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Holding the 'I Love Lucy' Reins

Holding the ‘I Love Lucy’ Reins — Lucille Ball took charge of her famed TV studio 34 years ago

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A wacky carrottop in charge of one of Hollywood’s most successful TV and film production companies? Sounds like an I Love Lucy episode. But it was real: On Nov. 8, 1962, Lucille Ball bought out ex-husband Desi Arnaz’s 26 percent stake in Desilu Productions for an estimated $3 million, becoming its main stockholder, president, and CEO — and the first woman to wield such Tinseltown clout.

The couple had founded Desilu in 1950; by 1953, thanks to Arnaz’s business savvy and Ball’s comic talent, the company’s I Love Lucy was TV’s most successful comedy series. Arnaz had cannily wrangled ownership of the early Lucy episodes from CBS. Five years later, he capitalized on the show’s popularity by selling the 180 Lucy shows back to CBS for $4.3 million. And after the 1957 purchase of RKO Studios for $6.1 million, Desilu owned more soundstages than MGM. Its studios would later house such hits as The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Andy Griffith Show. Financial success notwithstanding, in 1960, after 20 years of marriage, Arnaz and Ball were divorced, torn apart by their explosive arguments and Arnaz’s drinking and womanizing.

By 1961, Ball was remarried, to comic Gary Morton, and starring in The Lucy Show — with her ex-husband directing. ”They were trying to make it work, but it wasn’t healthy,” says daughter Lucie Arnaz. For her father, the demands of the business ”were just too much,” says Lucie. ”You can’t have it all. And when [my father] left the studio, all he took with him was a plastic cube of photos of my brother and me.”

Ball became the boss. ”I never wanted to be an executive,” she said, ”[but] I couldn’t just walk away from my obligations.” Ball used her clout to bring two enduring successes to the small screen: Mission: Impossible and Star Trek. Even so, Desilu’s finances went into decline and in 1967, weary of her duties as both star and executive, Ball sold Desilu to Gulf + Western’s Paramount Pictures for $17 million, with her 60 percent of Desilu netting her $10.2 million in G+W stock.

Ball was a sitcom favorite until she left the format in 1974. And her behind-the-scenes example inspired future female TV personalities — Mary Tyler Moore, Oprah Winfrey, Roseanne — to keep creative control by founding production companies. Not that she thought much of her groundbreaking role. ”Women’s lib? … It doesn’t interest me one bit,” Ball scoffed in 1972. ”I’ve been so liberated it hurts.”


Time Capsule: Nov. 8, 1962
Movie audiences found out What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, while TV viewers rode with The Beverly Hillbillies. The Crystals’ ”He’s a Rebel” ruled the airwaves; readers were sobered by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.