Tourism can be centered around a lot of things, but a small town in Western New York is banking on something unique. Comedy. Jamestown is turning its fortunes around with an entire tourism industry built around a celebration of comedy, and is hoping the economic impact will stand up to the challenge.
With a museum dedicated to I Love Lucy and a newly unveiled National Comedy Center, Jamestown in upstate New York’s Southern Tier is reinventing itself as a comedy mecca for fans, tourists and travellers from all over the world, and is developing an entire tourism industry based around all things funny.
Jamestown certainly has the unique comedic pedigree to do that. As the hometown of the legendary Lucille Ball it is already a mecca for thousands of I love Lucy fans around the world.
The Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz Museum located in the center of town is – on the surface at least – first and foremost a museum of artefacts and reproduction sets from the Lucille Ball Show, but also to her life and that of Desi Arnaz, and their commitment to comedy and the arts.
As an Englishman I only had a basic acquaintance with I Love Lucy and didn’t quite know what to expect as I stepped through the stage doors. I had heard of it of course, and seen an episode or two as reruns when I was a kid, but it just wasn’t on much in the UK so it never made as huge a cultural impact as it did here in the states and as such a lot of the significance was lost on me at first.
For someone who was a fan, I could see how this museum could have been an absolute once in a lifetime destination, but for me it was just another simple, interesting attraction. I mean don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love museums, especially smaller ones that focus on something random and specific, and at first this is what the Lucy Desi museum appeared to be. A unique, quirky, specialist museum that I would have enjoyed if spending some time here but not somewhere I would have travelled specifically to see.
But it turned out to be much more than that.
My passing interest in I Love Lucy didn’t mean the museum wasn’t fascinating as it told the story of the couples rise to fame, their growing power in the entertainment industry and the popularity of their show, and then of course the story of Lucy herself and her unwavering ambition for comedy to come back to the town she was born in.
And that was an ambition she achieved and then some.
The celebration of Lucille Ball did not stop at a simple museum. The entire town was festooned with murals and hints of their celebrated local hero, and in line with her vision of wanting to celebrate comedy as a whole, a comedy festival is held every year. The annual Lucille Ball Comedy Festival sees thousands of tourists descend on the small town for Lucy fashion shows, contests, shows and a celebration of everything I Love Lucy, with an impressive line up of comedians joining them to perform stand up in theatres around the town.
A legacy of laughter.
For a small town with a declining population, a steel industry that is now a long distant memory and an extended economic decline, this huge injection of tourism dollars that Lucille’s legacy brings in is both welcome and essential, but as Lucille herself would have wanted, this impressive but still quirky reliance on an aging TV show, no matter how impressive, is just the start of a new life in the towns tourism industry.
Because Jamestown has ambitions to become a worldwide hotspot for comedy fans and comedy culture in general.
Planning to draw comedy fans around the world to its small borders, the newly opened National Comedy Centre is a vast space dedicated to the history and the culture of comedy. Endorsed by some of the biggest names in not just comedy but showbusiness itself, from Dan Akroyd to Jerry Seinfeld and beyond, this center is a homage to comedy in the home of stand up.
On the service it is very much a museum of comedy greats, holding items such as Charlie Chaplins cane and handwritten notes from the infamous Rodney Dangerfield, to more mainstream memorabilia such as the helmets from the Coneheads movie or even Egon Spengler’s infamous Jumpsuit donated by the late, great Harold Ramis’ family! That’s right, the suit from the original Ghostbusters! The original one, not the crappy reboot no one liked!
Can you tell I loved Ghostbusters?
As you explore this awesome collection of memorabilia, the Comedy Center takes you on a journey through comedy itself, not just to show you the history of the art form but to celebrate comedy in all its forms and allow you to experience the very subjective nature of comedy in your own unique way.
Starting with a unique wristband and a few minutes filling in a short profile that is unique to you and your tastes, the museum guides you around using interactive exhibits, holograms and small cinemas to allow you to enjoy your own version of what you find funny.
From the interactive reproduction of an 80’s era comedy club to the numerous multimedia centres that interact with your ever learning wristband profile to deliver content specifically designed around your tastes, the center has something for everyone.
I don’t know what it says about me that I spent far too long giggling to myself on the farting bench.
There is even a blue room separated by a lift and surrounded by warnings (to stay family friendly of course), that allows those fans of adult jokes to enjoy their own brand of humour.
The National Comedy Centre is not just a museum, it is not a hall of fame, it is far more than that. It is a celebration of comedy itself, that will not only draw in comedy fans from around the world but give Jamestown a unique tourism identity that will define it indefinitely and provide it with a sustainable economy.
And Jamestown isn’t just for hardcore I Love Lucy Fans or Comedy Geeks and aficionados either, there is something here for even a casual fan of comedy, because as much as these two great tourist attractions are reason enough for travellers to head to Jamestown, there is a booming economy of ancilliary tourist services and businesses to support them too. Stand up theatres and bars, hotels and eateries, coffee shops and other tourist attractions, all are starting to appear around town as increasing visitor numbers mean more tourism dollars.
There is something of a hipster revival happening in the town all around you. I could feel it in the air as I grabbed a coffee and one of the best bagels I have had in New York or anywhere at the Crown Street Roasting Company. Jamestown really does feel like a place that- from an outside perspective at least – is on the rise, with gentrification bringing in more tourism and more local run businesses.
And this is the power tourism has for small towns like this, and I urge any traveller in the area to make a stop here and be a small part of that success story, because Jamestown is far more than a simple tourist attraction, it is a unique tourism phenomenon.
New York State’s Chatauqua County, and the Southern Tier in General, is already a hugely underestimated and stunning travel destination, oozing small town American charm and filled with award winning vineyards, adventure travel opportunities and awe inspiring rivers, lakes and countryside for the traveller to escape from the city to enjoy, and Jamestown has just become a distinct and unique jewel in that crown.
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This article was written in partnership with the Chautauqua County Visitors Bureau, I Love New York and TBEX. The views and opinions expressed are entirely the authors own based on personal experiences when travelling and are honest and factual without any bias.