The following article originally appeared in the spring, 1993 issue of our club magazine:
Lucy and Helen Hayes:
Mutual Admiration Society
St. Patrick's Day celebrations this year were compromised by the news that theatrical legend Helen Hayes, who once described herself as "a little Irish biddy," had died of congestive heart failure at her home in Nyack, New York. Miss Hayes, long known as the "First Lady of the American Stage," enjoyed a career that spanned 87 of her 92 years.
As Daily Variety recounted the next day, "Hayes won two Tony Awards, two Oscars, and an Emmy...She undoubtedly would have won more Tonys had her early stage triumphs not predated those awards by more than a decade. Her performance in Anita Loos' 'Happy Birthday' inaugurated the best acresss Tony award in 1947...She won her first Oscar, for best actress, in 'The Sins of Madelon Claudet' in 1931 and became a major Broadway star in the mid-1930s with consecutive appearances in the title roles of Maxwell Anderson's 'Mary of Scotland' (1933) and Laurence Houseman's 'Victoria Regina" (1935)...In 1952 Hayes won the best sctress Emmy for 'Not a Chance' a Schlitz Playhouse presentation. Her second best-actress Tony came in 1958 for Jean Anouilh's 'Time Remembered'; she won her second Oscar, for best supporting actress, for 1970's 'Airport.'"
During the late 1960s, after watching one of Miss Haye's performances, Lucille Ball wrote the actress what amounted to a fan letter. Miss Hayes wrote back, and suggested perhaps the two might work together someday. Lucy asked her secretary, Wanda Clark, to save the note in her scrapbook, but discounted Miss Hayes' suggestion as simple politeness.
A couple of years later, during the spring of 1971, Here's Lucy writers Fred Fox and Seaman Jacobs came up with a script entitled, "Lucy and the Little Old Lady." (The plot was standard Lucy: It concerned a seemingly-destitute Irish lady, Kathleen Brady, who shows up at the Unique Employment Agency looking for work. Lucy feels sorry for the woman and offers her a room in her own home. Uncle Harry decides to buy a parcel of land the lady owns in Ireland, offering her what he thinks is about one-fifth of the land's actual value. Mrs. Brady readily accepts, but then Lucy and Harry start to wonder if the lady has pulled a fast one, and they scheme to get Harry's money back.)
When it came time to cast Kathleen Brady, no one at Lucille Ball Productions could think of anyone who was enough of a "pixie" to play the role. Then Wanda remembered Helen Hayes' note.
"Nah!... No way!" was Lucy's initial response to Wanda's suggestion. "She was just being nice...We couldn't...You don't suppose...Well, why not?...It might be worth a try..."
Phone calls were made, a script was dispatched, and letters of agreement were quickly signed. Helen Hayes had agreed to do the show!
What few people, including Lucy, knew at the time was that the Here's Lucy offer had come at a critical time in Helen's career. Just a few weeks before, while appearing in Washington, D.C. in "Long Day's Journey Into Night," she had been hospitalized with a rather severe respiratory seizure.
"My doctor gave me his diagnosis in medical terms," she recalled later, "and then he summed it up by telling me that I was, in effect, allergic to theatre, or, more accurately, to theatre dust found backstage. I knew I had to finish that particular booking, otherwise people would say she's too old to remember her lines." But at the end of the run, Helen retired from work in the theatre. "I had a decision to make," she said. "I could simply sit in my home in Nyack and watch the Hudson go by, or I could channel my energies into work, wherever it presented itself. I know that as we get older, we all have to pull in and do less, but I guess I've always wanted to do more."
Lucille Ball was thrilled by Helen's decision. "It's a privilege to have such a distinguished performer on our show," she told the press.
The redhead was also very much in awe of her guest. "I can recommend a performance in company with Helen for giving any actress a true perspective of things. If that experience doesn't give you a sense of humility, nothing will. I found myself devoting as much attention to watching her perform as to actually performing with her. She set the standard for the rest of us."
"Lucy and the Little Old Lady" was filmed at Universal Studios in late September, 1971, and was telecast over CBS Television Network on January 3, 1972.
Helen's appearance on Here's Lucy proved to be only the first of many television assignments. Over the next decade she would star in eight made-for-TV movies, guest in episodes of various series, and even star in a short-lived series of her own, The Snoop Sisters, which was something of a "Murder, They Wrote" with Helen and co-star Mildred Natwick playing mystery writers who solve "real-life" murders. Her last major performance was in 1984's "Murder With Mirrors," the second of two made-for-television films in which she played Agatha Christie's Miss Marple.
Hers was a rich, full career, and her legacy is outstanding.
"Lucy and the Little Old Lady" is one of the
24 episodes included on the "Best of 'Here's Lucy'"
set of DVDs now available.
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