When Melody Knighton began pursuing acting as a career, she had no idea portraying a red-headed female comedy pioneer would become her bread and butter.
“I was living in Los Angeles and I made my living as a makeup artist when I was a struggling actor,” Knighton said. “A music video was being filmed and they were looking for celebrity impersonators through the ages.”
What video, you ask? None other than the iconic 1989 video for Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”
Knighton’s agent sent her to audition for a Lucille Ball/”I Love Lucy” look-alike role for that video.
“I got it,” Knighton said. “That was my very first Lucy job. It was great fun and Billy Joel was just a really sweet guy. He was a great sport when we had to do multiple takes of me tossing a wedding veil that had to land in a chair where he was sitting. We finally got it right.”
At one point during the music video filming, Knighton said Joel commented about her uncanny resemblance to Lucille Ball/Lucy Ricardo.
Knighton will perform her role as Lucille Ball/Lucy Ricardo and Luis Hernandez portrays Desi Arnaz/Ricky Ricardo on Dec. 6 at Abbeville Opera House.
Knighton, who lives in the Atlanta area, makes her living as a celebrity impersonator, mainly portraying Lucille Ball and Dolly Parton, but she’s also impersonated actresses Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich.
“There’s this cottage industry of impersonating,” Knighton said. “Lucy grew up in New York and smoked all her life. Then, she moves to California where they give her elocution lessons. I’m a Southerner. So, I went to a voice coach to learn to speak like her and went to a dialect coach.”
A blonde, with big, round, blue eyes, Knighton has to color her hair a vibrant red when she portrays Lucy. But, her look is so spot on that people often don’t realize she’s not Lucille Ball, especially in photograph ad campaigns for products such as Armstrong Flooring.
“As long as I can still walk in a room and get ‘ah’s’ then I will keep doing this,” Knighton said. “I try to be as authentic as possible.”
Knighton solicited advice from an acquaintance she describes as a “brilliant impressionist” when she started impersonating Lucy.
“He listened to me trying to do Lucy and he gave me four things to do, places to put my voice,” Knighton said. “It took some practice...The voice was the most challenging. Then, you mimic all the little mannerisms. You have to be willing to do some pretty physical stuff.”
For example, audiences can expect to see Lucy’s version of The Nutcracker ballet, Knighton said, which turns into “a wacky disaster.” And, the audience also gets to help Lucy with a rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
The show also includes a number of costume changes.
Knighton developed her “I Love Lucy” tribute act that includes a Christmas version and a non-holiday version, and she connected with another performer in Florida, who played Ricky Ricardo.
“That Ricky got involved with his own show, where he did Dean Martin of the Rat Pack,” Knighton said. “So, I held auditions here in Atlanta. Luis Hernandez was the one guy who could check all the boxes.”
Knighton said Hernandez sings, dances, hosts the show, does improvisation and speaks fluent Spanish. Hernandez is also a puppeteer for the Atlanta Center for Puppetry Arts.
“It’s great, because he can yell at me in Spanish,” Knighton said. “There’s a smorgasbord of things you need to be able to do with this.”
Knighton said Lucille Ball’s husband and television co-star Desi Arnaz doesn’t get enough credit for his contributions to what would be among the most successful programs in television history, including approaches with filming that are still used in sitcoms today.
Skits and bits in the tribute show are often inspired by ones from television shows and specials Lucille Ball appeared in, Knighton said.
“We try to stay real true to our era,” Knighton said. “You will not hear any Christmas songs that did not exist after 1960. Santa Claus is in it and it’s all about getting ready for Christmas. It’s funny and there’s a lot of music. It’s the kind of nonsense you would expect Lucy to be up to for sure. We like to keep audiences guessing.”
Knighton has been impersonating Lucy Ricardo now for about 15 years.
“People come up to me and want to take a photo with me and they share with me stories,” Knighton said. “Immigrants to this country tell me that they would watch ‘I Love Lucy’ to learn English. The show touches people in some real emotional places. People tell me they would watch the television show with their grandmother and just laugh and laugh. That’s a fun thing about impersonating someone who is so beloved.”
Lucy’s appeal, Knighton said, is multi-generational. She’s done events with people who grew up with the television show and she’s been hired to portray Lucy at a 6-year-old’s birthday party.
“A selling point of our shows is that they are squeaky clean and still funny,” Knighton said.