Weird History

Lucille Ball And Desi Arnaz Founded A Production Company, And You Can Thank Them For 'Star Trek'  

Genevieve Carlton
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Everyone's heard of Lucille Ball and I Love Lucy. But not as many people are familiar with Desilu Studios, and even fewer know the true story behind Lucille Ball and Star Trek. In fact, according to an influential studio executive, Star Trek never would have aired if not for Lucille Ball. That's because Ball was president of a television studio in the 1960s, becoming the first woman to run a major tv studio, and she's the one who produced Star Trek. But the story of Desilu Productions goes much deeper: the studio revolutionized television in more ways than one.

Behind the scenes, CBS initially didn't want to air I Love Lucy because of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz's interracial marriage. And the couple's tumultuous relationship made it difficult for Ball and Arnaz to work together. But when it came to the professional realm, the pair shaped television by inventing the rerun and making millions from their show. Rather than simply living the Hollywood lifestyle, Ball invested that money back into Desilu Productions, where she produced unique shows, like Mission: Impossible and Star Trek.

Ball was willing to risk everything for Star Trek, even after an executive warned her the show would ruin the studio. 

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Photo:  I Love Lucy/CBS
Ball Saved 'I Love Lucy' By Founding Desilu

In 1950, Ball was a radio star, and Arnaz was on tour promoting his band. That year, CBS approached Ball about turning her radio program, My Favorite Husband, into a television show. Ball agreed, on the condition that Arnaz could play her husband.

At first, CBS didn't want to cast the Cuban Arnaz on the show that became I Love Lucy. They worried that some viewers wouldn't approve of the marriage. Ball and Arnaz were committed to the idea, however, and formed Desilu Productions to produce the pilot episode. They even spent $5,000 to finance the project.

The pilot was such a success that CBS picked up the show.

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Photo: Desilu Productions/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Desilu Was The First Independent Television Production Company 

Created in 1950, Desilu Productions was the first independent television production company. Ball and Arnaz owned their studio during the years that I Love Lucy became a hit TV show. The arrangement put Ball and Arnaz directly in charge of the show, rather than working for CBS or a sponsor. That meant Desilu Productions owned the episodes after they aired.

That wasn't the only innovation Ball and Arnaz introduced at their insistence: I Love Lucy was the first ever multi-camera sitcom, and it was the first to be filmed in front of a live studio audience.

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Photo: Ford Motor Company/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Ball And Arnaz Invented The Rerun, Making Themselves Millionaires 

From the start of their television careers, Ball and Arnaz made it clear they were going to change the industry. When they began I Love Lucy, the two negotiated for the show to be shot in Los Angeles, where they lived, instead of New York, where almost all television shows were filmed at the time. And rather than utilize the industry standard of kinescopes to preserve episodes after they aired live, the duo insisted the show shoot on film. Ball and Arnaz convinced CBS to make the change, and the result made the stars rich for the rest of their lives.

Arnaz and Ball knew it would cost more money to shoot the show on film from Los Angeles, compared to the method other shows used. So they agreed to take a pay cut - from $5,000 a week to $4,000. The pair added a condition, though: Desilu Productions would own the episodes after they aired. CBS agreed, and because of the higher film quality of the episodes, Ball and Arnaz enabled the introduction of the rerun. The deal meant I Love Lucy was the first show in syndication, creating a billion-dollar industry.

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Photo:  TV Radio Mirror/Macfadden Publications/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
The Couple Cashed In To Finance Their Studio

After inventing the rerun, Ball and Arnaz turned around and sold the syndication rights to the first 180 I Love Lucy episodes back to CBS for $5 million. The couple used the profits to buy RKO Studios in 1957. Ball's radio program, My Favorite Husband, had aired on RKO. Now, she owned her own 14-acre studio lot, next to Paramount. 

Hit series like The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Andy Griffith Show filmed at the Desilu lot.