This seminal television production company was founded by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball in 1951 to produce their new sitcom, I Love Lucy. Because they owned the rights to I Love Lucy (which CBS had allowed them to keep in exchange for bearing the costs of filming the episodes - the network had wanted the show to be broadcast live from New York, as was the usual practice for most television programs in the early 1950s, but Arnaz and Ball insisted on filming in Hollywood), the studio's fortunes rose rapidly, especially once the rerun (traditionally held to have been invented by Arnaz, who made the decision to re-air old episodes to tide audiences over during a break in production for Ball's maternity leave) made it clear that holding those rights was an extremely lucrative prospect for them. Organizationally, Desilu spent most of The '50s buying up studio space all over Hollywood; since this was the era of the Fall of the Studio System, there was plenty to be had, often at fire-sale prices. I Love Lucy moved from the one-stage Desilu Playhouse (a converted proscenium theatre space) to the more lavish Cahuenga facility (a dedicated film studio), with multiple stages, as early as 1953, and this enabled the studio to begin producing other shows for television, most notably Our Miss Brooks and Make Room for Daddy, later renamed, and better-remembered as, The Danny Thomas Show.
Desilu cemented itself (and its chosen medium of television) as a major player in Hollywood when, in 1958, it purchased the studio and backlot space of RKO, which had been one of the Big 5 major studios during The Golden Age of Hollywood, not even a decade earlier. This included prime Hollywood real estate at Gower and Melrose (directly adjacent to the Paramount Pictures studios), where Arnaz and Ball promptly relocated their offices, and the famous Forty Acres backlot in Culver City, immortalized in scenes from King Kong, Gone with the Wind, and Citizen Kane. These extravagant buyouts were funded by selling the rights to I Love Lucy (which had ceased production in 1957, though the Lucy Desi Comedy Hour specials continued until 1960) to CBS, and indeed that series has never gone off the air in all the years since. The lion's share of the credit for the studio's great success during this period has always been attributed to Arnaz, whose remarkable business savvy belied the "Cuban bandleader" stereotype and image he made famous as his character, Ricky Ricardo. Lucille Ball, despite holding the official title of Vice President, had virtually no active role in the studio's day-to-day affairs at this time. Although their marriage was falling apart as The '50s came to a close (they would divorce in 1960), the studio began producing two more classic series, Prohibition-era crime drama The Untouchables and family sitcom My Three Sons, which initially co-starred William Frawley from I Love Lucy. They also began renting out their ample studio space to other producers, thus resulting in a great many classic TV shows from The '60s having been filmed at Desilu despite not necessarily having been produced by them.
Desilu also attempted to branch out into other media intermittently throughout its history, rarely with much success. In 1953, three episodes of I Love Lucy were cobbled together into a feature-length film; a framing device showing a couple arriving at the Desilu Playhouse to watch a filming of the show was added after sound engineers proved unable to remove the audience laughter from the soundtrack. Although the I Love Lucy movie tested well, it was never released because MGM, which was releasing the Arnaz-Ball vehicle The Long, Long Trailer, demanded that it be shelved for fear of competition; they were already dubious of the film's prospects since they reasoned that audiences wouldn't pay to see stars they could now watch at home for free. To their surprise, The Long, Long Trailer was a big hit, and as a follow-up Desilu decided to produce their own star vehicle for Arnaz and Ball, Forever, Darling, in 1956. (MGM would again distribute the film.) However, that movie flopped. Undeterred, the studio tried its hand in the Great White Way in 1960, as the sole backer of Ball's equally unsuccessful Broadway debut in the musical Wildcat.
Arnaz initially attempted to stay on as President after the divorce, but once CBS convinced Ball to return to weekly series television in 1962 with The Lucy Show, it soon became clear that one of them would have to leave. In the end it was Arnaz, who sold his half of the studio to Ball in 1963, making her the first female head of a Hollywood studio in history. This forced her to take a more active role in the studio's management, although by all accounts she was quite happy running The Lucy Show as her own personal fiefdom, leaving the studio's operations to the capable underlings that Arnaz had hired, and who had stayed on after he left. Although she took advantage of her newfound role as "the woman in charge" at Desilu for publicity purposes, and was actually a perfectly competent executive in her own right, she disliked running the studio and wanted nothing more than to continue playing "Lucy". Still, she soldiered on with the job for a few years, and those talented underlings her ex-husband had hired showed remarkable willingness to take risks on unproven formats, including a Wagon Train to the Stars concept by ex-cop and Have Gun Will Travel writer Gene Roddenberry he called Star Trek. Not to be outdone, they also bought a concept by another former Have Gun — Will Travel writer, Bruce Geller, called Mission: Impossible. Both shows made it to the air in the 1966-67 season, and although both would go on to become all-time classics of popular culture, it was too little, too late for Ball. She and Gulf+Western chief executive Charles Bluhdorn announced on February 15, 1967 that his company had bought her out, effective at the end of the year. Gulf+Western had just bought out Paramount Pictures the year before, and it was the last remaining movie studio without a television production division; these had been very lucrative for other studios, particularly MGM and 20th Century Fox, helping them get through some very lean years at the box office, and Bluhdorn, one of the earliest practitioners of the conglomeration trend which would dominate Corporate America in the late-20th century, felt it would be cheaper and easier to just buy out an independent TV studio than to start one from scratch. (This would later be proven wrong after he finally got a look at the production budget for Star Trek, marking an ominous start to Paramount's ambivalent relationship with what would become one of its most famous - and lucrative - properties.)
The last series to be created and produced by Desilu was the Private Detective drama Mannix, in the 1967-68 season. Desilu itself was folded into Paramount Pictures (and renamed Paramount Television) in 1968. Most of the staff from Desilu either left or was let go around this time, most notably Herbert F. Solow, the Vice President in Charge of Production. Of the four shows Desilu was producing at the time of the sale to Gulf+Western, three continued as Paramount Television series until they were cancelled: Star Trek in 1969, Mission: Impossible in 1973, and Mannix in 1975. The fourth, The Lucy Show, ceased production but was effectively retooled and continued as Here's Lucy, produced by Ball's newly-formed and independent Lucille Ball Productions. The studio space which comprised the bulk of Desilu's physical assets were largely divested by Paramount in the mid-1970s. The Cahuenga lot remains a television studio today, first renamed Ren-Mar Studios but currently known as Red Studios Hollywood. The Forty Acres lot, however, was demolished and is today occupied by an industrial park. The Gower studio is today part of the Paramount Pictures complex, the wall formerly separating the two studios having been taken down followed by an elaborate ribbon-cutting ceremony performed by Ball and Bluhdorn. Ironically, Desilu finally had a hit movie after it had effectively ceased to exist in Yours, Mine, and Ours, a blended-family comedy which starred Ball and Henry Fonda, and whose success paved the way for The Brady Bunch to reach the airwaves.
Given its primacy as one of the first and largest studios exclusively dedicated to production for the new medium of television, its vast and diverse library of programming (the studio even dabbled in game shows, including By the Numbers and the 1963-69 You Don't Say!), and its consistent willingness to take chances on new and unusual formats, Desilu was responsible for a whole raft of Trope Making or Codifying shows and is direly under-appreciated by many modern television viewers (if they even know of the name- Paramount for many years had a bad habit of removing the Desilu logos and putting their logos on the ends of shows). If you consider yourself any kind of student of media history, you'll want to get very familiar with their shows.
Television series produced by and/or filmed at Desilu:
- I Love Lucy (1951-57)
- Lucy Desi Comedy Hour (1957-60)
- Our Miss Brooks (1952-56)
- Make Room for Daddy, aka The Danny Thomas Show (1953-65)
- Yancy Derringer (1958-59)
- The Untouchables (1959-63)
- The Andy Griffith Show (1960-68)
- My Three Sons (1960-72)
- The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66)
- The Lucy Show (1962-68)
- Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. (1964-69)
- I Spy (1965-68)
- Hogan's Heroes (1965-71)
- That Girl (1966-71)
- Family Affair (1966-71)
- Star Trek (1966-69)
- Mission: Impossible (1966-73)
- Mannix (1967-75)
Theatrical films produced by Desilu:
- Yours, Mine, and Ours (1968)
Desilu in fiction:
- The story That Wacky Redhead centers on Desilu, in an Alternate History where Ball doesn't sell it to Paramount.