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Desilu Productions (1966)


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I Love Lucy Photo

     For better or worse the media arts influence not only pop culture but contemporary cultural evolution in general: it’s morays and sense of style; it’s conception and perception of what’s important, fair, and desirable.  While sometimes planned to sway social agenda (i.e. negatively as with LENI REIFENSTHAL's infamous Nazi-sponsored “documentaries” or positively as in FRANK CAPRA’s responsive WW2 WHY WE FIGHT series) the deepest, most lasting societal influences are often incidental.  Not forced on the public, but merely shown, and often in an entertaining manner which simply makes the rest of the world “want to be like that” because it‘s popular.  In the 1950s and 60s ELVIS PRESLEY made African American Gospel acceptable to middle America while JIMMY HENDRIX made it okay for blacks to dig rock without being labeled “Uncle Toms”.  ANNIE HALL (1977) would introduce the 1980's “thrift store chic” fashion trend just as years earlier CLARK GABLE’s famous bare chested scene from IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934) would cripple nationwide undershirt sales.  The film WALL STREET (1987) would even have aspiring young power brokers wearing Gordon Gekko-like suspenders a decade after it’s release.  Hard to believe too when MTV was founded in 1981, controversy erupted over it’s policy of airing few videos by black artists because such content didn’t “fit the channel’s rock dominated format”.  Now however hip-hop culture has emerged as the defining stylistic characteristic of youth worldwide, bridging geographical and ethnic gaps the way political movements only wish they could. 

Star Trek '09

       Also hard to believe one of the first such silent “media revolutionaries” to effect this kind of societal shift was a literal "mom & pop" TV and film production umbrella founded by a model no one initially took seriously in Hollywood and a penniless Cuban refugee who, when he first arrived in Miami, cleaned bird cages to make ends meet.  They were of course the legendary LUCILLE BALL and DESI ARNEZ.  Considered media titans today, their DESILU banner would initially begin merely as a way to get their desired I LOVE LUCY show on the air.  Over time however the studio with the cute “spring timey” animated logo would grow into the largest independently owned studio in the world, taking over the legendary RKO lot (“The House that CITIZEN KANE and KONG built”), producing a plethora of ground breaking series - STAR TREK, THE UNTOUCHABLES and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE among them, and becoming the lynch pin for both the contemporary Paramount and CBS studios.  In the process Desliu would also tear down long standing ethnic walls and shatter gender ceilings both in front of and behind the camera.    



     DESIDERIO ALBERTO ARNEZ Y DE ACHA III was born March 2, 1917 in Santiago de Cuba into an affluent family.  His father was the youngest ever Mayor of Santiago, and his mother was the daughter of one of the three founders of the Bacardi Rum company.  Desi’s father was arrested during Batista’s 1933 revolution and his family’s property confiscated and/or destroyed.  Upon his father’s release from prison six months later the family emigrated to Miami where 16 yr. old Desi attended school, cleaned bird cages to make money, and most importantly immersed himself in his music.  In time he’d tour with iconic band leader Xavier Cugat, helping introduce the infectious Conga sound into American culture, then appear in Rogers & Hart (PAL JOEY, BABES IN ARMS)’s stage version of TOO MANY GIRLS.  When TOO MANY GIRLS went to the big screen in 1940, Desi was an important part of it’s cast.

Too Many Girls (1941) Poster
     LUCILLE DESIREE BALL was born August 6, 1911 in Jamestown, NY.  She quit high school at age 15 to seek a show biz career in New York, but initially did better as a model than as a performer.  Modeling indirectly got her to her goal however as one of her earliest Hollywood gigs was as one of Sam Goldwyn’s famous “Goldwyn Girls”.  While performing elaborate Busby Berkely musical numbers with the “Girls” on 1933’s ROMAN SCANDALS, Ball’s fiery sense of humor - cracking everyone up between takes - was noticed by star Gloria Stuart (who would appear that same year in THE INVISIBLE MAN and go on to star as “Older Rose” in 1997’s TITANIC).  Stuart was impressed by Ball and was instrumental in eventually getting the young showgirl hired as an RKO contract player at $75 per week.  The next few years Lucy would act in a series of mostly forgettable “B” films till being hired for the movie version of TOO MANY GIRLS.  She met Desi, sparks flew, and they were married five months later, eventually settling into a San Fernando Valley ranch home they christened DESILU.  

     When WW2 broke it was a few years before Desi became a U.S. citizen so he was refused admission into the Army.  He and Lucy would do their part however by touring in War Bonds drives, and Desi would act in films such as THE NAVY COMES THROUGH (1942) and BATAAN (1941).  BATAAN was particularly appealing to Desi because it was a “wall breaker” - one of the first films ever to depict a racially and ideologically integrated U.S. fighting force. The cast of soldiers included, among others, Desi as a California-Mexican National Guardsman called into service on the Pacific island, Ken Lee Spencer as an African American demolitions expert, and Phillip Terry as a conscientious objector Medical Corpsman.  The frank film didn’t shy away from examinations of racism, even bringing up the subject of lynchings.  And for this reason, while being distributed by a major studio -MGM in conjunction with the United States Office of War Information, it was still banned in the South.  Desi’s performance would that year win him the prestigious Photoplay Award. 

  The cast of BATAAN clowns around with Lucy on the set

     Having impressed critics and studio heads with her performance as a crippled night club singer in RKO’s THE BIG STREET (1942) Lucy was picked up by MGM and given the studio’s standard glamour makeover.  They even dyed her hair to it’s iconic red color.  But when after a few features she didn’t measure up to the Lion’s hopes she was relegated to “below the line” parts in smaller films.  For Lucy it was a blessing in disguise as she could now escape the studio imposed “glamour mold” and branch into broad comedy where she was more comfortable and at which she excelled.  1950’s THE FULLER BRUSH GIRL displayed her inherent knack for and timing with slapstick, as did her lauded comedic work on the CBS’s radio hit MY FAVORITE WIFE.   During the same post war years Desi’s film career had considerably slowed, a blessing in disguise for him as he could now return full time to music, becoming the musical director of Bob Hope’s radio show in 1947, and also touring with his own orchestra. 

Lucy, Desi
      When CBS decided to take MY FAVORITE WIFE to television, Lucy wanted real life husband Desi to play her husband on the show, but CBS refused, feeling a Cuban husband (especially with that accent) married to a Scottish-Irish American wife wouldn’t fly with viewers.  If a racially integrated military platoon in a film didn’t sit well with a segment of the public, there was a slim-to-none chance a racially mixed marriage would engender itself much better on TV.   Desi and Lucy then collaborated with WIFE’s radio show writers to produce a vaudeville-like music and comedy “roadshow” which would tour the country, testing segments they’d wish to include in the proposed TV version.  Knowing the color green (as in dollar revenue) was the one which most influenced network execs, Desi and Lucy’s “roadshow” gamble proved to be a huge hit with critics and audiences.  CBS then gave the go-ahead to film the series pilot, now titled I LOVE LUCY, the way Lucy and Desi wanted to do it. 

I Love Lucy Title
     The premiere episode aired Oct. 15th , 1957 (three months after the birth of their first child Lucy Arnez) and was a success from the git-go.  At the time the series rented space at General Service Studio’s Stage 2 (now Hollywood Center Studios).  But Desi saw into the future and wanted more.  He saw television as “smaller scale films” when most in the industry did not.  And his inherent business acumen made him (as entertainment journalist James Bacon would once say) “the Cuban Sam Goldwyn”.  At the time, while it wasn’t commonplace, a few other TV shows had been shot on film, and even shot using multiple cameras.  Desi’s innovation - in collaboration with feature film cinematographer Karl Freund of METROPOLIS (1927) and THE MUMMY (1932) - was to use these two techniques before a live studio audience. 

     This had never been done and it would provide the best of both worlds.  It would give the performers the added “spark” of playing and responding to a living audience, and would also allow the footage to be edited together later in the best possible visually rhythmic manner - timing and rhythm being the very heartbeat of comedy.  Also, 35mm film stock from movie cameras would last longer than “live” footage captured with more common “tube” cameras of the day.  The 35mm negative would allow dupes to be pulled later for syndication purposes, and even allow for future upgrades and effects adjusting in the way of altered lighting, etc.  At the time networks weren’t interested in the “archiving” or “redistribution” of product; only in broadcasting.  They therefore refused to pay the additional $5,000 per episode needed to shoot on film.  Desi brokered a deal where Desilu would absorb the $5,000 per episode in exchange for ownership of the film negatives.  When the series became a mammoth success and the concept of syndication emerged years later, Desilu was at the financial cutting-edge of a new form of distribution.  They owned I LOVE LUCY and that ownership would yield millions in profits. 

Classic opening logo of RKO Radio Pictures    Citizen Kane (1941)


     I LOVE LUCY was a hit.  And subsequent Desilu successes like the OUR MISS BROOKS television series (1952 - ’56) as well as the Lucy/Desi feature films THE LONG, LONG TRAILER (1954) and FOREVER DARLING (1956) made the company a going concern in need of more production space.  They’d buy the Hollywood Motion Picture Production Studio lot, but in the wake of continued series successes like U.S. MARSHALLS, DECEMBER BRIDE, THE ANNE SOTHERN SHOW, WHIRLYBIRDS and THE SHERIFF OF CHOCHISE COUNTY the company was now developing a reputation as a state of the art production facility/factory capable of churning out quality product quickly.  Other shows not produced by Desliu now wanted to film there as well. 


Awards night

Desliu Studios



     For all intents and purposes   Desi was the business side of the incredible-two-headed Desilu-company-beast while Lucy provided it’s “public face”.  So when CBS offered the married business partners $5,000,000 cash for ownership of I LOVE LUCY,  Desi’s first inclination was to actually buy an entire studio lot, … the RKO lot.  Lucy initially thought he was mad, but trusting his keen business sense which had brought them this far, she eventually agreed.  On Nov. 26th, 1957 the legendary RKO Studios officially became the new home of the now legendary Desilu Studios; it’s official address 780 Gower Street.  Desilu was legendary because for the first time a studio was owned by not only a Latino, but also by a woman.  Another wall had been torn down in the building of a new empire which would influence the medium forever.  


     At the time television was feature film’s biggest competition.  And while the Fox Studio had dipped it’s toe into the new medium with it’s anthology series THE 20TH CENTURY FOX HOUR (where popular movies like MIRACLE ON 34TH ST. and LAURA were adapted into new one hour TV versions) most studio’s weren’t interested.  This neglect made Desliu the prominent TV production house in the industry. For while they continued to expand their own company slate with new series such as THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH other popular non-Desliu produced shows would make the studio home: series such as THE DANNY THOMAS SHOW, MAKE ROOM FOR DADDY, LASSIE, THE REAL MC COY, MY THREE SONS, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW and BEN CASEY.  Lucy and Desi were hands-on producers of every one of their series, and in time the grind began taking it’s toll.  Deciding to go out on top, Desliu aired the final episode of I LOVE LUCY on May 6th, 1957.  After six seasons and 179 episodes a part of television history had ended … and a new one was about to begin.  


     While the weekly I LOVE LUCY had come to an end it was not yet the end of Lucy and Desi’s TV comedy dream team.  One year later the couple entered into a record breaking $12 million deal with Westinghouse to sponsor the weekly anthology series THE WESTINGHOUSE - DESLIU PLAYHOUSE.  The show, which would be a launching ground for future writers and directors such as Quinn Martin (THE FBI, THE INVADERS), Aaron Spelling (CHARLIE’S ANGELS, BEVERLY HILLS 90210) and Robert Altman (M*A*S*H, NASHVILLE) would intersperse searing dramas with comedy, and part of the comedy rotation would include 13 one hour Lucy & Desi specials over the next two years, including a “prequel” story detailing how their characters from I LOVE LUCY first met. 

            The Untouchables (1959 - '63)
     One of the most popular PLAYHOUSE entries during this time was the two-part mob drama THE SCARFACE MOB, starring Robert Stack as prohibition era Treasury agent Elliot Ness engaged in a bootleg war with Al Capone’s Chicago-based criminal empire.  The show was so popular it was turned into the TV series THE UNTOUCHABLES.  Robert Stack would continue to star as Ness, and Desi would continue as the show’s guiding hand - boldly doing so even after early threats from real life mobsters unhappy with how they were being depicted.  While Desliu as a company was at it’s peak, the marriage of Lucy and Desi itself was on the rocks, a combination of the daily workload coupled with Desi’s legendary womanizing.  So while Desi focused on THE UNTOUCHABLES, Lucy focused on a “new family” of sorts, starting the Desliu Workshop to nurture young performers and give them their first breaks as contract players in their studio’s productions.  Future Turner Classic Movies host and film historian ROBERT OSBORNE grew close to Lucy at this time.  A journalism student turned actor Osborne would see early work in the Desliu Playhouse production of CHAIN OF COMMAND as well as a part in the pilot episode of THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES before Lucy encouraged him to combine his love of film with his abilities as a journalist.  In the 2003 documentary “THE RAGS TO RICHES SUCCESS OF THE DESILU EMPIRE”, Osborne says “Lucy was very maternal and paternal to all the kids she put under contract.  She was very anxious to be around people and (to) do things because Desi was never at home.  They argued a lot when they were at home, and I realized we were like taking the place of what would have been a happy home life if she’d had Desi there“. 

               Lucie Arnez
Lucie Arnaz.
     The last of the 13 Lucy/Desi comedy specials aired in April of 1960.  The final night of shooting was coincidentally the night before the couple filed for divorce, and word had spread about the impending split.  While Lucy and Desi’s marriage had come to an end, their professional respect for one another would never die.  Actress CAROLE COOK, at the time another member of the Workshop, recalled how when confronted by reporters who tried to get her to take the bulk of credit for Desilu’s success from Desi,  Lucy vehemently replied “That’s were you’re wrong!  No one’s given Desi the credit he should have!  He’s the one who did the business dealings, that’s why we own the studio instead of me being a star in a series.  We built an empire together.  It was Desi”.  Daughter LUCIE ARNEZ (who would become an actress/comedienne starring opposite her mother in HERE’S LUCY from 1968 -’74) claims the couple’s continued respect for one another went beyond their business.  “What a sad thing for them.  They had all this success, but they didn’t have the tools to deal with their own inner demons.  And they let that get the better of them, because I think they were actually the greatest loves of each other’s lives.  No greater passion existed again for either one of them”.   Lucy would re-marry years later, and Desi had his relationships as well.  But their daughter continued, “I can say that now because all the other spouses are deceased.  And I think it was a real shame, because it was true, he did love Lucy”.  Desi sold his interest in Desilu to Lucy and she became sole studio head and owner.  She told her good friend comedienne Carol Burnett this was the time every one put an “s” at the end of Lucy’s last name.  And while officially out of the company, Lucy would still regularly consult with Desi a few times per week on business matters.  
                                                                                                                          STAR TREK (1966 - '69)
STAR TREK cast photo
     Legendary programming director HERB SOLOW joined Desilu at this time, and during his tenure he oversaw development, sales and production of two of Desilu’s strangest ever projects - a brain-twistingly complex Cold War espionage series called MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and a bizarre inter-galactic adventure show with a social agenda called STAR TREK.   MARTIN LANDAU (who played MISSION’s popular “man of a thousand faces” Rollin Hand) remembers with amusement how Lucy never really personally “got” MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE.  She never understood how anyone would sit for an hour to watch something so plot intensive where, if you got up to go to the bathroom, you’d come back and be completely lost story-wise.  She nonetheless backed Solow on the series,   which because of it’s multi-settings, began swallowing the budget of it’s sister series STAR TREK - filmed at the same time and often using some of same actors, writers and directors as MISSION.

                  MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1966 - '73)
MISSION cast photo
     As did Desi, so would Lucy also take a personal (even paternal) proprietary interest in her shows as well as their casts and crews.  Leonard Nimoy (STAR TREK’s Mr. Spock) would recall how Lucy one day joined him and William Shatner (Capt. Kirk) in the Desliu commissary, thanking the two for their patience and professionalism during trying budgetary times.  And Mike Conners, the star of Desilu’s popular MANNIX detective series (developed by MISSION’s creator Bruce Geller) fondly remembered how when CBS decided to axe the show after it’s weak 1967 - ‘68 debut season, Lucy stepped in and used her network clout to give the show a reprieve.  The series eventually caught on with audiences and would be one the network’s biggest Neilson ratings champs 1975.  While considered “pop entertainment”, all three series would continue Desilu’s tradition of smashing established walls and shattering of glass ceilings.  All three featured multi-ethnic casts as equals, and STAR TREK would feature television’s first inter-racial kiss between William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura), an action which caused network switchboards to light up in protest all over the American south.  Feeling her character was being under used on TREK, Nichols had penned a resignation letter she intended to submit, … that is until she met one of STAR TREK’s biggest fans, Civil Rights leader the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  He encouraged Nichols to remain, reminding her that by merely being seen as an intelligent woman of color in a position of authority (in a time when most previous Africa-American women rarely had acting roles above maids and nannies) that she and the show were effecting change which could never be reversed.  By simply showing and not preaching, this image was one step closer towards being the norm accepted by popular culture.  This was one of Desilu’s intents from the beginning, when networks wanted to nix the idea of Lucy’s real life Cuban husband being her TV husband.

      Lucy's final public
   appearance: the 61st
 Academy Awards -  1989
Lucy-Oscars '89


     Ironically, as well as Lucille Ball(s) ran Desilu, she never really enjoyed it.  Gulf + Western, the parent company of Desilu’s neighbor Paramount, had long desired Lucy‘s studio, so in 1967, she took the conglomerate up on their offer, selling them her “mom and pop outfit” for $70 million.  While the profit margin turnaround on the original $5 million purchase price investment was considerable (even adjusted for inflation), the deal ended up being a steal in the long run for Paramount.  At the time of the Desilu purchase STAR TREK was a series on it’s last legs.  Years later however it, along with MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and THE UNTOUCHABLES, would become three of the studio’s biggest franchise staples - STAR TREK alone to date generating almost $2 billion from feature films, spin offs and numerous ancillaries.      

     Diagnosed with lung cancer in 1986, Desi passed on December 2nd of that same year, a short time before he was to give a speech in honor of Lucy’s Lifetime Achievement recognition at the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C.  Desi’s good friend, UNTOUCHABLES star Robert Stack was asked to read Desi’s speech in his place.  The words brought tears to the eyes of not only Lucy but to many in attendance that evening.  

     Lucy’s final public appearance was at the 61st Academy Awards in March of 1989.  She passed one month later on April, 26th.  And while Lucy and Desi themselves had exited stage, the legacy of their “mom and pop” studio with the quirky little “spring timey” animated logo, would continue to influence generations of film and television production for years. 

                                                                                 CEJ - July, 2011



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