BWW Previews: Lucie Arnaz Brings Showbiz Legacy to Louisville
On May 3, the Kentucky Derby will return with its perpetual sense of storied legacy combined with perennial freshness and excitement.
Later that evening, a similar sensibility will fill the Crowne Plaza Hotel, when Lucie Arnaz takes the stage at the 2014 Silks in the Bluegrass gala.
Arnaz will perform her "Latin Roots" Big Band Show, the story, showcase of and tribute to the music of the man who introduced her to it: Desi Arnaz, who with her mother Lucille Ball formed one of the most iconic couples in entertainment history.
Desi Arnaz emigrated from Cuba in the 1930s. By the end of the decade, he had entered show business, meeting future wife Lucille Ball on the set of the movie musical "Too Many Girls." The pair married in 1940. Arnaz found success throughout the '40s leading the Desi Arnaz Orchestra, and he and Ball created a television institution in 1951 with the "I Love Lucy" show, simultaneously innovating television staples such as the multiple-camera setup and live studio audience. Arnaz became one of television's most successful producers, and he and Ball became legendary in the early days of television.
What Lucie Arnaz remembers of the time, though, is not a fairy tale Hollywood childhood. Life at home was very much the idyllic mid-20th century family story.
"I grew up away from spotlight," she says. "We never lived like celebrities. My parents had normal, simple values. I was given an allowance. We didn't go to events unless we needed to. Today's Hollywood is no reflection on the way I grew up. My parents were hard workers, trying to raise a family and make a good business survive. They didn't have time to get glamorous. It was hard work, much the way I live with my children today. Desi used to say 'It's not all sunglasses and autographs.'"
What it was was a way for Lucie Arnaz to dream big from the very start.
"I've wanted to do this since earlier than I can remember," she says. "I was a tot dressing up in adult clothes, doing shows in the backyard and an empty garage."
When the time came, she personally selected Immaculate Heart High School, an all-girls Catholic school an hour away from home, specifically for its theater program. "It was Catholic, with nuns - all the things I never wanted to do," she jokes. "But this was in the Progressive era, and they told us 'You can do anything you want.'"
Arnaz's planned trajectory was to continue on through college for theater into the professional show business world, but her training took a different path: working directly alongside her mother in Ball's third series, "Here's Lucy." The show's sitcom format with occasional musical performances gave Lucie plenty of on-the-job training, and after six years, she left to pursue her fortunes on stage and screen, starring in her own television series, earning a Golden Globe nomination for her performance in "The Jazz Singer" and playing many of the stage's iconic female roles.
But music was always in her life. After her father passed away, she found boxes of his orchestra arrangements, inspiring her first live act. A 2010 tribute performance in New York City produced an album and inspired Lucie to create "Latin Roots" in tribute to the story of her relationship to her father and his music.
"The show is like a mini-play with an arc," she says. "I want to give people good music and arc it right with a through-line, a story. I've never been good at getting up and talking about composers or history of a song. I want a conversational evening, just the audience and me.
"I love the ending, where I 'become' Dad for the songs 'Cuban Pete' and 'Straw Hat,'" she says. "It's thrilling, like I'm 5 again playing in the living room, but now I'm not kidding and singing for real. I just love getting up there with these great arrangements. It's fun. It's not work; the work is getting ready to go, going through airports, carrying bags. That's what I get paid for. I perform for free. I'm lucky to be doing something I love."
Her first Derby visit will also give her a chance to revisit another childhood love.
"Desi had racing Thoroughbreds. I loved watching them train and race," she says. "But I won't be placing any bets this year. I've never been a big better. I used to know what I was doing, analyzing weights and other statistics. My stepmother Edie's system was really accurate. At end of the year, she was always in the black. I just like to watch the pretty horses run."