By Neale Gulley
JAMESTOWN, New York (Reuters) - More than 900 red-lipsticked, redheaded women -- and men -- gathered near a "Vitameatavegamin" sign in the hometown of "I Love Lucy" star Lucille Ball to mark her 100th birthday over the weekend, setting a world record for most Lucy look-alikes.
Sporting upswept hairdos and blue-and-white polka dot dresses, Saturday's crowd of 915 Lucy Ricardos established the first Guinness world record in her honor. It was all part of the annual Lucy Fest in Jamestown, which drew fans from as far away as Australia to the normally sleepy town of 30,000 people in upstate New York.
"This is a once in a lifetime experience. It has to be the best time in my life," said Cindy Wilson, 22, of Cleveland, Ohio.
Wilson started watching the "I Love Lucy" show in reruns when she was 7 years old and has a Lucy stick figure tattoo on her left foot, while sitcom husband Ricky adorns her right. She said her fiance's name is Ricky, and joked that's one reason she is marrying him.
Across generational and gender divides, those who love Lucy milled about a downtown plaza under a mural painted with the word "Vitameatavegamin" in three-foot-high letters. For Lucy fans, the well-known tincture made famous on her long-running TV sitcom needs no explanation.
Some revelers recited the word in unison, others sang "Happy Birthday" in honor of what would have been Ball's 100th birthday on August 6.
Amid the hoopla, a man proposed to his girlfriend, both wearing nightshirts imprinted with the image of a polka-dot dress and holding cardboard cutouts of Lucy up to their faces in accordance to Guinness' qualifying guidelines. She said yes and the crowd roared.
Kelly Wright, a natural redhead from Grand Valley, Pennsylvania simply wore one of her own polka dot dresses to look the part.
Local resident Steve Waterson donned a patterned shirt but was missing the lipstick participants needed to be considered a true Lucy.
Floating among the waves of Lucys were some people dressed as Ricky, played on the show by Ball's real life husband Desi Arnaz, and their TV neighbors Fred and Ethel Mertz, who often baby-sat for Little Ricky Ricardo.
"I Love Lucy" ran for 179 episodes from 1951 to 1957 and has been seen in reruns for decades since.
A fact sheet distributed by the festival sponsor, the Lucy-Desi Center, says 40 million people tuned in to watch the birth of Little Ricky in 1953. That's compared with the relatively modest 29 million who watched the inauguration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower the following day.
Michael Stern, whose new book "I had a Ball, My Friendship with Lucille Ball" is the only such account authorized by the children of Ball and Arnaz, told Reuters the relationship began when as a 12-year-old boy growing up in Los Angeles, he got a chance to meet Ball.
"I brought my scrapbook of pictures to her mother and she said 'how'd you like to meet her?'" Stern said.
The two formed a sort of mother, son relationship for years afterward, he said. "She said 'look Michael, you can be my No.1 fan but you've got to get a job and stay in school.'... She was very serious, very down to earth."
The two would often catch reruns of the show in the 1980s. Ball, he said, never laughed at herself on screen.
"She would not critique herself. She would watch Ethel and Fred and Ricky and laugh at the jokes," he said.
The five day festival, which wraps up on Sunday, included performances by comedians including Joan Rivers and Paula Poundstone and cake with a cast of professional actors who impersonated Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel in a re-creation of Ricky's Cuban-themed TV nightclub "The Tropicana."
"Oh, that's a good one," Lucy said, taking forkfuls from other guests' desserts and speaking through a mouthful of cake as the audience roared. "We'll have to get you another one."
Ball died in 1989 and was buried in California. Her daughter Lucie Arnaz had her moved to Jamestown's Lakeview Cemetery, fulfilling her wish to be buried next to her mother, said Lucy-Desi Center Head of Tour guides Susan Ewing.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and David Bailey)