They Love Lucy

8 min read

Jamestown depends on Comedy Center for community revival

The Laughingstock of the Nation
In the 15-year history of the program, there has been nothing particularly funny about New Markets Tax Credits. But that could soon change—at least if a public-private civic consortium in western New York State gets its wish. Their aspiration is clear and direct: We Want To Be the Laughingstock of the Nation.

On August 1, 2015, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo announced the $18 million National Comedy Center in Jamestown, New York – hometown of the immortal comedienne and pioneering film and television star Lucille Ball. The museum and arts venue will chronicle the history and craft of comedy and celebrate its most innovative and illustrious practitioners.

Joan Rivers’ daughter Melissa, George Carlin’s daughter Kelly, Harold Ramis’s son Julian, and Milton Berle’s nephew Marshall were on hand for the groundbreaking on West Second Street, along with Howard Zemsky, CEO of the Empire State Development Corporation, which put in $1.5 million.

“New York is proud to be home to many legends in entertainment, and building the new National Comedy Center in the hometown of Lucille Ball is a great honor that will bring both visitors and economic growth,” Cuomo’s statement proclaimed. Construction is slated to commence in spring 2016, with a grand opening targeted for late spring 2017.

Jamestown currently hosts the Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum and Center for Comedy, featuring sets, displays, costumes and recordings from the classic series I Love Lucy, as well as a recreation of Mr. Arnaz’s character Ricky Ricardo’s New York nightclub that can be rented for special occasions. It will continue to operate close by for Lucy’s thousands of worldwide fans as a companion institution.

“The whole downtown area is becoming Lucyville,” says her daughter Lucie Arnaz, an accomplished screen and stage star in her own right.

Project leaders are expecting the National Comedy Center, designed by Jack Rouse Associates of Cincinnati, to draw more than 100,000 visitors and generate more than $20 million for the local economy.

Among the anticipated attractions are hologram performances of deceased comedians, such as Mr. Carlin and Richard Pryor, and experiences unique to each visitor based on his or her individual sense of humor.

Lucy and the Railroad
The National Comedy Center’s existence derives from two independent sources, only one of which was funny. But they came together under the leadership of Thomas P. “Tom” Benson, a graduate of Jamestown Community College, CPA, and founder and Managing Director of the Vineyard Group, LLC, a corporate and management-consulting firm.

“The Center is the embodiment of a dream of Lucille Ball,” he explains. “She gave her possessions and artifacts to Jamestown, and what we have now is a good, old-style museum catering to Lucy and Desi fans. But Lucy was a visionary, and what she ultimately wanted was for the town to build a living, breathing tribute to comedy that would not be fan-based, but actually a celebration and exploration of the art itself.”

Commerce, or rather its disappearance, was the other source.

“Jamestown was on one of the most important east-west train routes, from New York City to Chicago,” says Benson. “And our Gateway Station was a mini version of Grand Central.” Like Grand Central, it boasted a magnificent concourse and a barrel vaulted ceiling.
“With the building of the interstate highway system and the increase in commercial air traffic, Jamestown’s economy began to slip. Train service stopped in 1971 and the station closed. But it was already on the National Register of Historic Places, so it couldn’t be torn down.

“Around 2008 and 2009, a group of us folks got involved. We consolidated grant money, we syndicated state and federal historic tax credits, and we were able to restore the concourse to its historic grandeur.”

But that wasn’t enough. From the 1950s through the ‘70s, Jamestown was a premier furniture building and marketing spot, as well as a center of sheet metal fabrication. With the migration of the furniture industry to the South and metal fabrication elsewhere, Jamestown’s economic base was continuing to erode.

“We needed new vision and reenergizing,” says Benson. “A group of government and private people put together a blueprint to make Jamestown successful again. The capstone was a national-scope attraction. It was a strategic partnership to tie into the increasing tourism of the Niagara Falls area and the Chautauqua Institution, and make Jamestown the southern anchor of the Western New York region.” His success with Gateway Station and civic leadership led to Benson’s appointment as Chairman of the Board of the prospective National Comedy Center.

Comedy Is Serious Business
“We’ve spent the last five years inching up that ladder from pie-in-the-sky to reality,” Benson states. “The first thing we had to do was establish our credibility to build the Center. So we developed the Lucille Ball Comedy Festival.” The weeklong event became highly successful, with Jerry Seinfeld appearing as the feature attraction this past August. Past performers have included Ellen DeGeneres, Jay Leno, Ray Romano, Joan Rivers and Lucie Arnaz, among a host of others.

“Exactly what is going on right now – that’s what my mom wanted,” Lucie confirms. “She’d be extremely happy and say, ‘Yeah, that’s it!’ Every time I hear from Tom or anyone associated with the project, I am awestruck.”

The key to the physical reality of the Center project was building on past success and the creative reuse of existing structures. The train station’s central area had been rehabilitated, but there were also two wings – one for baggage handling and the other parcel post – that could be utilized for the Center’s museum.

“They had exposed steel trusses and clerestory lighting that were perfect for the electronics and touch-screen walls we had designed,” says Benson. “It would make a fantastic mix of old and new.”

The remaining key physical component was the city of Jamestown agreeing to sell the Center the old, municipally owned Board of Public Utilities Warehouse building and an adjacent parcel of land that will allow public access to the urban waterfront. Altogether, the center will comprise the station, the warehouse, a new building and the park.

In addition to the initial Gateway rehabilitation funds and grant from Empire State Development, the 501(c)(3)-designated Center has grants from the Gebbie Foundation, which is dedicated to the revitalization of downtown Jamestown, and the John R. Oishei Foundation of Buffalo, which strives to improve the lives of Western New York’s residents through health, education, neighborhood revitalization and the arts. The Center has asked for additional funds from New York State and Benson has been told the request has been listed as a top priority.

He hopes to be able to syndicate New Market Tax Credit allocations in 2016 and/or 2017 that would provide up to $3 million of net equity for the project. Three potential investors have already expressed serious interest.

“When I started poking around the field, I clearly understood that this should be a prime project for those tax credits,” says Benson. “This is a closely knit community out of major metropolitan areas that would definitely be revitalized through this means.”
The final piece of the funding puzzle would be a requested $3 million from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration. In a statement on November 17, 2015, accompanying a letter to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer stated, “I will be fighting tooth and nail for this funding, which has the potential to bring millions in economic revenue, hundreds of good-paying local jobs and national recognition to Western New York. This state-of-the-art venue has the potential to make downtown Jamestown the ‘Cooperstown of Comedy’ for generations to come.” Democratic New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Republican Representative Tom Reed have added their support.

Reenergizing and Healing
“Reenergizing” is a word that frequently creeps into Benson’s conversations. Not only does he think the Center will reenergize the region, he believes it will reenergize the public perception of museums. “This is exactly the opposite of your normal, passive museum experience,” he says enthusiastically. “Your experience will be driven by your personal sense of humor. When you register, an electronic RFID (radio-frequency identification) tag will allow you to input your sense of humor and will personalize your journey through comedy in a way that is fun, interactive and educational. It may guide you to create a comic strip, do stand-up, write a TV show, or act on stage with Abbott and Costello. If you come back the next day and register a different sense of humor, you will have a different experience.”

“People think of Jamestown as a throwback. But what they’re doing is super current. It’s brilliant the way they’ve positioned this as something that will never be static,” comments Lucie Arnaz. “The National Comedy Center will always be about looking back at history and what came before. But it will also be about how we evolve and engage the healing power of humor. I think we could use a little more humor on this planet.”