And to think it starts off so nicely.
Projected onto the stage is that famous photo of the scene that ended Episode 110 of I LOVE LUCY.
Our four beloved characters are in a convertible that Ricky’s driving. Lucy’s in the front with him and the Mertzes are in the back.
As they cruise over the George Washington Bridge, Ricky starts to sing – and everyone joins in – “California, Here I Come!”
(Ricky, you’ll recall, is en route to Hollywood to appear in a remake of DON JUAN.)
Here in Cape May Stage, the slide fades and Kim Powers’ play SIDEKICKED gives us far less happiness.
It’s March 2, 1960. We’re in the dressing room of Vivian Vance. The one and only Ethel Mertz is preparing to film the final episode of the long-running sitcom that has morphed into THE LUCILLE BALL-DESI ARNAZ SHOW.
Don’t expect an evening of gentle nostalgia; grating neuralgia is more like it. Vance, through no fault of the expert Sally Mayes who portrays her, will instead display raw nerves as she vents her considerable pent-up anger to her psychiatrist.
He or she isn’t in the room where this happens, but that’s to whom Vance is speaking fourth-wall.
A shrink who makes house calls?
Or is Vance is rehearsing for her session?
No, there must be a doctor in the house, for near play’s end Vance writes him a check.
It had better be a large one considering all the bellyaching the poor psychiatrist – and we – have had to endure. This will be a Kleenex-free evening, for we won’t cry for Vance no matter how much she wants our sympathy.
And, oh, does she ever.
Vance complains that portraying Ethel meant that she had to wear “Chenille versus Chanel” while playing a “dumpy old woman with curlers in her hair.” She laments that Lucille Ball demanded that she not have eyelashes at the length Vance would have liked. Make-up that flattered was forbidden, too, lest Lucy pale in comparison.
And William Frawley, who’d been assigned to portray Fred? Vance hated that that Ethel was married to a man who was 22 years older. “He should play my father, not my husband,” she snarls. “Nerts to Mertz,” she adds, referring to both spouses.
Minutes into the show, the audience went “Ohhhh!” in surprise and disappointment after Vance had said the F-word. Most everyone in the packed house adjusted, though, for the ensuing half-dozen or so more times she’d say it.
It’s not that these theatergoers haven’t been inured to the word; who hasn’t in 2019? They just didn’t want to think that the woman behind the exuberant Ethel would use such a profanity.
And she’s just getting started. Vance calls Desi Arnaz “Mr. Cuban Heel” and that Lucille Ball was “psychopathic” and “a bitch” and that “Everyone loved me but her.”
Frawley, too? Apparently not, for now Arnaz is offering Vance the chance to appear in a new series. “A spinoff,” Mayes deftly says in a way to let us know this is a new word and a novel concept.
It was to be called ETHEL AND FRED for which Arnaz is offering Vance a $50,000 signing bonus. She doesn’t reveal how much she’ll get as the show’s star, but she does say that now, with six seasons under her belt, she’s been getting $4,500 a week — literally ten times more than when she started the series.
Let’s do the math. A $450 weekly salary for 35 episodes in 1951-1952 translates to $15,750.
At that time, the average American grossed $3,300 for 50 to 52 weeks of work.
By the sixth season, the series was down to 27 episodes. Thus 1956-1957 gave her $121,500 for perhaps 30 weeks of work.
The average American had received raises during the ‘50s, too. He was now up to $3,650 per annum.
Not so incidentally, imdb.com, which is either right or wrong, claims that Vance was getting $7,500 a week during season six.
Is she lying to her psychiatrist so that he won’t up his hourly rate?
If imdb.com is correct, Vance would have had a yearly gross of $202,500 – or $1,853,616 in today’s dollars, when the average salary for Americans is now $49,445.
And that $50,000 signing bonus would now be worth $430,270.
“They keep throwing money at me,” grumbles Vance.
And which of us wouldn’t want to catch it?
Instead, Vance whines that autograph seekers want her to sign as Ethel Mertz and not with her real name. Is that so big a cross to bear?
Then she grouses that Ethel’s incessant entrances into Lucy’s kitchen made her “The busiest door-opener in show business.”
Look, all of us can reduce our jobs to trivialities or slurs: doctors are sawbones; lawyers are ambulance-chasers. But let’s get real: Vance was one lucky lady – especially when one considers something that she reveals later in the play.
In 1948, Vance was appearing in a regional production of that big ‘40s hit THE VOICE OF THE TURTLE. During one performance she experienced a nervous breakdown, couldn’t finish the performance and had to let her then-unknown understudy Patricia Neal take over.
“After that,” she says, “Nobody wanted to hire me again.”
No, someone did: Desi Arnaz. A total of 207 LUCY episodes not only got Vance quite a chunk of change – nay, dollars – but also three Emmy nominations and one win. You’d think that her being rescued from the jaws of two years of unemployment and obscurity would make her breathe sighs-upon-sighs of relief and be grateful instead of sorry.
True, she admits that without I LOVE LUCY, she would have been back in Albuquerque (where she spent many of her formative years) “selling beaded belts on the side of the road.”
You said it, Viv.
But on she goes, begrudgingly saying of Ball “That crazy lady made me a star.”
So what’s the problem? “Lucille needed to own her part — and yours too,” Mayes says with slow head-nodding to stress Vance believed this. Fine, but that doesn’t mean that Ball should be the leading character of HORRIBLE BOSSES 3.
Sure, many who reach a point of great success often want more. So we understand when Vance tells of “being a second banana who wanted to be a first banana.”
But ETHEL AND FRED’s title alone indicates that she would have been exactly that. She just wouldn’t work with Frawley again. Vance grouses that in addition to his well-documented verbal jabs at her, he – let’s put it more gingerly than Powers does — too constantly expelled gas.
Besides, much of the audience enters with the knowledge that indeed Vance did capitulate to do THE LUCY SHOW fewer than two years later. She knew a second banana is better than none.
Vance also grouses about “a disappointing love life.” That she went through two divorces before she was 23 — and one more before Husband Four — suggests that she might have at least occasionally been at fault.
Frank Castelluccio and Alvin Walker, in their excellent 2000 biography THE OTHER SIDE OF ETHEL MERTZ, devote many pages to how much Vance and third husband Philip Ober were deeply, deeply enamored at the start. Vance truly believed that Ober was Uber-Mr. Right and he returned that ardor.
So why doesn’t Powers soften his character by letting her tell us of this stars-in-her-eyes love? SIDEKICKED is hardly overlong (at 75 intermission-less minutes) so Powers did have the time.
Castelluccio and Walker do concede that Vance was no shrinking Venus Fly-Trap. So Powers can defend himself by saying this was the real Vivian Vance.
But THE OTHER SIDE OF ETHEL MERTZ could only manage a lesser publisher and didn’t sell many copies. Besides, reading is one-step further removed from real life; seeing someone play the character makes it all the more real.
So attendees were oh-so-quiet as Vance went on and on, suggesting that they didn’t want to see or hear “the other side” of Vance. A 2012 study conducted by ABC News and PEOPLE revealed that the nation’s viewers considered I LOVE LUCY the best TV show of all-time. It made them laugh; SIDEKICKED rarely does.
Under Roy B. Steinberg’s efficient direction, Mayes excels. She doesn’t much resemble Vance in appearance or voice but is pitch-perfect when impersonating her castmates. She astonishes in her imitation of Lucy’s high-pitched “Wellllllll” that Ms. Ricardo used to indicate “Expect not to like what I’m about to tell you.” When channeling Arnaz/Ricky, she inserts those extra vowels in “Loooooosy” and perfectly mimics the inevitable “Lucy, you got some ‘splainin’ to do.”
Then Mayes turns plaintive when saying that with the series ending, “All you want to do is something else.”
Many in the audience will remember that in short order Vance was again teamed with her old boss. Granted, she “only” did 81 of the 156 episodes of THE LUCY SHOW, but that had to add to her considerable coffers.
So she does note that “I have sufficient” and reiterates this at the final curtain. But if Powers had arranged his script in chronological order – Vance’s mother thought her daughter highly immoral for even considering show business; the small unnoticed roles; the breakdown – we might build up enough sympathy to understand all the complaints that would come later.
Vance quotes Ball as saying “I’ve worked so hard for this and so long for this. The nerves, the butterflies in the stomach — but when they laugh, it’s worth it.” It’s a far more lofty and appreciative sentiment than we ever get from Vivian.
If we assess life in terms of the lottery, Lucy hit all six numbers and Vance got five. As lottery players can tell you, there are literally millions of dollars’ difference between missing one number and missing none.
And yet, which of us wouldn’t want to hit five numbers for 207 consecutive drawings?
Vance eventually states that “I really love Lucy and I even love Ethel.” The way Powers’ play has unfolded, this comes across as a lie that Vance is giving her psychiatrist so the doctor won’t think that she’s actually the bitch. It’s much too little and far too late, and SIDEKICKED winds up having us do exactly what Vivian Vance apparently wouldn’t want us to do.
We don’t love her, but we still love Lucy.