Fans will tell you that Lucy is not ‘back.’ She never left.
Photo: Lucille Ball in her classic sitcom, “I Love Lucy.”Credit… CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images
22 December 2021 | James Porteous | Clipper Media | With additional video and photos
From her struggling early days to her successful heyday, you’ll see the Lucy you love and meet the Lucy you never knew — the incredible woman behind the public persona.
SPOILER ALERT: This explainer freely discusses the plot of “Being the Ricardos” and is meant to be read after you’ve seen the movie.
At the height of “I Love Lucy,” TV’s insanely popular ‘50s sitcom starring real-life spouses Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, the Red Scare nearly brought down Hollywood’s most famous redhead. Or did it?
Two years into the sitcom’s run, at the height of Ball‘s reign as America’s sweetheart, the actress was questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee in its attempt to hunt out Americans suspected to have ties to the Communist Party during the Cold War era.
The revelation of Ball’s link to the party threatened to bring down the beloved funnywoman, as it had the careers of other luminaries — and it now fuels much of the narrative of Aaron Sorkin’s “Being the Ricardos.”
Now available to stream on Amazon Prime, the film takes place during a dramatized week of production on “I Love Lucy” in 1952 as Ball’s suspected ties to communism were under investigation by HUAC. It sets off Sorkin’s narrative, which condenses the timeline with other critical moments the couple faced — Ball’s pregnancy with son Desi Arnaz Jr. and mounting speculation about Arnaz’s infidelity — to capture a complex portrait of a beloved marriage under duress.
If you’ve watched the film, and you’ve read this far, you’re likely wondering how accurately it captures these events beyond the liberties taken to condense the timeline. So make like Fred Mertz, pull the glasses off the top of your head and dive in.
2 The accusation
The incident that drives the film’s plot is the investigation into Ball’s ties to communism — an accusation that could kill someone’s career. She was called in to testify in front of HUAC on Sept. 4, 1953, in a closed-door session, at the height of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s campaign against Communists in the U.S. Ball admitted to registering as a Communist in 1936, explaining the decision as one meant to appease her aging grandfather, who had been the father figure in her life. It had been his wish that she align herself with the party’s position, but Ball testified that she had not been an active member of the party.
“I am not a Communist now. I never have been. I never wanted to be,” Ball said in her testimony, according to the book “Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.” “Nothing in the world could ever change my mind. At no time in my life have I ever been in sympathy with anything that even faintly resembled it. … It sounds a little weak and corny now, but at the time, it was very important because we knew we weren’t going to have Daddy [her grandfather] with us very long. … In those days, it was not a terrible thing to do. It was almost as terrible to be a Republican in those days.” (Sorkin makes use of the final sentiment in Ball’s conversation with CBS executives.)
The committee cleared the actress of any wrongdoing, with the assurance that none of the secret testimony would be made public. But two days later, news of her supposed political affiliations began to spread, as the film relays in its opening moments.
Walter Winchell, a prominent radio commentator and syndicated newspaper gossip columnist, suggested in a blind item mentioned during his program that “the most popular of all television stars” was questioned about her membership in the Communist Party.
Ball later described her mental state in that difficult period in her autobiography, “Love, Lucy.” “The smash success of our TV show and the physical strain of combining my last pregnancy with a full work schedule took its toll,” she wrote. “I developed a feeling I couldn’t shake. All our good fortune was suddenly going to vanish. … I received a call that seemed to realize my anxious apprehension. The call was from A. Wheeler, an investigator for the House Un-American Activities Committee.”
The film illustrates the lengths Arnaz was willing to go to in order to protect his wife: As depicted in the film, he gathered Desilu officials, along with executives from MGM, CBS and Philip Morris, the show’s sponsor. When they learned Ball had been cleared, Ball recounted, they figured nothing more needed to be done. But in Hollywood, nothing stays secret for long. The news broke.
In a climactic moment in the film, as the show reaches tape night, Arnaz invites members of the press to sit in the audience and gets then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover on the phone, putting a mic to the phone receiver, so the audience can hear directly from his mouth that Ball has been cleared. “She’s 100% cleared,” Hoover says to a stunned audience.
In reality, there was no call from Hoover. But Ball’s name was cleared hours before an episode taping — Rep. Donald L. Jackson, chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee, held a press conference in a Hollywood hotel room and publicly absolved Ball of any wrongdoing. As the film shows, Arnaz did address the studio audience before the taping that night, reading from a speech he typed.
“Lucy has never been a Communist — not now, and never will be,” Arnaz said, as recounted in Ball’s book, to applause.
“I was kicked out of Cuba,” he continued, “because of Communism. We despise everything about it. Lucy is as American as Bernie Baruch and Ike Eisenhower.”
He later introduced his wife for the cast’s bow before showtime: “Now, I want you to meet my favorite wife, my favorite redhead — in fact, that’s the only thing red about her, and even that’s not legitimate — Lucille Ball,” a line Arnaz also detailed in his memoir. Ball walked out with tears in her eyes.
Nevertheless, Hoover continued to have evidence collected on Ball, according to a 1989 Washington Post report.
3 The pregnancy (and birth) that captivated audiences
Another dilemma the couple faces in the film is Ball’s pregnancy with their second child, Desi Jr.. At a time when on-screen married couples were shown to sleep in separate beds, the P-word might have been too controversial to incorporate. But in a revolutionary feat of the time, “I Love Lucy” wrote Ball’s pregnancy into the show.
Sorkin’s telling of how that was set in motion gives credit to Arnaz, a detail that illustrates how savvy and persuasive he was as a Hollywood businessman. As co-owner of Desilu, the production company he founded with his wife, Arnaz has been heralded for the way he helped change the industry model of making TV — seeing the value of ownership rights and introducing the concept of a rerun.
In the film, Sorkin shows Arnaz and Ball breaking the pregnancy news to the show’s writing staff, who react with dismay rather than excitement. Even so, Arnaz matter-of-factly declares that Lucy Ricardo will have a baby on television — an idea met with intense reluctance by executive producer Jess Oppenheimer, who argues that neither the network nor the show’s sponsors will allow it.
In her autobiography, Ball’s version of events strays from Sorkin’s.
“In May 1952, Desi and I both walked into Jess Oppenheimer’s office, elated,” she wrote. “‘Well, amigo,’ Desi told Jess, ‘we’ve just heard from the doctor. Lucy’s having another baby in January. So we’ll have to cancel everything. That’s the end of the show …’ Jess sat looking at us silently. Then he remarked casually: ‘I wouldn’t suggest this to any other actress in the world — but why don’t we continue the show and have a baby on TV?’”
CBS and the Biow Agency (which represented sponsor Philip Morris) weren’t excited by the idea, but they went along with it under some conditions. The advertisers originally stipulated they would only agree to one or two episodes about the pregnancy. Arnaz wrote a letter to Philip Morris chairman Alfred E. Lyons, reminding the executive of the success the show had delivered to date under their creative decision-making and suggested that any changes to that now would warrant a shift in culpability for any subsequent failures because of it.
The creative team of “I Love Lucy” also had to contend with CBS not wanting the show to use the word “pregnant.” If Ball’s condition was going to be addressed, network censors preferred the use of euphemisms instead, including in the episode’s title, “Lucy Is Enceinte,” or “expectant.”
In the end, viewers ate up the storyline. Some 44 million tuned in to watch Lucy give birth to Little Ricky, which accounted for 72% of all TV homes at the time. (Ball gave birth to her son the same day Little Ricky was born.) President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s inauguration the previous day drew only 29 million viewers.
Years later, Arnaz learned that Lyons, the Philip Morris chairman, sent out a confidential memo saying, “To whom it may concern: Don’t f— around with the Cuban!”
4 The tabloid coverage of Desi’s wandering eye
The film’s first glimpse of Ball and Arnaz comes as the couple are midspat over gossip items in a Hollywood tabloid, Confidential, about Arnaz’s wandering eye — headlined “Desi’s Wild Night Out” and “Does Desi Really Love Lucy?” He initially denies the claims, but by the film’s end, he confirms Ball’s suspicions, admitting to sleeping with call girls: “They’re hookers,” he says. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
In truth, Confidential ran”Desi’s Wild Night Out” in the early years of their marriage, before the launch of “I Love Lucy.”
“While I was knocking myself out with moviemaking and bond tours, my marriage was crashing fast,” Ball wrote in her autobiography. “Desi’s nightlife had even blasé Hollywood talking. Confidential magazine published a story about a Palm Springs weekend of his, and this too hurt and humiliated me deeply. … During the summer of 1944, Desi stopped coming home. One night I tossed sleeplessly until dawn wondering where our marriage had gone awry and what I had done wrong.”
Ball came to the conclusion that she would divorce him, which she chose to do in California because “a divorce there takes a year to become final, and therefore there were 365 days left for a reconciliation.”
Reconcile they did. But Arnaz’s behavior didn’t cease. Years later, Confidential ran “Does Desi Really Love Lucy?,” which detailed Arnaz’s alleged extramarital affairs, as its January 1955 cover story — when ”I Love Lucy” was in the middle of its fifth season.
“Behind the scenes, Arnaz is a Latin Lothario who loves Lucy most of the time but by no means all of the time,” wrote Brad Shortell in the piece, painting a striking portrait of Arnaz far removed from his charming husband alter ego. The article described a “business meeting” at the Beverly Hills Hotel where, as the reporter writes, a friend of Desi’s “got on the phone, calling one of Hollywood’s best door-to-door dame services.” According to the report, a friend “ordered two cuties, medium rare” — ‘50s innuendo at its sleaziest.
Charles Pomerantz, Ball’s longtime publicist, recounted his client’s reaction to the piece, which involved summoning humor, to People magazine decades later: “I gave an advance copy to Desi, and Lucy said, ‘I want to read this story.’ It was during a rehearsal day, and she went into her dressing room. Everybody was frozen on the set. She finally came out, tossed the magazine to Desi and said, ‘Oh, hell, I could tell them worse than that.’”
They stay married for five more years, officially divorcing in 1960 after 20 years of marriage. In November 1962, Ball bought Arnaz’s shares of Desilu at $3 million and took over the studio, becoming the first woman CEO of a major Hollywood production company.
Lucille Ball on the Big Screen, the Small Screen and Offscreen
21 December 2021 | Tom Gilbert | New York Times
“Being the Ricardos” and “Licorice Pizza” offer versions of the comedian. An author saw yet another side of her: blunt and wary of strangers but thoughtful and kind.
All of a sudden, here’s Lucy.
The small-screen icon Lucille Ball has reappeared on the big screen in two current releases: first in fictionalized form as the boisterous harridan Lucille Dolittle (Christine Ebersole) in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza,” then, more significantly, as her full-blown, no-nonsense, businesslike self, as portrayed by Nicole Kidman in the Aaron Sorkin biopic “Being the Ricardos.”
When the Australian actress was announced for the role, the news prompted an internet backlash among fans and insiders. As the co-author of a book on Desilu Productions and a longtime “Lucy” aficionado, I shared their concern.
It was a pleasant surprise, then, to see how deftly Kidman conveyed the nuances of the star offscreen — challenging, direct, competent, professional — and often humorless. What was lacking was her genuine, spontaneous tenderness toward her husband, Desi Arnaz (played by Javier Bardem), so frequently captured in the “I Love Lucy” shows. In the film, her affection was alternately expressed as either sexual passion or jealous rage. (By contrast, “Licorice Pizza” offers a one-dimensional sketch of a big, obnoxious star.)
In fact, there was a seldom-seen soft side to Lucille — I use her full name here to distinguish the actress from the TV character — which I discovered the first time I met her.
Lucille has long been touted as a hard-nosed, shrewd businesswoman, the first to run a TV studio. But she actually hated that job and the accompanying label. She ran Desilu Studios because Arnaz left the company after their divorce. She inherited the responsibility and could hardly wait to get out from under that yoke.
Wary and self-protective, Lucille was always suspicious of strangers and their motives, a trait that intensified after her fame exploded. Her son-in-law, the actor Laurence Luckinbill, once aptly described her reaction to new people thusly: “Halt! Who goes there?” As he put it, “Lucille was a sentry in her own life.”
Lucille Ball has been a figure of importance to me since I was 13, when I began watching reruns of the classic 1950s “I Love Lucy” shows, then nearly two decades old, and discovered her extraordinarily natural line delivery, exquisite timing, gift for deft physical comedyand astonishing ability to communicate her thoughts through facial expressions. But on contemporary talk shows, she seemed brittle and harsh, a completely different person than she appeared to be in that series. It became my mission to figure out why.
Soon I was in libraries on a pre-Google quest, compelled to track down biographies and articles from which I could glean more about her. (I was unknowingly researching a book I would one day write with Coyne Steven Sanders, “Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.”) But after I graduated from college, I moved from Florida to Manhattan to pursue a career in journalism and decided to put the Lucy obsession behind me.
Yet within nine months, I found myself seated right beside her, and that’s when I came to see firsthand Lucille’s evasive softer side.
I was a guest at a birthday party for a gentleman named Kieth Dodge, whom I had befriended by happenstance and later came to find was assistant to Lucille’s daughter, Lucie Arnaz, who was starring on Broadway in “They’re Playing Our Song.” We all dined together one evening, and the conversation got around to Lucie’s appearances on her mother’s later series. I had seen every episode (and let her know it). Shortly thereafter, I received an invitation to a birthday brunch Lucie was throwing for Kieth at Tavern on the Green that happened to be on Mother’s Day.
Upon arrival, I was shown to a table set for 11. Empty spots awaited the arrival of the guest of honor and the hostess. I chose a seat next to an empty chair, with my back to the entrance to the dining room. The place was packed, abuzz with Mother’s Day excitement.
Suddenly there was a hush, followed by the sound of silverware dropping to plates, then a wave of murmurs: “Lucille Ball, Lucille Ball, Lucille Ball.” A red, white and blue pack of Philip Morris Commander cigarettes was abruptly plopped down on the place setting to my left, and there she stood. Lucille lived in Beverly Hills. In no way could I fathom she would be on the guest list.
After introductions, I noticed that when Lucille spoke, she made general pronouncements for the benefit of all the guests. As I had seen in her chat-show appearances, she was serious and brusque, but she tried to please because everybody expected her to be funny.
A man with a thick Puerto Rican accent at the other end of the table said something loudly but unintelligibly, and Lucille leaned over to me and quietly asked, “What is Ricky Ricardo down there saying?”
That seemed like an icebreaker, so I boldly asked if she ever visited her hometown, Jamestown, N.Y., just to let her know I was one of the “cognoscenti.” She said she hadn’t been there in years. I then went even further and asked if she ever spoke to Marion Strong, her childhood pal whose name was borrowed for a character on the original series. She said she had recently spoken to Marion on the phone.
Lucie Arnaz suddenly interjected: “Mom, he knows everything about you.”
Lucille replied, “Yes, I know. He just asked me about Marion Strong.” And added, as if I wasn’t sitting right there, “What does he care?”
I was flattened, certain I had overstepped and afraid that she thought I was some psychotic fan. To save face, I turned my attention toward the guests at the other end of the table. Shortly, a beautifully manicured hand holding a crystal water goblet came into my range of view, with Lucille saying, “Take your glass.” Befuddled, I thought my glass was in her way and she wanted me to place it elsewhere, so I reached out to take the glass from her. She withdrew it then pushed it toward me again and commanded, “Take your glass.” Once again I tried to take the glass from her, and she withdrew it.
It felt like I was part of a “Lucy” sketch — or the butt of a joke.
Finally, she offered the glass again, motioning toward the goblet directly in front of me, and ordered, “Take your glass.” Ah! She was trying to propose an interlocking toast!
“Get with it, Tom,” cracked Lucie.
It was such a thoughtful gesture and put the awkwardness behind us. I decided I liked her.
After that, we chit-chatted about general topics. She grabbed my arm and used me as a prop in a story she was telling the other guests. I finally screwed up the courage to get somewhat personal again, and asked about her longtime co-star Vivian Vance. “She’s dying,” Lucille grimly confided. (Vance died of cancer three months later.)
After brunch, we retired to a guest’s loft for dessert and birthday gifts. In my penurious state, I didn’t have much of a budget for the present — I ended up with a meticulously wrapped $12.95 Lucite tape dispenser.
The procedure was to pass the gifts around for the guests to admire. Kieth wasn’t impressed with my utilitarian choice and quickly moved it along, on to the next gift. But when my sad little desk tool made it across the room to Lucille, she exclaimed loudly, “Wow! This is the greatest tape dispenser I’ve ever seen! I love, love, love it! All of mine are so clunky. Where did you get it?” I did not notice her making a fuss over any of the other (clearly more expensive) gifts.
I liked her even better.
The host of the dessert event was a professional photographer, and as things wound down, we all gathered for a group photo surrounding the birthday celebrant, who was seated on a hassock near Lucille and Lucie, the rest of us spread around behind them. I was on the far end, and Lucille reached back and grabbed me by my shirt, pulling me directly behind her. “Is he in the picture?” she asked the photographer, knowing how important the resulting photo would be to me.
It was then that I loved Lucille.
Nina Arianda and J.K. Simmons on Finding Fred and Ethel’s Stage Roots for Being the Ricardos
The Broadway alums star as the actors who created two of televisions most iconic sidekicks in the new behind-the-scenes movie, now streaming on Prime Video.
Being the Ricardos, written and directed by To Kill a Mockingbird playwright Aaron Sorkin, focuses on the two people that led what was perhaps TV’s most influential sitcom, I Love Lucy, by going behind the scenes to uncover how Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz (played on screen by Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem) were anything but Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, their beloved characters.
The film, which opened in movie theatres December 10 and became available for streaming on Prime Video December 21, follows a full production week on the classic sitcom, from the first table read to the final filming, all while the cast and crew navigate off-screen drama that threatens to upend everything they hold dear.
Sorkin has imagined a timeline in which Ball has been accused of being a communist by Walter Winchell, Desi’s extramarital philandering has been exposed in a tabloid, and a surprise pregnancy is threatening to end the smash hit series just as it’s hitting its stride—all events that really happened, but in Sorkin’s screenplay, they’re all happening the same week.
But the film also pulls back the curtain on Lucy and Ricky’s best friends, partners in crime, and landlords—Fred and Ethel, originally played in the ‘50s by Broadway vets William Frawley and Vivian Vance. And to bring these legendary performers back to life, Sorkin chose two performers with substantial stage backgrounds themselves, J.K. Simmons and Nina Arianda.
“The one thing Vivian Vance is not is Ethel,” shares Arianda, a 2012 Tony winner for her performance in Venus in Fur. “Here’s a woman who was a leading lady. She was an ingénue, a very successful torch singer. She was a very desirable woman. She had her own perfume line at one point—that’s how popular she was.”
Arianda was able to draw on her own stage background after learning Vance’s stage past, which includes performances in the original companies of Kern and Hammerstein’s Music in the Air, Porter’s Anything Goes (Vance understudied Ethel Merman as a member of the ensemble), Arlen and Harburg’s Hooray For What!, a 1947 revival of The Cradle Will Rock, and more. Arnaz and the I Love Lucy team cast Vance in the role after seeing her in a production of Voice of the Turtle at San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse.
But when we see her in Being the Ricardos, Vance has traded in her glamorous days as a leading lady to play the frumpy housewife and landlady Ethel Merz in I Love Lucy.
Even just four years older than Ball, Vance’s Ethel was constantly referred to in Lucy scripts as being significantly older than Lucy, and her on-screen husband Fred would regularly make potshots about her weight. Rumors have swirled in the years since that this was at least partially because Ball demanded her character be the show’s sole glamorous figure, an idea that plays out in Being the Ricardos in a scene in which Vance and Ball debate whether Ethel can wear a dress that actually suits Vance’s figure.
“We find her essentially in a place of mourning. She’s mourning who she was. She’s mourning who she can no longer be, and this is an attempt to save just an ounce of herself.”
But don’t worry—if you, like many, view Lucy and Ethel as the ideal model of true friendship, Arianda thinks that was part of their real-life story as well.
“I think they were best friends,” says Arianda. “We find them in [the film] at a place where they’re struggling with their friendship. Each one wants to be seen by the other for different reasons. But did they at the end of the day love each other deeply? Absolutely.”
For Simmons, he found he had an easy way in to understanding William Frawley, whose friends called him Bill. “For me to play a somewhat cranky, cantankerous, 60-something, old, bald, white guy character actor was not a gigantic stretch,” jokes Simmons.
Simmons and Frawley also shared remarkably similar career trajectories. By the time he was cast in I Love Lucy, Frawley was best known as a performer from vaudeville days, introducing such Tin Pan Alley standards as “My Melancholy Baby” and “Carolina in the Morning,” while also acting on Broadway in a string of plays in the ‘20s and ‘30s, most notably Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s Twentieth Century.
Simmons got his start on Broadway in such shows as Guys and Dolls and Laughter on the 23rd Floor before becoming primarily a film and TV actor. “I just did the math and it’s been 26 years since the last time I was actually in a Playbill magazine at a Broadway theatre,” Simmons shares.
Ultimately, it was the differences between the two that informed how Simmons attacked the role. “He missed a lot in his life. He had an early marriage that ended badly, and he never really found that in his life after that. He did have his love of the work, whether it was vaudeville or Broadway or tiny little supporting parts in movies that gradually got to be more significant, and then obviously culminating in this iconic character in arguably the most iconic television program in the history of American television.”
Arianda and Simmons’ stage backgrounds also let them bring some authenticity to the portions of Being the Ricardos that recreate an episode’s filming. Ball, who viewed a live audience as vital to performing good comedy, insisted that episodes of I Love Lucy be filmed largely as if they were live stage plays, letting the studio audience see the entire episode chronologically and rarely, if ever, going back for another take.
“It does have a very theatrical sense to it,” says Simmons. “You see us backstage, you see us going out in the alley before the show, you see us wishing each other a good show. It is very much like theatre.”
For Arianda, it also informed how the characters would deal with their off-screen drama, all the while knowing that no matter what else happened, an audience would be in the studio to watch their performance Friday night.
“When you work on stage, that is your day. You wake up, you have your coffee, but you know that come eight o’clock the curtain is going up, so you have to be very careful in the way you navigate your day because you have to come 100% with a clean sheet of paper, so to speak, so that somebody else can take over for a few hours. In and of itself, that’s a very high stake.”
Being the Ricardos is now streaming on Prime Video.
How Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz Changed TV With Desilu Productions
Tim Ott | Biography
By the late 1940s, Lucille Ball was at a crossroads in her professional and personal lives.
After 15 mostly successful years in Hollywood, she was beginning to lose ground to younger, fresher actresses who didn’t command her hefty asking price for feature film roles. Furthermore, she longed to stabilize her oft-tempestuous relationship with her actor and musician husband Desi Arnaz, then spending much of his time on the road with his band.
A turn to radio in 1948 with CBS’ My Favorite Husband, co-starring Richard Denning, gave her career a jolt by capitalizing on her comedic talents. And while her next move seemingly provided the solution to her personal yearnings, it also yielded the unintentional result of changing the course of TV history.
Ball and Arnaz created a touring act to show they could work together
As told in Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, CBS sought to build on the success of My Favorite Husband by adapting it for the small screen. Ball informed the network that she would be happy to do a televised version, provided her real-life husband was signed to play the part of the fictional one.
This was a no-go for CBS executives, who insisted that the viewing public would never accept the screen pairing of the “all-American” Ball with the Cuba-born, accented Arnaz.
Sticking to their guns, Ball and Arnaz elected to launch a touring vaudeville act to showcase their performing chemistry under the banner of a new production company, Arnaz taking the role of president and Ball signing on as vice president. They titled their venture “Desilu,” an amalgamation of their names that had already been assigned to their five-acre ranch and other jointly owned possessions.
Their summer 1950 tour was a hit, leaving critics raving about the song-and-dance routines and especially Ball’s physical comedy prowess. By early 1951, both CBS and sponsor Philip Morris were ready to latch on to a weekly half-hour comedy program costarring the dynamic husband-and-wife team.
Arnaz acquired full ownership of ‘I Love Lucy’ episodes
While enthusiasm for what became I Love Lucy was high, a few sizeable details remained that threatened to derail the entire endeavor.
For starters, Ball and Arnaz had no intention of leaving their comfy suburban-L.A. ranch to move to New York City, then the center of the TV production industry. When executives balked at the idea of the dominant East Coast audience watching the show by way of kinescope – a low-quality recording used to accommodate time-zone differences – Desilu suggested they record the series on high-quality film.
This presented another hurdle, as union contracts prevented CBS from filming the show at their facilities and threatened to double the price tag of production. But Arnaz was ready with a response that would satisfy his partners and revamp the industry model, as he was willing to lop $1,000 off the weekly salary he shared with his wife, in exchange for Desilu Productions obtaining full ownership of the final product.
‘I Love Lucy’ broke ground on and off the screen
I Love Lucy hit the ground running in the fall of 1951, with any worries about the pairing of a mixed-race couple quickly muted by the favorable response to the emotional back-and-forth between Lucy and Ricky Ricardo. With a helping hand from supporting characters Fred (William Frawley) and Ethel Mertz (Vivian Vance), I Love Lucy surged to the top spot in the ratings before the end of its first season.
The overwhelming success cleared the path for Desilu to take more chances with the hit show, particularly with a storyline built around Ball’s real-life pregnancy in season two. On the same day the actress gave birth to Desi Jr. in January 1953, audiences watched a recorded Lucy introduce Little Ricky to the world.
There were groundbreaking moments off the screen as well. Although Arnaz was not the first to use a three-camera filming method, as has sometimes been reported, he did commission the purchase of a powerful Moviola editing device – nicknamed “Desilu’s Four-Headed Monster” – to make the process of combining footage more efficient.
More notably, Arnaz capitalized on the foresight that gave Desilu full ownership of their work: As part of negotiations with CBS in 1954, he agreed to let the network air older episodes of I Love Lucy, a deal that brought in new sponsorship income and launched a lucrative syndication market for TV programs.
Arnaz rapidly expanded the company
While Ball was up to virtually any challenge that made use of her comedic abilities before an audience, cementing the show’s stranglehold on the top spot in the ratings, Arnaz proved equally fearless when it came to expanding Desilu.
He immersed himself in the business, launching the successful TV adaptations of Our Miss Brooks and December Bride by 1954. Around that time, he completed the purchase of the Motion Picture Center facilities in Hollywood, renting out its extra soundstages to non-company productions.
I Love Lucy bowed out in May 1957, but Desilu Productions kept humming along through its president’s wheeling and dealing. His coffers boosted by the sale of Lucy episodes to CBS for $4.3 million in 1956, Arnaz turned around and acquired RKO Studios in late 1957 for around $6 million. One year later, Desilu became a publicly traded company when all 525,000 shares were snapped up shortly after hitting the market.
Ball divorced Arnaz before taking over Desilu
Having assembled a TV production empire, Arnaz’s expenditures also enabled him to achieve many of his creative dreams.
His long-favored preference for airing Lucy programming as hour-long, monthly specials materialized with the Lucille Ball–Desi Arnaz Show in fall 1957. The following year, he launched the ambitious Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, an anthology series that spawned popular series like The Untouchables and The Twilight Zone.
However, the impressive accomplishments weren’t enough to sustain their marriage. Fed up with Arnaz’s heavy drinking, Ball filed for divorce in March 1960 after shooting the final episode of The Lucy–Desi Comedy Hour.
The two still managed to maintain an amiable work relationship: Desilu signed on to produce Wildcat, a Ball-headlined stage show that ran on Broadway from late 1960 into spring 1961, and Arnaz helped launch his ex-wife’s next TV effort, The Lucy Show, in October 1962.
But the professional interactions abruptly ended with the November announcement that Ball had bought out Arnaz’s 300,000-plus stock shares, reportedly due to her fears that his alcoholism was impairing his dealings and hurting the company image. The move marked another industry first for Desilu, as Ball was now the first female head of a major Hollywood studio.
Ball struggled to run the studio on her own
After more than a decade of ceding business decisions to Arnaz, Ball attempted to run the operation with a few trusted deputies while meeting the demands of carrying a highly ranked TV show.
It was an uphill battle from the get-go, as she sorely missed her ex-husband’s affinity for numbers, people skills and storytelling capabilities. While Desilu continued to do solid business by way of renting its facilities, the company struggled to land a winner with its slate of developing shows.
Ball did score a few major victories during her time at the helm. She notably ignored exorbitant production costs and helped push two promising series into existence, for which Star Trek and Mission: Impossible fans can thank her today. Still, few insiders were surprised when the actress and reluctant boss agreed to a buyout from Gulf + Western Industries, owner of Paramount Studios, in early 1967.
Ball continued doing what she did best, closing The Lucy Show with back-to-back Emmy wins before moving on to Here’s Lucy for another six seasons. But her departure also ensured that Desilu would be swallowed up in the unforgiving Hollywood landscape, relegating to virtual obscurity the pioneering company that once stood at the forefront of the industry and represented the finest efforts of its famous founders.