Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The girl from Stage 12: Lucille Ball and Desilu Studios

"Loving Lucy" is a blogathon hosted by the site True Classics: The ABCs of Classic Film, celebrating the life and career of Lucille Ball. For a complete list of participating blogs, visit the host site. The final list of blog posts will go up August 6, 2011.

Lucille Ball would have been 100 years old on August 6. Today she is fondly remembered as perhaps the most beloved American comedienne of the 20th century, with a career that spanned from the early days of talking motion pictures to prosperous runs on television. One of her finest accomplishments, however, was as a businesswoman, co-founding her own TV studio with her first husband Desi Arnaz, one that was home to programs that would become major pop culture institutions and continue to thrive even today.

Desilu Productions Inc. was formed in 1950 as a means to produce for CBS what would eventually become I Love Lucy, the long-running TV sitcom starring Ball and Arnaz. Ball was a B-movie starlet throughout the 1930s and 40s. She met Arnaz in 1940 on the set of the film Too Many Girls. In 1948, when CBS wanted to develop Ball's hit radio show My Favorite Husband for television, she requested to bring aboard the Cuban-born Arnaz. The studio needed to be sold on the concept of an interracial married couple, however, so Ball and Arnaz did a touring vaudeville show that was a huge success. CBS relented, and Husband morphed into I Love Lucy.

In addition to being a vehicle for Ball's unique comic talents, I Love Lucy was notable for its pioneering success in syndication, an unheard-of concept at the time. The show was filmed from Hollywood, and to help cover the costs, Ball and Arnaz took a pay cut in exchange for the film rights. As a result, Desilu made millions by rebroadcasting episodes over the years, which was a factor in television production eventually moving from New York to Hollywood. In addition, I Love Lucy was the first show to use multiple cameras in filming before a live studio audience.

The show's success led to expansion of the Desilu studios, to the point where in 1957, it had more sound stages (33) than MGM or Fox. Shows that were filmed at Desilu include some of the greatest sitcoms in television history - The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, My Three Sons, Make Room for Daddy - as well as action shows like I Spy.

In 1959 Desilu produced The Untouchables for ABC, a crime series based on the real-life exploits of the legendary Chicago crime-buster Eliot Ness, starring Robert Stack and narrated by famed journalist Walter Winchell. It ran four seasons and was a wildly popular hit show, which would in later years lead to an Oscar-winning feature film adaptation directed by Brian DePalma and written by David Mamet, plus a 1993 revival series.

Ball and Arnaz, meanwhile, started a new sitcom in 1957, The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, in the wake of I Love Lucy's departure after 179 episodes. The stress of running Desilu, however, began to take its toll on the couple and their two young children, which led to a divorce in 1960. Ball bought out Arnaz's interest and ownership of Desilu. A year later, she married stand-up comic-turned-Desilu producer Gary Morton. Ball and Arnaz, however, remained on friendly terms. In 1962, Ball starred in a new solo series, The Lucy Show, for CBS, and she officially became sole president of Desilu, making her the first woman to run a major studio.

Arnaz's loss, however, was keenly felt. While Ball was capable of overseeing her own program, dealing with the networks and handling the day-to-day production was another matter, and despite Morton's efforts, he lacked the experience necessary to fill Arnaz's shoes. Desilu fell into decline.

Their fortunes would begin to reverse, however, when CBS and the agency Ashley-Famous, who stepped in to represent Desilu, agreed to bring in a new management team: Oscar Katz, who handled financial and legal matters, as well as major Desilu policy issues, and Herb Solow, who would deal with series development and the networks. 

Among Ashley-Famous' clients included two writers who would come to work for Desilu: one was Yale graduate Bruce Geller, who would create the spy series Mission: Impossible for CBS, about an elite team of undercover agents taking on dictators and crime organizations worldwide. Geller was inspired by the heist film Topkapi, particularly in its use of dialogue, music and the notion of a team of specialists used to execute a plot. Mission rarely, if ever, dealt with the agents' lives outside of their jobs; Geller was more interested in the capers themselves. Composer Lalo Schifrin's famous main title theme was originally a bit of throwaway music for a chase sequence. It would go on to become one of the best TV themes of all time.

The other notable new writer at Desilu was former cop Gene Roddenberry, creator of the science-fiction series Star Trek for NBC, about the adventures of a crew of space explorers in Earth's distant future. A show that Ball originally mistook for a USO variety program set in the South Pacific, Trek was notable for bringing a level of scientific credibility to a genre long considered juvenile, being a full-color series for a network that touted its newfangled color status, and for a multi-cultural cast that presented a positive vision of humanity in a time of great political turmoil.

These shows, plus the detective series Mannix, not only helped keep Desilu afloat despite financial difficulty, but Mission and Trek would go on to enjoy worldwide popularity in later years, in different incarnations. The former, in addition to a revival series in 1988, would be adapted into a highly successful series of films starring Tom Cruise (the fourth film in the series is scheduled to hit theaters this winter). As for the latter, it would become one of the all-time greatest sci-fi franchises, spawning four spin-off series (plus an animated series) and eleven feature films, including the most recent one from 2009.

As for Desilu, Arnaz would return in 1966 with his own company, Desi Arnaz Productions, notable only for the sitcom The Mothers-in-Law. Ball would eventually tire of both serving as president and starring on her show, and in 1967 sold the company to Gulf + Western, who merged it with its own Paramount Pictures. It became Paramount Television, later known as CBS Television Studios. Ball went on to make a few more movies and TV shows. She died in 1989, but the TV shows she helped usher in remain part of her legacy today.


  1. I like the dis you get in at the expense of Morton, who has to be a textbook example of why nepotism isn't always a good thing in Hollywood. He may have been good for Lucy's personal life but professionally he was in way over his head. Heck, if you're ever seen his act (there are clips of his warmups before Here's Lucy tapings on some of the DVD collections) you'll clearly see that he did the right thing by hitching his wagon to a star.

  2. From what I read in researching this story, Lucy sans Desi seemed more content to run her TV show than to run Desilu, so maybe she figured Morton would learn from being around so many of her people.

  3. I enjoyed the glimpse "behind the scenes" that you give us in this post. I never knew that Lucy initially thought Star Trek was "a USO variety program set in the South Pacific," but that seriously cracks me up.

    Thank you very much for participating in the blogathon!

  4. I got that little tidbit from the book 'Inside Star Trek,' by Herb Solow and Robert Justman, who along with Gene Roddenberry were there at the very beginning of 'Star Trek.' The way Solow tells it, Lucy kept insisting at a Desilu executive meeting that Solow had such a show in the works but he, of course, had no idea what she was talking about!

    Thank you for having me.

  5. Updated to correct a couple of mistakes. Thank you to the anonymous poster who pointed them out.


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