Generous grants from area foundations and partnerships with major organizations are bringing the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center one step closer to realizing its goal of making Jamestown a hub of humor.
Journey Gunderson, executive director of the Lucy-Desi Center, hosted the event, and was joined by recent business and economic development partners including Jim Wise, senior vice president of marketing for Seneca Gaming; Tony Conte, CEO of Shea's Performing Arts Center in Buffalo; and County Executive Greg Edwards.
"Two years ago we stood in a different venue at a press conference like this and I told you all about our vision, our four pillars," said Gunderson. "Lucille Ball's vision for her legacy, which she discussed with the Arts Council of Chautauqua County before her death in 1989, was for it to be celebrated in the form of living, breathing, contemporary comedy. She knew that a museum attraction was inevitable, but she was much less about idol worship and much more about the power of comedy and using her brand name to help new comedians break into the industry. Her vision was her hometown, Jamestown, as a hub of humor and a place that would celebrate the comedic arts."
The media conference focused on the "four pillars" that the Lucy-Desi Center is attempting to build upon - Lucy Fest, comedic arts education, a comedy film festival and the creation of a national center for comedy.
For the Lucy Fest, Gunderson outlined the intention to make the event what Lucille Ball had really intended for it to be - a mix of nostalgia and 'I Love Lucy' fandom, but also contemporary comedy.
To aid with the second pillar - comedic arts education - the Lucy Desi Center has partnered with Infinity Visual and Performing Arts.
"(Infinity Visual and Performing Arts) is a true gem of Chautauqua County and it has just done such incredible things for youth and adults in terms of the arts," said Gunderson. "They will help by presenting festival classes in improv comedy, intro to stand-up comedy, Lucy-themed artwork taught by mural artist Gary Peters and even an intro to conga workshop in honor of Desi Arnaz."
The comedy film festival will be soft-launched during this year's Lucy Fest, and will include screenings of independent comedy film and classic comedies at the Gateway Train Station, all curated by and programmed with the help of Jeff Clark, executive director of the Boonies Film Festival.
According to Gunderson, the fourth pillar is certainly the most aggressive and the one that has gotten the most questions, as well.
"There has been a lot of buzz about what is going on," Gunderson said. "People ask if it's a comedy hall of fame, and the answer is that it's much more than that, and it really has to be in order to be successful and sustainable. We've done our homework. We commissioned a study that looked at more than 20 comparables - museums, national attractions, halls of fame around the country - and one thing that came out of that study is that ongoing programming like this is absolutely key to attractions of that magnitude staying afloat. There has to be a reason for people to keep coming back through the doors, and so the vision is much more comprehensive and robust than just a traditional comedy hall of fame. It is a national center for comedy that is at once an experiential tourist destination, a museum of comedy, an entertainment and performance venue, an incubator for the industry, a point of local heritage and a community center for the arts."
The Lucy-Desi Center is beginning to move forward in that vision thanks to the support of the Gebbie Foundation and the John R. Oishei Foundation.
"The economic impact is a big part of this," said Gunderson. "The missions of both the John R. Oishei Foundation and the Gebbie Foundation have to do with vitality and economic development in the region. They would not be supporters of ours if they didn't think that what we were doing was in line with that. The festival is certainly a very expensive event to put on, but everything we're doing is very calculated. Is there risk involved? Absolutely, but we wouldn't be going bigger each year if all of you didn't show up and buy tickets. If you want to live in a community with a vibrant arts scene and vibrant entertainment scene, you have to support it. Go to the Jamestown Savings Bank Arena for the comedy nights, check out shows that are going on."
In 2011, the Lucy-Desi Center commissioned an economic impact study through Paradigm Economics in Buffalo with the help of the Community Foundation, which found that the economic impact within Chautauqua County of Lucy Fest that year was $3.6 million and the induced impact totalled nearly $4.7 million.
With the backing of the two foundations, the Lucy-Desi Center has delved into the pre-development, master plan phase and announced at the event that they've contracted one of the world's most prominent exhibit and museum attraction designers and developers, Jack Rouse Associates.
"JRA is based out of Cincinnati, home to one of the best design schools in the country, and they also have an office in Malaysia," said Gunderson. "Their portfolio includes so much. JRA came to town recently and we interviewed them at length, they toured this building and we're happy to have them committed to this endeavour."
JRA has produced museum attractions for clients including Universal Studios, the Kennedy Space Center, LEGOLAND California, Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, the NCAA Hall of Champions, Warner Brothers, Ripley's Believe It or Not in London, Curious George Goes to Town, and countless other museums and theme park attractions around the globe.
In an effort to further establish Jamestown as a comedy landmark, other local businesses have begun to make the foray into the stand-up world, as well - one such example being the Jamestown Savings Bank Arena.
"Our comedy nights that we've been running sold out the first three weeks, so we were really pleased," said Kurt Silcott, executive director of the Jamestown Savings Bank Arena. "We anticipate it will sell out in the future, too. We have another seven weeks planned, and then we're going to see if we want to keep going, but we've been very pleased. The people in this community are definitely into comedy. I think the Lucy-Desi Center is going to do well with the festival and their national comedy center. They're drawing in comedians that play places like Las Vegas and New York City - that's where we're going in this town now, so I say kudos to them. We're collaborating with them in October, too. We'll be announcing the headliner for that event around April 22, and that'll be another big act coming to town."
The Jamestown Savings Bank Arena will be partnering with the Lucy-Desi Center and Chautauqua Striders to host a half-marathon and 5K race, along with bringing more comedy to the area over Columbus Day weekend. According to Silcott, the 5K will be held on Saturday afternoon and Saturday evening will be the comedy show with the half-marathon rounding out the weekend on Sunday.
"We're trying to encourage people to come from far and wide for this," said Silcott. "After the success that I'm sure we'll see this summer with the Lucy Fest, people will want to see the joint effort act in the fall.
"Making Jamestown a destination for comedy is something we're all interested in doing," Silcott continued. "We're all challenging ourselves, so it's good. When the Lucy-Desi Center steps up, it makes us want to step up, and vice-versa. I can't imagine a town or a city of this size pulling in more entertainment than we do."
County Executive Edwards expressed his optimism at the stance that Jamestown is taking to make a name for itself in the comedy world.
"I've been involved with this project for some time, and like any great project it takes some pretty critical components to be successful, especially at the international level," said Edwards. "If you just think back two or three years ago when we only had a couple of people in the room, it was exciting because those people were wondering what was possible. Last year, there were 20 people in the room for this meeting, but the event was still hugely popular and a success. That was all leading up to here, today. I hope you're as excited as I am about where we are, and I hope you'll join in with me to spread the word about what this could be. I've seen the vision, and the four pillars that will grow from this foundation. The opportunities are even larger than I had already thought it was."
"This isn't something we'd be doing if we didn't believe that it could be a major game changer for this region for years to come," said Gunderson.