“The show is really a valentine to their parents, to ‘I Love Lucy,’ to really the beginning of the television era,” Irwin says. “I really hope they’re able to make it at some point. There have been many people from the show — Bob Schiller, who is the last living writer for ‘I Love Lucy,’ came when we were in Los Angeles and he was a spitfire. We were taking a picture with him, and he said, ‘Honey, you can sit on my lap.'” She laughs. Lucille Ball’s long-time valet, her former secretary, colleagues including Carole Cook “have come and been really supportive. That really helped, especially at the beginning of this journey. To feel embraced by those who had known Lucille and loved her meant a lot to me, moving forward.”
Ironically, the actress who has now logged more than 400 performances as Lucy had no experience of “I Love Lucy” growing up. “I came with a complete deficit. I had an interesting childhood. Part of that was that I never had a television,” she explains. “My mom is a classical musician and she was touring around Europe and playing early music keyboard — harpsichord, forte piano, etc. etc. She and my dad had split up essentially when I was born. He was a physicist, and he had been at MIT and Cornell, and then he dropped out and decided to sort of explore the world in a VW bus and teepees and do outside-of-the-box things like that. Between the two of them, I was entertained by things vastly outside of the television realm. Then finally I went to college and I was focused on my work.”
Eventually, Irwin made it to Los Angeles and began doing sketch comedy and voice work — including the voices of “Spongebob Squarepants” characters Mrs. Squarepants and Mama Krabs, as well as Lois Lane and Mera on “Batman: The Brave and the Bold.”
“I had been doing really tons of comedy. And I really want to slap myself on the hand for not having found my way to ‘I Love Lucy’ sooner, because it would have been a huge blessing and a great tool for me earlier in my career, but I’m at least grateful to have come to it now,” she says.
Irwin met actress Paula Stewart in a professionals’ acting class. One day, “She came up to me and said, ‘Sirena, have you seen much “I Love Lucy”?’ I said, ‘No, I haven’t, and I really should watch it.’ She said, ‘You really should. You remind me a lot of Lucy, and she was a very good friend of mine.’ In fact, she had played Lucille Ball’s little sister in ‘Wildcat’ on Broadway. And she said, ‘Do you have any Lucy to watch?’ And I said ‘No,’ and she said, ‘Well, come over to my house. I’m going to give you my collection of “I Love Lucy” and I want you to watch it.’ It was amazing, because it was not long after that that I got the call for the audition for this show. So it sort of feels like perfect timing.”
Now, says Irwin, “I feel like I’m working on a Ph.D. in comedy — I mean, Lucille Ball is obviously a tremendous talent. We think of her doing broad comedy, but there are so many nuances in it as well, that have become really clear to me. Her timing was just impeccable.”
“I Love Lucy, Live On Stage” is currently in Nashville, with stops across the country and a return to California calendared through the year. Irwin has other irons in the fire, too, including a movie script she has written that’s just been optioned, in which she is to star. But she feels she still has a lot to learn doing the show. She’s enjoying the feedback from Lucy fans wherever she goes.
As far as learning to love “Lucy” as a grownup, she acknowledges, “Perhaps it was of benefit in some ways in that I had matured and ripened and could sort of look at it from a different perspective.”
Tomorrow (8/6) marks the 100th anniversary of the late Lucille Ball’s birth — in case you missed advance word on celebrations ranging from the Lucy Fest Comedy festival in Jamestown, New York, to The Hallmark Channel’s 48-hour “I Love Lucy” marathon that launches at six tomorrow morning and lasts ‘til Monday morning (with no repeats!).
Of course, you can’t hear Lucy’s name without thinking of America’s beloved crazy redhead and her antics. Her legendary fiery marriage to Desi Arnaz might also come to mind. But long spells of infirmity and physical struggle? Those are aspects of the Hollywood icon’s life you probably wouldn’t think about Yet she certainly lived through them, and recalled them decades later.
“I was 17 years old and working as a New York model, running myself ragged, becoming so run down that I developed pneumonia. And from that I contracted rheumatoid arthritis. It was terrible!” she recounted to Marilyn Beck in 1972. “I ended up in bed for eight months, then restricted to crutches for several years with 20-pound weights on my legs to help strengthen the muscles.” She smiled and added, “That might have been the best thing that could have happened to me. I mean, a girl confined from ages 17 to 19. Imagine what trouble that kept me out of!”
In 1960, when she was the star of “Wildcats” on Broadway, “I had gone into the show run down, exhausted, still recuperating from a leg I had broken on a Bob Hope picture. I stayed with the show for a year, and each month became more of an agony. I was spending my Sundays off at doctors and chiropractors for therapy. I developed pneumonia. I lost 22 pounds. I reached the point where I was so weak I would faint on stage. Once I fell into the footlights and broke my finger.”
Besides her physical travails, Lucy went through divorce from Desi Arnaz twice, and suffered some profound professional disappointments as well. And yet, for all the times she was knocked down in life, she kept bouncing up with a ready attitude and a fast quip. As she once\famously put it: “The ham always rises.”