Desilu – The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz by Coyne Steven Sanders and Tom Gilbert

I love Lucy! Who doesn’t? I have read Lucille Ball’s memoir, trying to find an affordable copy of Desi’s, and now have read Desilu – The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. It is a very comprehensive and true book (according to Lucie Arnaz) about Lucille and Desi, their relationship and the empire they built known as Desilu, which was much more than just I Love Lucy.

Lucille met Desi in 1940 during the movie Too Many Girls when she was 29 and he was 23. It was love at first sight and they married later that year on November 30, 1940. Their relationship was stormy from the beginning. Both Lucille and Desi were stubborn and temperamental. Desi came from a background where he was always the center of attention, where the wife sat in the background and let her husband shine. Lucille was of course the star while Desi was the behind the scenes brilliant businessman with a photographic memory. Desi was also a womanizer, a gambler and an alcoholic. Lucille was controlling, a perfectionist, tight with money and could be very hard on people. In 1944, Lucille filed for divorce but they reconciled. They bought a ranch and named it Desilu, which they would also name their production company and studios where Desi was the president and Lucille was the vice president.

After proving to CBS that America would accept a Cuban husband and an American wife, I Love Lucy debuted on October 15, 1951 a few months after Lucille gave birth to her first child Lucie at the age of 40. Desi created the re-run by negotiating to own the episodes on film. This was the first time the stars of a television show owned their own show. Fred (played my William Frawley) was 64 and an alcoholic. Ethel (played by Vivian Vance) was 39 – actually younger than Lucy. Vivian had just had a nervous breakdown. It was in her contract she always had to stay 20 pounds heavier than Lucille. Frawley and Vance hated each other. Lucille and Vivian argued and made up like sisters. Lucille was hard on everyone. She was a perfectionist and wanted everything her way as it was her show and she was very direct about it. Side note – People always say Mary Tyler Moore was the first woman to wear pants on television (on the Dick Van Dyke Show), but Lucy were pants quite a bit on I Love Lucy.

After just the first few episodes I Love Lucy was the #1 television show. Everyone wanted to use Desilu studios to film their shows. Everyone wanted to use Desi’s invention of the four headed editing device. Before the second season, Lucille became pregnant. CBS and the sponsor said it was wrong to show a pregnant woman on television, but Desi overcame their objections and I Love Lucy became the first television show to to show a pregnant woman. But they couldn’t say ‘pregnant’ on tv, so they had to say ‘expectant.’ Lucille gave birth to Desi Jr the same night Lucy gave birth to Little Ricky. Vivian Vance won Best Supporting Actress – William Frawley never won. In 1953, they made the movie Long Long Trailer, which was much like I Love Lucy. After the 1956-1957 season, Desilu sold I Love Lucy to CBS for $4.3 million. They aged Little Ricky to five years old, while Desi Jr was still three years old. The two became close friends, with Little Ricky even vacationing with the Arnaz’s. Lucille said it was like they had three children. Although Lucie and Desi Jr were raised by their grandmother (Lucille’s mother) and the maid. Lucille and Desi were barely there on weeknights and weekends. I Love Lucy ended in 1957.

Lucille and Desi then did the Lucy and Desi Comedy Hour and Desilu purchased RKO Studios. Desilu was like a family of 200 with annual picnics. They had the Desilu Playhouse and Desilu Workshop. The final Lucy and Desi Comedy Hour ended March 2, 1960, and Lucille filed for divorce the next day. There would be no reconciling this time, but the two would stay lifelong friends with Lucille constantly calling him for advice on her career. Even though they couldn’t stay married, they loved each other until they day they died – even though they both remarried. Lucille and Vivian teamed up again for The Lucy Show in 1962, and it ran for six seasons although Vivian left after three. In its final season, Lucille won an Emmy for Best Actress.

In November 1962, Desi left Desilu selling his share to Lucille making her president – the first woman president of a production company. Lucille was happiest while working. It was said “she lived to work” – it’s where she felt the most self worth. Desilu produced such shows as Star Trek, Mission Impossible and The Untouchables. Lucille sold Desilu in 1967 and did the movie Yours Mine and Ours then did Here’s Lucy from 1968 to 1974 with her children Lucie and Desi Jr. Lucille did the movie Mame to terrible reviews then some television specials with Vivian Vance. Vivian suffered from a stroke and had cancer. Lucille visited her one last time in 1979 before she died.

Desi wrote his memoir, The Book, ending in his 1960 divorce from Lucille. In 1985, Desi was diagnosed with lung cancer. A year later on December 2, 1986, Desi died after Lucille’s short-lived Aaron Spelling series Life with Lucy is cancelled. He and Lucille had their last conversation just a couple days before on November 30th – the same date as their wedding anniversary. Lucille suffered from high blood pressure and angina. In January 1988, a cyst was removed from her thyroid. In May, she suffered a stroke. Lucille recovered and appeared on Password and presented at the Oscars in March 1989. Three weeks later on April 18th, she was diagnosed with heart problems and had surgery. A couple weeks later Lucille Ball died on April 26, 1989.

Lucille and Desi are survived by their two children Lucie and Desi Jr, their five grandchildren and a whole lot of laughs especially on the re-runs of I Love Lucy that are still shown everyday 67 years later.

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