In 1961, I auditioned for the chorus of Michael Kidd’s new Broadway show, Wildcat, a musical starring Lucille Ball. I’d grown up loving her feature films and landmark TV show, so seeing Lucy in person was stunning. With her dazzling aquamarine eyes, fiery hair, and luminescent skin, Lucy seemed to radiate light from within. She was wonderful, warm, and friendly to the entire cast.
The first time the cast convened to read the script, Lucy insisted that everyone introduce him- or herself. I was sitting next to a beautiful, petite brunette named Penny Ann who had worn hip hugger pants to the audition. When Penny Ann said her name, Lucy looked up from her script and said, “What’s a Penny Ann?” Then she looked directly at Penny and said, “Look at those saucer eyes, that’s a Penny Ann.”
Lucy looked after all of us. The first time she visited us in our chorus dressing room, she was shocked by how grim it was. She came from Hollywood, the land of clean, well-lit dressing rooms, so she was unaccustomed to the lack of glamour backstage in the old Broadway theaters. When she saw the rough, dirty cinder-block walls, she exclaimed, “I don’t want you living like this. We’ve got to paint the room.”
A few days later, she returned. “Kids, the union says that we can’t paint the dressing room. So how about we all sneak in on the weekend and do it behind their backs.” When the management got wind of what Lucy was up to, they immediately saw to it that the dressing room was painted. It was clear she used her stardom to help us. When I gave Penny Ann a shower for her upcoming wedding, Lucy sent a blender. A real state of the art blender was a big deal in those days.
Although the show got lukewarm reviews, people flocked to the theater expecting to see Lucy Ricardo, the wacky housewife from I Love Lucy. When the curtain went up, though, they embraced the tough oil prospector Lucy played in Wildcat. With her mile long legs and huge personality, Lucy filled the theater and enthralled the audience.
One night she truly outdid herself. There was a scene that involved Lucy; her sister Janie, played by Paula Stewart; a ritzy countess, played by Edith King; and a little Yorkshire terrier. The dog was unbelievably well trained, and every performance, he dutily followed behind Edith, Lucy, and Paula as they crossed the stage. One evening as the Yorkie was making his cross, he suddenly stopped center stage, assumed the position, and pooped. The audience went wild. Edith froze. Lucy dashed off stage and urgently asked the stage manager to hand over a broom and a upright dustpan. She returned to the stage and swept up the offending little pile and then turned to the audience. “Next time I’ll read the fine print in my contract.” The audience exploded with laughter and applause. After the show, Lucy confided to the cast that she was glad it had been a Yorkshire terrier and not a Great Dane.
Wildcat had its share of problems. Lucy suffered bouts of exhaustion and got injured during a performance when part of the oil rig hit her on the head. She was forced to take several leaves of abscence during which the show was dark. But when she recovered, she soldiered on immediately. If not for Lucy’s immense draw, I think we would have closed earlier than we did.
- Valerie Harper (far right) recounts her experience with Lucille Ball on the Broadway play Wildcat, “I Rhoda”