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Desilu: How Lucille Ball changed TV forever

You may have Lucille Ball to thank for your favourite TV show.




Words by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)



Earlier this year, actor Leonard Nimoy sadly passed away, aged 83. Though he enjoyed a varied career, Nimoy will forever be associated with his role on Star Trek as Spock, arguably the most recognizable character TV has ever produced. Both the character and the show preached tolerance and multiculturalism, but the production company that made Star Trek possible, Desilu, was founded by a married couple out of necessity, prompted by an instance of intolerance.
Since 1948, Lucille Ball had been appearing on the hit CBS radio show, My Favorite Husband, as Liz Cugat, with actor Richard Denning (best known for the many sci-fi movies he would later appear in) playing her ‘favorite’ husband George. After 20 episodes, the fictional couple’s Latin surname Cugat was dropped for the more Anglo-Saxon name of Cooper, ironic considering Ball was in real life married to Cuban immigrant Desi Arnaz. With the show attracting a large audience, CBS was keen to adapt the show for the then growing medium of television. Ball agreed to the switch, but on the condition that Arnaz would replace Denning in the role of her screen partner. The execs at CBS balked at the idea, wrongly believing America wasn’t ready for a show featuring an immigrant as one half of its lead couple. Refusing to accept this notion, Ball and Arnaz founded their own production company, blending their Christian names to form Desilu (Arnaz acting as president, Ball as vice-president), and, with their own finances, produced a pilot for a show that would later become I Love Lucy. Still, CBS was unconvinced their audience was ready for the couple. To prove CBS was severely underestimating their mass appeal, Ball and Arnaz devised a vaudeville act based around Ball’s attempts to join Arnaz’s band. The show went on the road and proved a hit from coast to coast. Americans weren’t just ready for Ball and Arnaz; they were in love with the couple. CBS could no longer ignore the pair, but now, thanks to the formation of Desilu and the popularity of their act, it was Ball and Arnaz who held all the cards.
As soon as CBS green-lit I Love Lucy, Ball and Arnaz began to butt heads with the studio. The couple didn’t want to leave their Hollywood home, but at that time New York was the center of TV production. With most shows airing live, it made sense to cater the live feed to the East Coast, the nation’s largest population hub. Audiences in America’s three other time-zones had to settle for kinescopes (recordings made through the crude method of simply filming a monitor during the airing of the live show), which were of far inferior quality to the live broadcasts enjoyed by their East Coast neighbors. Desilu’s solution would change TV production – in both business and artistic terms – forever.
Ball and Arnaz came up with the idea of recording the show on film, allowing viewers right across the nation to enjoy the show in full clarity. The costliness of film meant an instant doubling of the production’s budget, something the money men at CBS weren’t too happy about. To get their way, Ball and Arnaz offered to take a pay cut in exchange for ownership of the rights of I Love Lucy. CBS agreed, and TV would never be the same again.
Having each episode recorded for posterity on film stock meant I Love Lucy could be shown repeatedly and sold to foreign markets; Desilu’s genius idea had given birth to syndication and re-runs, both of which would quickly become cornerstones of the TV industry. It wasn’t long before the major TV studios followed Desilu’s lead and relocated from New York to Hollywood.
Recording on film posed its own challenges, chiefly around the difficulty of lighting a stage. To complicate things even more, Arnaz came up with the idea of shooting simultaneously with three cameras, and in front of a live studio audience no less. This would allow for the capturing of wide, medium and close-up shots, but it presented unique problems for cameramen. On film shoots, lighting was rearranged between takes to capture different angles, but this would be impossible for a show recorded in a single take. Cameramen from the TV industry were stumped, so Desilu looked to the world of movies, and recruited one of the most revered cinematographers that ever worked in Hollywood.
Karl Freund began his career in Germany, where he photographed such classics of silent cinema as Metropolis and The Last Laugh. He then made the move to Hollywood and established the visual template for Universal’s horror movies with his work on 1931’s Dracula. In 1943 he had worked with Lucille Ball on the musical comedy Du Barry Was a Lady, and they were reunited on 1945’s Without Love. Freund clearly impressed the actress, as in 1951 she approached the cinematographer with Desilu’s conundrum. Initially, Freund dismissed the notion of shooting with three cameras, claiming it impossible, but Arnaz and Ball refused to take no for an answer and Freund accepted the challenge.
Freund’s solution was to light the set from above, flooding every part of the stage to remove shadows. It soon became the standard practice for shooting before a live studio audience, and is still common for sitcoms to this day.
Shooting with three cameras also created extra work for the show’s editors, Dean Cahn and his assistant Bud Molin, and this led to another piece of innovation on Desilu’s part. At the time, TV shows were edited using a Moviola, which only allowed for the editing of footage from two cameras at a time. This made cutting an episode of I Love Lucy a lengthy and extremely challenging process. Cahn and Molin were editing three 30 minute episodes a week, so badly needed a more efficient solution. They worked with Mark Serrurier Jr., creator of the original Moviola, and developed a new machine, one capable of editing three reels of film, along with a soundtrack reel. The ‘Three-Headed Monster’ as it became known, quickly became the industry standard.
To accommodate a live audience, along with the extra camera equipment required, Desilu needed its own studio. General Service Studios was a seven and a half acre Hollywood facility housing eight soundstages. Desilu rented its Stage Two and renamed it Desilu Playhouse. The stage was renovated extensively to house the bleachers for the live audience and make room for the movement of three cameras.
The success of I Love Lucy was only the beginning for Desilu - at the time the only independent production company in TV – and the studio began to produce other shows, beginning with Our Miss Brooks in the 1952-53 season. While Arnaz took care of the business side of the company, Ball made the creative choices, seeking out shows that combined commercial appeal with her own progressive values. As with I Love Lucy, Our Miss Brooks had begun as a hit CBS radio show. Eve Arden played the title role of Connie Brooks, a high school English teacher. Such strong, self-determined female characters were a rarity on TV in the early ‘50s, and Brooks reflected the proto-feminist outlook of Lucille Ball. Brooks was a go-getter, particularly when it came to pursuing her male love interest Philip Boynton, played by Robert Rockwell. At a time when single women were expected to wait around for a marriage proposal, seeing Brooks actively chase the clueless Boynton must have been inspirational for the show’s female viewers.
In 1953-54, Desilu began to take advantage of their innovative setup by filming shows for other production companies, including The Jack Benny Program for J & M Productions and Marteto Productions’ Make Room for Daddy
With the company rapidly expanding, it was time to leave General Service Studios. In 1954, Desilu purchased its own studio, the then Motion Picture Center at Hollywood’s Cahuenga Boulevard, renaming the facility Desilu Cahuenga. At the time it was the only studio in Hollywood capable of accommodating live audiences.
By the 1956-57 season, Desilu was producing six of its own shows while renting space and filming shows for a host of other production companies. More real estate was required to keep up with the company’s rapid expansion, so Desilu purchased the production facilities of RKO Pictures (then owned by General Tire & Rubber) for €6 million, the purchase funded by selling the filmed episodes of I Love Lucy to CBS. This added two new facilities to Desilu: the former RKO facility at Gower Street, Hollywood (renamed Desilu Gower) and the former RKO-Pathé lot in Culver City (Desilu Culver).
For the next 10 years, Desilu could boast of being the only production company to operate three separate studios. Covering a combined total area of 63 acres, Desilu had more than 30 soundstages and over 500 offices spread across its three facilities. Desilu Gower, where a distinctive water tower bore the inscription ‘Desilu Studios,’ became the company’s headquarters and was home to New York Street, a weather-proof mock-up of a typical East Coast city street. Desilu Culver housed a facility known as ‘40 Acres,’ home to such sets as Chicago Street, Suburban Street and Western Street. It also boasted Hollywood’s largest soundstage among its total of 13 stages.
In the 1958-59 season, Desilu added to its lineup a new show titled Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse. The hour long show utilized an anthology format, with a distinct story told each week, and several episodes featured Arnaz and Ball in roles distinct from those they had become famous for portraying on I Love Lucy. Westinghouse Electric paid an unprecedented €12 million to sponsor the show, and in one of the earliest examples of product placement, the company’s products were integrated into the show’s sets.
On November 24th 1958, an episode titled The Time Element aired. A science fiction tale incorporating time travel and the attack on Pearl Harbour, The Time Element was penned by a writer named Rod Serling, who had initially written it as a pilot for a proposed sci-fi anthology. CBS had purchased the script but later declined to adapt it, but the producer of Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, Bert Granet, came across the script and greenlit its production. The episode was a hit with audiences and critics, and CBS, realizing they had been too hasty in dismissing Serling, agreed to produce his proposed show. The Time element had served as a backdoor pilot for one of TV’s most iconic sci-fi shows: The Twilight Zone.
April 20th 1959 saw the airing of the first part of Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse’s first, and only, two-part story. The Untouchables starred Robert Stack as US treasury agent Eliot Ness, and was adapted by writer Paul Monash from Ness’s 1947 memoir. Focused on Ness’s battle with infamous Chicago mobster Al Capone, The Untouchables was so popular with viewers that it too served as an unofficial pilot for an iconic series. Desilu pitched the series to CBS, who declined, before NBC purchased the show.
In 1962, with the couple now divorced for two years, Ball bought out her ex husband’s share in the company, taking over as president of Desilu. In doing so she became the first female head of a major Hollywood studio, making her arguably the most powerful woman in the industry. Ball ran Desilu until 1967, when she sold the company to Gulf + Western, owners of Paramount Pictures, who renamed it Paramount Television. In her final year as head of Desilu, however, Ball helped launch two of TV’s most iconic shows.
In 1966, spies and secret agents were everywhere in movies and TV. The success of the James Bond movies led to hugely popular small screen shows like The Man from UNCLE and The Avengers, so when writer Bruce Geller approached Desilu with the concept for Mission Impossible, Ball was sure she had a winner on her hands. CBS didn’t see it that way and refused to adapt Geller’s idea. Ball went ahead and produced a pilot regardless. The resulting show would run for the next seven years, inspiring a 1988 revival and a big screen franchise.
Ball made her biggest off-screen contribution to TV, and pop culture in general, when she agreed to produce a pilot for a sci-fi show created by a former cop turned TV writer named Gene Roddenberry. The show was Star Trek, a series that aimed to tackle science fiction in a serious manner, using the format to comment indirectly on contemporary issues. Ball’s advisors warned her it would be expensive to produce and felt its appeal would be limited. But the show’s progressive message appealed to Ball. Again she took a chance and produced a pilot. TV’s biggest franchise was born.
When Paramount bought Desilu, they acquired two properties in Mission Impossible and Star Trek that would become the jewels in the studio crown. A fifth Mission Impossible movie arrived in 2015, with a 13th Star Trek film scheduled for 2016. Neither will bear the Desilu logo, but they wouldn’t exist without Lucille Ball, and the landscape of TV and cinema would look very different.


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