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Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball & Desi Arnaz

Two entertainment reporters add a valuable new perspective to the oft-told story of "I Love Lucy" by concentrating on the empire that "Lucy" built: Desilu Studios. In its heyday it was the most powerful of the non-network TV companies, producer of "The Untouchables,""Mission: Impossible,""Star Trek" and other hits in addition to Lucille Ball's various starring vehicles.

Two entertainment reporters add a valuable new perspective to the oft-told story of “I Love Lucy” by concentrating on the empire that “Lucy” built: Desilu Studios. In its heyday it was the most powerful of the non-network TV companies, producer of “The Untouchables,””Mission: Impossible,””Star Trek” and other hits in addition to Lucille Ball’s various starring vehicles.

There’s also plenty of juicy material about Ball’s stormy marriage to Desi Arnaz, who gets his due as the business and creative force responsible for Desilu’s success.

It was Ball who campaigned for Arnaz as her co-star when CBS expressed interest in a TV version of her popular radio series “My Favorite Husband,” but it was Arnaz who commissioned freelance scripts to convince the dubious network that America would buy an all-American redhead married to a Latin bandleader, and it was Arnaz who traded the stars’ salary cut (to pay for the expense of filming the show) for 100% ownership of “I Love Lucy”– a farsighted move matched only by his shortsightedeness in selling the show’s 180 episodes back to CBS for $ 4.3 million in l956.

Arnaz knew how to tailor the program to showcase his wife’s comedic brilliance, and quotes from the many interviews conducted by the authors attest to his savvy and to a personal warmth that made it easier for subordinates to work with him than the remote, often difficult Ball.

Sanders, author of “Rainbow’s End: The Judy Garland Show,” and Gilbert, an editor at Daily Variety, don’t chronicle the making of “I Love Lucy” in as much detail as previous books, but they give a good sense of the creative dynamics that shaped the show, and their careful account of Desilu’s many other projects provides a portrait of TV production in its prime.

Although the tumultuous Arnaz-Ball marriage finally broke up in l960, the partners were aware of their professional interdependence and tried for nearly three years to continue running Desilu together. But Arnaz’s drinking, which prompted increasingly erratic behavior, finally led Ball to buy him out in late 1962. His career faded, and the authors say Lucy’s various post-Desi shows, while popular, suffered from the absence of Arnaz’s guiding hand.

More a business profile than a biography, this solid showbiz history nonetheless paints a poignant portrait of two talented people who sparked each other’s best efforts even while they drove each other crazy.

Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball & Desi Arnaz

  • Production: By Coyne Steven Sanders and Tom Gilbert; William Morrow & Co.; 384 pages; $ 23.