Lee Tannen, who lives near Hudson, wrote a memoir about his friendship with Lucille Ball during the last ten years of her life. When the theatrical version of the memoir, which has had success onstage in London, comes to the Woodstock Playhouse on Saturday, August 31, at 7:30 p.m., Tannen will be playing himself for the first time, in his two-person play I Loved Lucy.
“I was in my 20s, and Lucy was in her 70s,” said Tannen. “It was a time spent mostly out of the public spotlight and around a backgammon table. I was lucky enough to be sitting across from her for much of the 1980s.”
Tannen was distantly related by marriage to Lucy’s second husband, Gary Morton, who did Borsht Belt stand-up and was 13 years her junior when he married the 50-year-old comedienne. Morton became involved in Lucy’s production company and helped manage her career. Through relatives, Tannen met Lucy in Beverly Hills. “I had just come out as gay man,” Tannen recalled. “She was retreating in, not working, sitting home playing backgammon. We related to each other without the baggage of a mother and son. I had a complicated relationship with my parents, and she had the same with her children. She was tough cookie, and it wasn’t always easy being with her, but we fell for each other.”
What most endeared Lucy to him was “her total acceptance of me as gay man. I hadn’t come out yet to my parents. My mother was also named Lucille and had red hair. People would say to me, ‘Lucy was mercurial and tough, my-way-or-the-highway. How did you take that from her?’ I wouldn’t take it from Mrs. Schwartz down the hall, but Lucy was this icon. We did have a falling out, when we didn’t speak for a year, then got back together.”
Tannen majored in theater at Hunter College and has done standup comedy, off-off-Broadway, and community theater, including a show at the Bridge Street Theater in Catskill with drag legend Charles Busch. Performing as himself will be his biggest stage role ever. “My partner is coaching me and playing dramaturg,” said Tannen. “People say, ‘Oh, it’ll be so easy because you wrote it,’ but that is so untrue. I still had to learn how to do it. The good thing is, I can change lines without asking the writer’s permission.”
Lucy is played by Sandra Dickinson, who “absolutely channels Lucy,” Tannen remarked. “Sandra’s natural voice is on the high side. When she went to London, she got dumb blonde roles. Lucy’s voice was very deep, so Sandra had to work on getting her voice to the basement. And she got the way Lucy moved her head, fiddled with her scarf, rolled the dice in backgammon. Even a director wouldn’t know about those things, but I knew Lucy so well.”
The play comes to Woodstock through the efforts of Tannen’s friend and local resident Sasha Gilman. “She’s a 92-year-old force of nature,” said Tannen, “putting posters all around town.” By mid-August, the performance was already halfway sold out, so make your reservations soon.
The Woodstock Playhouse presents I Loved Lucy by Lee Tannen on Saturday, August 31, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets range from $29 to $54 and may be purchased at https://www.woodstockplayhouse.org. The Playhouse is located at 103 Mill Hill Road, Woodstock.