NEW YORK, JULY 20 -- "Wanted: One Crazy Redhead and One Cuban Bandleader."
The women came from as far away as San Diego and Abilene, Tex., in their polka-dot dresses and their gaudiest clip-on earrings. They stood in line murmuring "Vitameatavegamin" over and over, like some crazy mantra. The men, all with slicked-down hair, paced back and forth honing their Cuban accents, belting out every few minutes, "Luuucy, I'm hooooome."
By 7:30 this morning the line of Lucys and Desis stretched from the door of the CBS studio down a block of steaming sidewalk. Taxi drivers, truckers and commuters screeched to the curb to have a better look.
"Until I saw all the redheads, I thought it was another strike," said one New Yorker on his way to work.
It was instead "The Great Lucy and Desi Search," advertised as a nationwide talent hunt for actors to star in a made-for-television movie called "Lucy & Desi: Before the Laughter," to be aired in February. The script, written by William Luce, chronicles Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz's early relationship from the time the two met in 1940 at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (she was playing a rowdy burlesque queen and sported a black eye when they were introduced) until just after the 1951 premiere of "I Love Lucy."
Exactly 250 aspiring Cuban band leaders and crazy redheads showed up here in response to ads in show business trade publications and daily newspapers. Some were professional actors and comedians, but there were also bankers, computer programmers, homemakers and nurses. All are "unknowns" and many demonstrated just how desperate they are to change that.
Hope Salas, a corrections department worker from Connecticut, bit into a lemon and smiled to show the elastic and Lucy-like qualities of her face.
Deborah Broadhead, a Texan, took swigs from a bottle of Pepto-Bismol, a substitute for "Vitameatavegamin," while the casting director and her assistants looked on in horror.
Martha Martin drove all night from Greensboro, N.C., and in a pronounced Southern accent presented three skits, oblivious to the producer's tone of finality when he said after each prop change, "Thank you, Martha."
Outside the studio, one woman sat in a tree and screamed, "Help! Riiiiicky!" until an obliging actor accepted the role of getting her down.
"Open casting calls, you're going to see the Fellini bizarre," said ponytailed producer Larry Thompson.
A majority of Lucy wannabes, including Mauryne Horan, who was first in line at 3:15 a.m., dusted off Ball's classic "Vitameatavegamin" monologue. In it, Lucy acts as spokeswoman in a wonder-drug commercial, but with each retake she is required to swallow another teaspoonful of the stuff, and she grows increasingly intoxicated. By the seventh take, she slurs, "Are you unpooopular? Well, ARE you?"
"We've seen Vitameatavegamin about 5,000 times," said casting associate Judy Strow, who was at the other casting calls in Miami and Los Angeles, where the team saw more than 400 people. "I can say it in my sleep."
Thompson, a Hollywood veteran who produced the film "Crimes of Passion" with Kathleen Turner and Anthony Perkins, said that for "Lucy &
Desi" he has insisted on working with undiscovered talent despite "many inquiries from famous people, who we really don't want to mention.
"We're making a movie about people who are sort of a national treasure, and these two people have been living in the living rooms of the nation for decades," Thompson said in his soft Mississippi accent, "so we would prefer not to hire famous actors, who would stand in the audience's way of believing this is Lucy and Desi."
Still, Thompson and casting director Holly Powell made it clear they were hunting for more than just a Lucy look-alike or a well-rehearsed Ricky. "In a Lucy we're looking for vulnerability and comedic timing. In a Desi we're looking for Cuban charm," Thompson said.
After reviewing one lineup of eight women and two men, they dismissed all but Colleen Finnegan, 24, who resembled Lucille Ball less than several other competitors did. Finnegan "has a sweet face, a fresh face," Thompson explained, adding that the emphasis is on Lucy during her younger days as a dancer.
Finnegan, in a flouncy blue dress, did a convincing "Waaah" and "Aw, Ricky, but I want to be in the show." But after her routine, which she performed with her husband, Thompson was shaking his head sadly. "I got hopeful when I heard that cry," he said, "but then I heard the accent." Finnegan, a nursing home employee, is from the Bronx.
"I'm disappointed," said Finnegan, who had reviewed videotapes of Lucy shows to prepare for her acting debut. "I just love Lucy. I've always idolized her, and I just thought it would be a great chance to show people I love her."
By the end of the day, four Desis and nine Lucys were asked to come back for an evening script reading, said Ed Devlin, a CBS press representative. "We saw a really excellent Desi just before lunch," Devlin said. "He did something unusual -- Ricky telling little Ricky a bedtime story of Little Red Riding Hood. It showed a nice side of him. There was one outstanding Lucy too."
And what selection did she perform?
"She just did Vitameatavegamin," Devlin said.