Writing What He Knows: James Sheridan, FCLC ’11, Authors “Lucille Ball: FAQ”


Published: May 5, 2011

In March, over spring break, James Sheridan, Forhdam College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) ’11, led two friends on a sightseeing tour around Los Angeles. But as the guide, Sheridan wasn’t showing his buddies the Beverly Hills homes of just any celebrities. He was retracing the steps of his favorite entertainer Lucille Ball, the star of the 1950s classic sitcom “I Love Lucy,” his favorite television program.

The DIY Lucy tour wasn’t the reason they took the trip, but it was one thing Sheridan says he definitely wanted to do. The excursion included pilgrimages to the first house Ball lived in when she moved to LA and the Beverly Hills home she lived in for 35 years. The guys also drove past Paramount Studios, formerly Desilu Studios, which was named after the production company owned by Ball and Desi Arnaz.

“It’s not my idea of fun,” said Anndrew Vacca, Sheridan’s friend, “but it is fun to listen to someone who knows that much. He was a tour guide; he is a tour guide.”

Sheridan, Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) ’11, knows everything a person could know about Lucille Ball, and he’s about to share his knowledge with the reading public. In January, the 22-year-old finished writing an authoritative trivia biography of Ball with Barry Monush, a researcher at the Paley Center for Media’s curatorial department in New York, where Sheridan works as a curatorial assistant. The book, titled “Lucille Ball FAQ: Everything Left to Know About America’s Favorite Redhead,” comes out June 15, about a month after Sheridan will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in communication and media studies with a concentration in television.

“To find somebody James’ age, who knows so much about the past is amazing to me,” Monush said. “You mention early television icons, and most young people are very vague on them, no matter how famous they are.”

As a child, Sheridan watched “Lucy” with his grandmother, and became really interested in Ball after a trip to Universal Studios in Florida when he was seven. At the time, his knowledge of Lucy came solely from Nick at Nite reruns, but “Lucy: A Tribute” at Universal exposed Sheridan to Ball’s entire career in entertainment. An on-screen Lucy trivia game at the mini-museum inspired him to learn more. “I wouldn’t leave until I won the game. And I eventually did,” Sheridan said. “After that I started taping all the shows and reading all the books I could.” At eight, he could name every episode of “Lucy” in order, had every episode taped, and today he’s got all the episodes on DVD.

But his passion for Lucy doesn’t end there. Sheridan appreciates all of Ball’s work. He is able to recap her television career from the top of his head: “‘I Love Lucy’ aired 1951 to 1957; ‘The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show’ aired 1957 to 1960; ‘The Lucy Show’ aired 1962 to 1968; ‘Here’s Lucy’ aired 1968 to 1974.” When asked to repeat the names of the programs and years on air for clarification, Sheridan gladly listed them again, the second time more slowly.

“People always say 23 straight years on television, but really there was one year she was not on TV,” he said. During this period, Ball made a few movies, television appearances, and starred on Broadway.

When Sheridan, usually a modest, quiet guy, talks about Lucy, he confidently spouts off minute details of her life and career. He has reason to be self-assured: Sheridan wrote a 440-page book on Lucy, and while he did extensive research, much of the information was already stored in his brain from years of watching and reading.

“He’s like an encyclopedia,” said David Lempka, Sheridan’s friend. “He knew most of this stuff, but he synthesized all his knowledge when he was writing the book.”

Despite the ease at which Lucy trivia flows out of him, Sheridan has difficulty explaining why he loves Lucy. But after some prodding, his reasons become clearer. “I’m a big fan of all classic television, and I feel like she’s the best,” he said.

As a producer and studio owner (“the first woman to do that”), Ball was responsible for many classic TV shows, like “Star Trek,” which was produced by Desilu. “She was really the most powerful woman in Hollywood during that time. And she’s funny, entertaining, and talented.”

“I Love Lucy” was the first TV show shot “in front of a live studio audience with the big cameras on film,” Sheridan said. “If there were no Lucy and the people she worked with, TV would be a lot different today, and I love television.”

Sheridan loves TV so much he got a job at the Paley Center immediately after graduating from high school in 2007. He started in the visitors services department, greeting museum patrons and helping them view programs in the Paley Center library. After his first year, Sheridan asked to work more hours during the summer. He was told he could help move boxes of donated materials. This is when Sheridan met Monush, and made a notable first impression.

When Monush told Sheridan that Lucie Arnaz, daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, donated some of the tapes they were moving, Monush said Sheridan “lit up.” The two started talking about the Ball-Arnaz family, Monush having no idea Sheridan was a huge fan. “So I’m there yammering away,” Monush said. “‘We have this, did you know that Lucille Ball did this,’ and he’s going, ‘yes I did, actually I have a copy of that.’”

Sheridan was only supposed to work for another few weeks, but once Monush, and his supervisor Ron Simon, curator of television and radio, learned of his expertise, they made a place for him at the Paley Center. Sheridan has been working in the curatorial department for about three years. In 2008, he and Monush organized “An Evening with Lucie Arnaz,” featuring a screening of some of the rare Lucy programs, and a discussion with Arnaz about her career alongside her mother.

“Beyond Lucille Ball, he has such a great overview of television in general,” Monush said. “James really belongs at the Paley Center.”

With the book’s release date set, Sheridan is now working with Monush again, this time on acquiring rare Lucy programming for a Lucille Ball centennial event in partnership with TV Guide. According to Monush, the series, planned for August or September in commemoration of what would have been Ball’s 100th birthday this year, will offer classic Lucy clips and obscure footage, such as her appearances on variety and talk shows.

“Some people had been saying, you should write a book,” Sheridan said. “I was like, um okay.” But when Monush told Sheridan his publisher wanted a new title for their “FAQ” series, Sheridan guessed he could do it since people had been telling him he could for so long. Still, humble till the end, Sheridan says he could not have written the book without Monush. “I mean I knew about Lucy,” he said, “but Barry knew about the book writing.”

Different than other books on Ball, Sheridan says his has finer points, including lists of pop culture references in her TV shows, information on all her major co-stars, her family, and every song she sang on TV, and of course, a comprehensive section on where Lucy lived.