"Lee Tannen has a unique insider's knowledge of Lucille Ball," remarked Andrew Barnicle, outgoing artistic director of the playhouse. "He spent years as her friend and confidant and he saw her through many of the ups and downs in the last decade of her life.
"Yes, she was a comic powerhouse," Barnicle continued. "She was also stubborn, philosophical, affectionate, mercurial, vulnerable and very human."
Tannen, a distant cousin of Ball's husband, Gary Morton, first met Ball after she married Morton in 1961. "I remember trying to rehearse in the elevator how I was going to greet her," he said. When the moment came, he was too overcome to speak.
They met again18 years later when Tannen was 30 and Ball was in her late 60s, and she scolded him for bringing bad luck by using the front door.
"When you come back, use the side door," she admonished him.
Their friendship had its ups and downs, according to Tannen, who noted, "There was one time we didn't speak for a year and a half. You just didn't disagree with Lucy. It was kind of like her way or the highway. But she was incredibly loyal, giving and generous."
They became close friends during the last decade of Lucy's life when, Tannen says, Morton's bad career advice led Ball into two late-life disasters, a TV movie ("Stone Pillow" in 1985), which ruined her health, and the poorly conceived TV series "Life With Lucy" in 1986, which, when canceled, convinced her that she no longer had a career or fans who wanted to see her.
Tannen spent many hours playing backgammon with Lucy, going on ski trips, accompanying her to awards ceremonies and traveling anywhere else Lucy wanted to go.
His book, "I Love Lucy: My Friendship With Lucille Ball," is the basis for the stage production, which audiences will view first at the Laguna Playhouse. The show will feature Diane J. Findlay as Lucy and Jeffry Denman as Tannen under the direction of Todd Weeks.
According to press notes for the show, "It's a candid, funny and poignant look at arguably the most recognizable face on the planet told by a man 40 years her junior who became her best pal and closest confidante at the end of her life."
"I Loved Lucy" plays through Oct. 31 at the playhouse. Ticket information is available at (949) 494-2787.