Today, Saturday August 6th, marks what would have been Lucille Ball’s 100th birthday. While best known as the star of the groundbreaking sitcom I Love Lucy, Lucile Ball was also instrumental in getting Star Trek off the ground. If Gene Roddenberry is the father of Star Trek, then Ball is sort of Trek’s godmother.
Lucille Ball, Desilu and Star Trek
In 1950 Lucille Ball, along with her husband Desi Arnaz, created Desilu Productions. The company grew with the huge success of their sitcom I Love Lucy and after the their divorce in 1960 Ball bought out Arnaz’s interest in the company. Fast-forward to 1964 and Desilu hired Herb Solow to foster new projects and one of the first new shows was Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek.
After making two pilots for Star Trek, Solow had got finally got a commitment from NBC in 1965, but there was a snag. At the time networks began to change the way they paid for TV shows, now only covering 80% of costs and leaving the rest to the studios. In addition Star Trek was working out to be an expensive show to make, budgeted at $200,000 per episode as opposed to an average of $160,000. This meant that Desilu would have to cover $40,000 (around $275,000 today) for each episode, and more if they went over budget. So their only hope to make a profit would be via foreign sales or syndication–a risky proposition at the time. Inside Desilu there was considerable debate as to whether or not to take that risk on Star Trek (and Mission: Impossible, another expensive show which Solow had sold to CBS).
Lucille Ball in 1965
In his book "Inside Star Trek: The Real Story" (written with Star Trek producer Bob Justman) Solow describes a fateful meeting with Ball:
I had the series order from NBC. I had a die-hard group of professionals to make the series. I had a lot of sleepless nights. Now all I needed was the financial support of the studio elders, the very conservative Desilu loyalists. This would all start, and end, with America’s favorite redhead, Lucille Ball herself.
Before the board meeting I’d laid it out to the owner of Desilu: "You’ll always have a show, Lucy, with the same actors, the same staff, the same people to write and direct. Everyone will be happy. The studio will keep renting space to other shows. So fame isn’t a problem and money isn’t a problem. But wouldn’t you like to rebuild Desilu’s prestige, importance, and value as a major player? Wouldn’t it be great to have two exciting and successful Desilu television shows on the air?"
So it was up to the third Lucy. Forget about Lucy Ricardo’s "Vita-meeta-veg-emins" and those chocolates coming down the conveyor belt and Lucy crushing grapes with her feet. Forget Ricky Ricardo and his "Ba-ba-loo" band. Don’t even think about Fred and Ethel Mertz. Forget about all the fluff about President Lucy, the brilliant executive, the Hollywood Mogul. On this day, she could be the real Lucy, the one who represented talent, hated confrontation, and held the future of a lot of people in her grasp. "Say ‘yes,’ Lucy and we’ll all go to work."
Lucy nodded. And we all went to work. The inmates had the key to the asylum.
In 1967, while Star Trek was still in production and still losing money, Ball sold Desilu to Gulf+Western, the the parent company of Paramount Pictures. With the Paramount lot being right next door to Desilu they just knocked down the wall and merged the studios. In the end, Lucy’s gamble paid off for Paramount as they eventually began to reap big rewards off Star Trek in syndication. And the rest, as they say, is history.
So today we at TrekMovie remember Lucille Ball for having faith in Star Trek along with Gene Roddenberry, Herb Solow, Robert Justman, and the rest of the "inmates." Without Lucy, we may have never been taken to the final frontier.
Closing credit logos for Desilu and Paramount seen in Star Trek reruns