Lucille Ball’s 100th birthday is this Saturday and while I’m sure many of you are fans of the I Love Lucy show, many of our geek readers should also have an appreciation for the iconic red head for her pivotal role in helping to launch the Star Trek series. Here’s how it all came to happen.
A Little Background On Lucy
Lucy’s first foray into the acting world occurred when she was only twelve and her Shriner stepfather encouraged her to participate in the chorus line of the group’s next show. Shortly after, her mother enrolled her into the John Murray Anderson School for the Dramatic Arts in New York City, where she studied alongside Bette Davis. While Davis excelled in the program, Ball didn’t and she was sent home only a few weeks later when one of her drama coaches told her she "had no future at all as a performer." Determined to prove her instructors wrong, Ball returned to New York when she turned 18 and started working as a fashion model. Eventually, she decided to move to Los Angeles and start working in the movie industry. She appeared in a number of small movies throughout the 30s and 40s, eventually garnering the title “Queen B,” referencing her exceeding number of appearances in B movies.
Launching A Media Empire
In 1940, Lucy met Desi Arnaz while filming Too Many Girls. At their first introduction, Desi was not impressed, but when they met again later the same day, he quickly became smitten. The two eloped later that year. Unfortunately, while the two were passionately in love, there was always turbulence in their relationship. Only four years after the couple married, Lucy filed for divorce. Before things were finalized though, the couple reconciled.
Aside from working on B films, Lucy kept herself busy by performing on radio shows. In 1948, she was cast as Liz Cugat in the program My Favorite Husband for CBS Radio. The program was a hit and it wasn’t long before CBS approached her about reworking the show for television. While Lucy agreed, she insisted that the station cast Arnaz as her husband. Desi and Lucy quickly started their own production company, Desilu Productions, and produced a pilot episode for CBS. CBS wasn’t sure the public was ready for a white woman and Cuban man to portray a married couple on television and after filming the pilot episode, they declined to pick up the show. Undeterred, Lucy and Desi took the act on the road, performing a vaudeville act starring Lucy as a zany housewife who wanted to work in her husband’s entertainment show. The tour was a hit and CBS quickly agreed to put I Love Lucy on their television lineup.
During their negotiations with the station, Lucy and Desi agreed to take pay cuts as long as their production company retained the rights to the show once it was aired. At the time, reruns were practically unheard of, so CBS gladly agreed, thinking the concession was no big deal. To protect their investment, Desilu filmed all of the episodes on actual film instead of kinescopes, which allowed for long-term storage of the episodes. As a result, the show is one of the only ones of the era to not have any missing episodes. It wasn’t long before I Love Lucy became one of the most popular shows on television, dominating the ratings throughout its run. Once the show started airing, it practically never went out of syndication again and Desilu netted a fortune rather quickly.
Where No (Wo)Man Has Gone Before
Lucy and Desi divorced in 1960, just two months after taping the final episode of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour. While the couple remained friends all the way up until Desi’s death, Lucy had already started working on her next show, The Lucy Show, and since Arnaz wasn’t involved with the project, everyone agreed that he should sell his shares to his ex-wife. This left Lucy as the first woman to be the head of a television production company. And the company’s show lineup was often just as revolutionary. When you consider the fact that I Love Lucy always used more expensive film studio techniques that were completely unorthodox for TV shows to use, it’s not entirely surprising that the studio was also willing to take on a few shows that would require much higher budgets than other studios would be willing to deal with. That’s why the company’s list of productions included such high-value classics as The Untouchables, Star Trek and Mission: Impossible.
Their studios were so nice that many other notable shows, produced by other companies, were filmed there, including My Three Sons, The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Andy Griffith Show. While the shows produced by the studio cost more to make, Lucy had an excellent eye for finding ideas that would have high syndication and re-run values, ensuring the company would always recover a profit on their high production costs.
Fighting For Intergalactic Peace
To some extent, it’s kind of amazing that we even have Star Trek at all. When ex-cop-turned-writer Gene Roddenberry came up with an idea for a show about an interstellar spaceship in the 23rd century, he called it Star Trek to himself. But when he went to studios to sell the idea, he pitched it as “Wagon Train to the Stars,” because he knew his experience writing for Old West shows was one of the only things that would help get the series approved. If the studios actually pushed for this idea, the show might have ended up a lot more in the style of Firefly than the classic sci-fi standby we all know.
Fortunately, one of the studios Roddenberry pitched his idea to happened to be Desilu. Herb Solow of Desilu approved the idea and sold the idea to NBC, who paid for the first pilot, “The Cage.” NBC rejected the pilot, complaining that it was “too cerebral,” but they took the highly unusual decision to pay for an additional pilot to be shot. While there is some speculation as to why the station would make this call, most people agree it had a lot to do with Lucy pushing them into it. She was, after all, one of the most powerful women in television at this time.
The second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” scrapped all of the characters from the first, with the exception of Mr. Spock. The new characters introduced in this episode included Captain Kirk, Lt. Commander Scott and Lt. Sulu. NBC approved of this second pilot and added the show to their 1966 fall line up. By the time they showed the first official episode, Lt. Uhura was added to the crew, marking the first time an African-American woman was given such an important role in an American TV show.
The first episode of Star Trek was premiered as part of a “sneak peek” block of television. The show had great ratings during that premiere, playing against mostly reruns. Reviews were mixed, but some of them were exceptionally negative, like the Variety review that said the show “won’t work” because it was “an incredible and dreary mess of confusion and complexities.” When the show started playing against other new programs, its ratings quickly started to drop and by only a month or so, it was ranked 51st in the ratings out of 94 programs. If the show premiered a few years earlier, this would have been an immediate death sentence. Fortunately, the network had just started to work on recording viewers’ demographic profiles and Star Trek scored remarkably high when it came to reaching young, educated males –one of the most highly sought after demographics of the time. Viewers of this group were particularly excited about the show’s serious discussions of controversial and contemporary social issues –one of the things Roddenberry and Lucy were most interested in exploring throughout the course of the show.
Around this time, Lucy decided to sell her network. According to her daughter, before negotiations began, one of her studio chiefs advised that she get rid of Mission: Impossible and Star Trek. Ball insisted they stayed, saying, “No, I like them.” Soon enough though, Lucy would no longer go to bat for the sci-fi series. She decided to sell the rights to her studio to Paramount Pictures. As a result, Paramount Television now owned the show and to them, it was nothing worth sticking their necks out for.
While the network decided to keep the show due to its great demographic ratings, they decided to move the second season to 8:30-9:30 PM on a Friday. This made it particularly difficult for those young, educated men to tune in. Unsurprisingly, this made their ratings drop even more. By the end of the second season, the show was doing so badly in the ratings that William Shatner was already preparing for work on other projects. Luckily, the news of the show’s ratings caused speculation that it would be canceled and inspired fans to organize together in an unprecedented effort to keep the show alive. The show’s viewers were already so passionate that in the first season, it received more fan letters than any other show besides The Monkees. When news came that the show might be canceled, this number skyrocketed. While the first season ended up driving 29,000 fan letters, the fan’s letter writing campaign resulted in the station receiving 116,000 letters between December 1967 and March 1968. Many of the letters came from such respected supporters as the Governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller.
As if letter writing weren’t enough, over 200 Caltech students marched to NBC’s headquarters in January of 1968, urging the network to keep the show on the air. Berkley and MIT students led similar protests in their respective locales. The Smithsonian even contacted the network during this time, requesting a print of the show for their archives, and the only show honored with such a request at that time. Unsurprisingly, NBC decided to keep the show around, but their announcement of the show’s continuation was particularly unusual. After one of the show’s episodes, they announced on television that they were renewing the show and requested viewers stop writing. Funny enough, this resulted in thousands and thousands of thank you letters in return.
The End of The Beginning
Despite the fact that the anti-cancellation campaign was an unheard of success, NBC seemed determined that Star Trek shouldn’t survive its third season. They moved the show to the Friday night “death slot” of 10 PM, when practically none of the younger audience would be around to watch it. In addition, 29 of the network’s affiliates stopped carrying the show altogether. As if all that weren’t enough, the station also reduced the show’s budget by 10%. As a result, the show had fewer outdoor shots, fewer guest stars and fewer writers.
Despite the fan’s attempt to launch another letter writing campaign on behalf of the show, NBC cancelled Star Trek on January 9, 1969. Fortunately, Desilu’s foresight for shows with a high syndication value once again paid off. With three seasons under its belt, Star Trek had just enough episodes for syndication and the rights for the first season had already been purchased by Kaiser Broadcasting. Syndication saved the memory of the ill-fated show, offering it better time slots and a much larger audience then it ever had on NBC. By 1970, Paramount Television was advertising that the show managed to significantly increase the ratings of stations that picked it up and the Los Angeles Times said the show had the most enviable ratings of any syndicated show.
Image via Atomic Q [Flickr]
In 1972, fans got together for the first Star Trek convention in New York. The show’s syndication ratings continued to increase rerun after rerun, unlike any other show because fans liked to rewatch episodes dozens of times. By 1987, when The Next Generation started airing, Paramount Television was making over $1 million from each episode in syndication. The Chicago Tribune quipped, “Since that dark day in 1969 when NBC brought the programming hammer down on Star Trek, there probably hasn't been a 24-hour period when the original program, one of the original episodes, wasn't being aired somewhere. ” And to think, none of it would have been possible if it weren’t for a pushy redhead who happened to like the idea of a sci-fi series that explored cultural issues of today. Consider that next time you see another rerun of the sixty year-old sitcom staring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.