer has taught at several colleges in the area, including Niagara University.