The Bootleg Files: All-Star Party for Lucille Ball

BOOTLEG FILES 816: “All-Star Party for Lucille Ball” (1984 television special with an extraordinary A-list line-up).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It fell through the cracks.


When I was watching the 1984 television special “All-Star Party for Lucille Ball,” the same thought kept rotating through my mind: they don’t make them like this anymore. Not only is today’s televised entertainment so completely devoid of the level of star power that was gathered for this one-shot offering, but the feel-good quality and genuine sincerity that permeated the production offers a reminder that there was a time (not so long ago) when broadcast television was a genuinely friendly place to visit.

Lucille Ball was the honoree for a party coordinated by Variety Club International, a show business charity that donated funds to hospitals and medical centers. Variety Club International presented its donations in tribute to a Hollywood star with a history of humanitarian and charitable works. For 1984, television’s funniest redhead was chosen to have a research library opened in her name at the Barbara Davis Juvenile Diabetes Hospital in Denver.

I assume that Variety Club International funded its efforts by selling the television rights to this event to CBS – it was also broadcast in Canada on CTV. If that’s correct, the networks certainly got their money’s worth because the stellar line-up for this production took the meaning of “all-star” to a new apex.

For starters, this special was an unofficial Rat Pack reunion. Frank Sinatra serenaded Ball with a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and praised her by stating, “You’re the best thing that’s happened to Adam’s rib.” (Ball’s puzzled response to that cryptic remark was priceless.) Dean Martin came out in his drunken persona, kissing Sinatra’s wife Barbara while saying “Congratulations, Lucy!” before doing a version of “When You’re Smiling” with new lyrics highlighting Ball’s televised ubiquity (“When you’re Lucy, when you’re Lucy, you’re never off TV. When you’re Lucy, that’s all you see.”)

Sammy Davis Jr. did not sing or joke, but instead gave a profoundly serious speech that observed how people around the world could find happy comfort through televised reruns of “I Love Lucy.” As Davis claimed, “Be proud, Lucy, of your legacy. Very proud. Be aware, as you sit here among your grateful friends, the sun never sets on Lucille Ball.”

The most interesting guest star on the show might have been Cary Grant, who rarely appeared on television. Introduced by Sinatra as “Charlie Charm,” Grant did an unexpected bit of self-parody by opening his segment with “Lucy, Lucy, Lucy” – a riff on the “Judy, Judy, Judy” line wrongly attributed to him. Grant read a letter to Ball from President Ronald Reagan commended the tribute she was receiving.

A few tributes came from stars who never worked with Ball, but were considered TV royalty at the time and, thus, were brought in. James Stewart pointed out Ball and her husband, comic Gary Morton, were celebrating their wedding anniversary. Joan Collins was the most distinguished in her presentation, and was also the funniest by noting how Ball was among the zillions of women who auditioned for the role of Scarlett O’Hara. Collins deadpanned: “Not even Clark Gable could look into that face and say ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.’”

Shelley Long and John Ritter also made flattering remarks about her impact on the acting profession, Burt Reynolds jokingly claimed that Ball didn’t want him dating her daughter, while Sid Caesar and Carl Reiner did a skit reminiscent of their “Your Show of Shows” halcyon days with Caesar as a crazy German professor with dubious expertise on Ball’s televised work.

One misfit in the show was Vicki McClure, a then-unknown singer who performed “Reach Out and Touch” during the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics opening ceremony – her vocalizing wasn’t special. Ball’s husband Gary Morton and her children Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz Jr. also tendered tributes, with Morton presenting her a gold medal – she chided him for putting it on backwards and he wisecracked “She’s always directing!” – and her children singing the “I Love Lucy” theme with new lyrics.

Monty Hall, who served as master of ceremonies for the special, brought Ball to the podium and she was genuinely moved by what transpired, with worries that her false eyelashes would be washing down her face from the tears of gratitude she shed. She also extended commendation to film producer Mike Frankovich for his work on behalf of Variety Club and asked him to take a bow and then had the evening’s last laugh by playfully stating, “To everyone who said such wonderful things about me tonight, I just wish you were all under oath.”

The audience for this event represented some of Hollywood’s best-loved stars – the camera picked up James Caan, Dionne Warwick, Lloyd Bridges, Roddy McDowell, Charles Durning, Beatrice Arthur, Betty White, Farrah Fawcett, Eva Gabor, Mike Connors, Alex Trebek, Karl Malden, Hal Linden, Bernie Koppel, Ted Lange and Donna Mills.

CBS broadcast “All-Star Tribute to Lucille Ball” on December 9, 1984. It hasn’t been seen since, either as a rerun or in a commercial home entertainment release, but someone was wise enough to record it on their VCR back in the day and the special can be found on YouTube in an unauthorized posting. Fans of old-time Hollywood will appreciate this warm and amusing production, and those who still love Lucy will want to add this to their viewing list.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

Listen to Phil Hall’s award-winning podcast “The Online Movie Show with Phil Hall” on SoundCloud and his radio show “Nutmeg Chatter” on WAPJ-FM in Torrington, Connecticut, every Sunday.