Lucille Ball: smiling on her life as Mrs. Morton, but frowning on TV immorality
''Would you ring Lucille Ball's apartment, please?'' I asked the doorman at the entrance to the sleek new high-rise at East 70th in New York. ''You mean Mrs. Morton's apartment,'' he corrected, then motioned me toward the elevator.
At the door to the apartment I was greeted by a familiar laugh-lined face topped with orange-pink hair. Mrs. Gary Morton - Lucille Ball - still lithe and limber after more than 50 years in the entertainment business, was outfitted in a black sweater-and-trouser ensemble over a white lace blouse. She stood tall in her boots as she boomed out a friendly hello in a voice that sounded like a foghorn cross-pollinated with a temple bell.
As she waved me to a beige sofa, I looked around the beige-on-beige room suffused with light from its many windows. Fresh flowers adorned every corner of the room, adding vivid color to the beigeness. On the wall were two Monets. Reproductions, Miss Ball assured me. ''We couldn't afford the real thing.'' The last time I interviewed Miss Ball it was in her comfortable home in Beverly Hills, Calif. Since she retired from television-series comedy, she has made a few specials, conducted a course in television comedy at California State University, Northridge, and functioned as comedy consultant for NBC - ''until they changed executives on me,'' she explains.
''Now, I have Lucille Ball Productions, a small company which Gary runs.'' Gary is comedian Gary Morton, whom she married in 1961.
She is in New York for the opening of ''Lucille Ball: First Lady of Comedy,'' a tribute to America's queen of comedy comprising 60 hours of programming at New York's Museum of Broadcasting, through Sept. 13.A traveling version of the restrospective is now being shown in Century City, Calif., through May 26.
The interviewer jumps right in with an impossible question to start the interview. How does it feel to be a legend in your own time?
She roars like a lioness. ''I've never been able to answer that question, because I can't believe it. But I hope it continues. I guess the next thing is the archives, right?
''You know, we did all our shows on film, so we were able to preserve them. It was a great innovation at the time. But now we have them to show to different generations. What if it had all been down the drain? Wouldn't it be awful if we lost those last 30 years?''
Miss Ball says at first she missed being on TV. ''It was absolutely traumatic . . . I'd gotten up at 5 o'clock in the morning for the previous 35 years and looked forward to every minute and suddenly there was nothing to look forward to.
''Soon, I realized that was not true, of course. I had a lot to be grateful for. My health, my children, a great husband. And I got myself started again.''
Lucy reminisces about her favorite dog, Junior, describing how at 18 1/2 he gallantly got to his feet like a gentleman every time she came into the room and then he'd try to get down again. She goes through the motions of a dog trying to stand up, totteringly, then sitting down. Throughout the interview, her conversation is dotted with snatches of mime, like an amusing game of charades.
Why is there so little to laugh at on TV today?
''Overkill. There's not much new stuff, a sameness. And there's too much too choose from - we used to have a few channels and that was it.
''Also, now nobody gets a chance to prove himself anymore. If the show isn't an instant success, the network yanks it off the air so it never has a chance to find an audience.''
Miss Ball says she was in shock when ''All in the Family'' first went on the air. ''My whole lifetime I never called anybody (derogatory ethnic names). Those words had been put out of our vocabulary. And in one night, they were put back in by Archie Bunker. And kids began using them again. And now they're still there. Despite the success of the show, it has left a legacy of those awful words.''
Lucy likes ''Three's Company'' and especially one of its stars, John Ritter. Other TV favorites are Ted Danson and Shelley Long of ''Cheers,'' and she still grieves over the demise of ''M*A*S*H.'' She says she adores Goldie Hawn and Carol Burnett in anything they do.
Lucy is incensed by the proliferation of pornography and the harm she feels it is doing to a whole generation of youngsters. ''Those four-letter words keep pouring out on the cable stations.''
She was insulted by the recent Eddie Murphy and Buddy Hackett specials on HBO: ''Inexcusable. Why sould we glorify that by watching it. How can we stop it? It's making money, and as long as they're making a buck they don't seem to care. Nobody cares anymore!'' She throws up her arms in mock surrender.
Is there some secret ingredient to Lucille Ball's comedy?
Will she write her memoirs one day?
''Definitely no. What's left to tell that hasn't already been written?''
Not even a book on how to tell a joke?
''I don't know how to tell a joke. I never tell jokes. I can tell stories that happened to me . . . anecdotes. But never a joke.''
Does Lucille Ball now consider herself a happy person?
No hesitation here. ''Yes. And I'm very grateful.''
Is there a secret to her happiness?
''My husband.'' At that moment, Gary Morton happens to walk into the room. He comes up behind her and kisses the top of her head. ''We've been together 23 years.
''Once I thought I had everything when I had two beautiful children, and Desi and I were so successful and so much in love. And then I saw it all disintegrate - you know drinking is so destructive, but it was his life. But that's all over and we're all good friends. . . .
''I've learned to take every day separately, day by day.''
As we walk to the door, she shakes hands, then changes her mind and gives the interviewer a kiss on the cheek.
''You got your umbrella? You got your rubbers? Got your sweater? You see, I've been accused of acting like a Jewish mother,'' says Lucille Ball Arnaz Morton.
As I leave the apartment, I note that the doormat is initialed with a big ''M.'' For Morton.