By Johanne Harrigan
First woman to run a major Hollywood studio: Desilu
In many respects, 1950s television did little to advance the cause of women. In the 1940s, women on film, and in real life, became more independent as the home front needed strong female figures to rivet and to solder on as men went off to war. As men returned from war and women returned to the home, television, that new and marvelous invention, favored the portrayal of women in their traditional, domestic roles as wives and mothers. One particular wife and mother was less traditional than the rest. She was zany, strong willed, and determined to get her way. And America loved her for it.
I Love Lucy premiered on October 15, 1951 at 9pm and it has never been off the air since its debut, a lasting tribute to its creator and star Lucille Ball. As Lucy Ricardo, Ball portrayed the dutiful wife and mother in a new way. As Lucy’s antics continued week after week, and Ricky worked tirelessly to assert his masculinity as head of the household, Americans recognized on some level that it was Lucy who ran the show- just as she did in real life. Lucille Ball was not only the most prominent female comedienne of the twentieth century, she was arguably one of the savviest business women in the entertainment industry during her time.
Lucille Desiree Ball was born on August 6, 1911 in Jamestown, New York. Her father, Henry Ball, was a telephone lineman who traveled frequently, and died in 1915 of typhoid fever. Her mother, Desiree, moved the young Lucille and her younger brother Fred into the home of her maternal grandparents following Henry’s death, as she had no means to support the family herself. In 1927, Desiree sent Lucille to New York City to attend acting school. Lucille lasted several weeks, was told that she would never succeed as an actress, and returned home discouraged.
Returning to Jamestown, Lucille performed in various local theater productions to positive reviews. She found that she enjoyed the theater and became more comfortable with audiences. She also found that she was particularly suited to comedic productions. Returning to New York City in 1929, she began work as a fashion model. In 1932, she landed small parts in Broadway productions, but ultimately had little success. Following a brief appearance in Roman Scandals in 1933, Ball was called to Hollywood.
For the remainder of the 1930s, Ball worked as a contract player for RKO Radio Pictures. She played small parts in a number of films, but never achieved stardom from any of her performances. In the 1940s, Ball signed on as a contract player for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, but failed to find a breakout role as well. Ball became known as the “Queen of the B’s” for her frequent appearances in the low budget “B” movies of the time.
In 1940, Ball was cast in the film Too Many Girls, where she met bandleader Desi Arnaz. The two connected immediately, and were soon wed. The marriage was a tumultuous one, characterized by frequent arguments and indiscretions on the part of Arnaz. Ball sought a joint project for the couple, hoping that working together would help the marriage. The couple formed Desilu Productions.
In 1948, following her stint as a wife in the radio program My Favorite Husband, Ball was approached with the option of converting the program to television. Ball agreed, on the condition that Desi be cast as her television husband. In 1951, shortly following the birth of the couple’s first child, Lucie, I Love Lucy premiered. Throughout its run, from 1951 to 1957, the show remained wildly popular. The program pioneered new methods of filming that set the standard for future television programs. The program also pressed social standards, when in 1952, the pregnancy and birth of Ball’s second child, Desi Jr., was incorporated into the show’s script.
As the head of Desilu, Ball became the first woman to run a major Hollywood studio. In 1957, Desilu bought RKO Studios and expanded the production company considerably. Over the years, the company would go on to produce programs like Star Trek, Mission Impossible, The Untouchables, and Our Miss Brooks. Despite success with the business, the marriage of Desi and Lucille began to unravel. Arguments escalated, and Desi began to drink heavily. Allegations of soliciting prostitutes and an arrest for public drunkenness added further tension to the disintegrating marriage. The pair divorced in 1960 on fairly amiable terms.
In 1961, Ball married comedian Gary Morton, to whom she would remain married until her death. Tired of the demands of a studio executive, she eventually sold Desilu in 1967 for an estimated $17 million. Ball went on to appear on television, on The Lucy Show from 1962 to 1968, and Here’s Lucy from 1968 to 1974. In 1986, she starred in the short-lived Life With Lucy which failed to attract audiences. Despite a record of thirteen Emmy award nominations and four wins, Ball decided that television was no longer for her.
In her later years, Ball became more reclusive as friends began to pass away. She suffered a stroke in 1988, which left her partially paralyzed. In April of 1989, she underwent emergency surgery to repair a damaged aorta. Despite surviving the surgery, she died a week later of a heart attack.
In 2001, Lucille Ball was honored by the U.S. Postal Service with a commemorative postage stamp for its Legends of Hollywood series. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame for her work in advancing the cause of women in the entertainment industry. Perhaps the greatest tribute to the greatness of Lucille Ball is that I Love Lucy continues to be seen in over seventy countries by millions of fans. For her contributions in the entertainment industry, as a businesswoman and as America’s greatest comedienne, Lucille Ball is honored as a true Steamroller.
About The Author:
Johanne Harrigan holds a Master's Degree in clinical social work from Fordham University and a Master's Degree in history from the State University of New York at Oswego. As a social worker, she worked primarily in mental health and medical settings. Her Master's thesis focused on the political evolution of the American Medical Association during the Progressive Era. Currently on hiatus from the world of paid employment, Johanne is a homeschooling mother of three bright, beautiful children.