Lucille Ball (1911 – 1989)

The Comedic Queen Who Engineered An Entertainment Empire

Go where no man (or woman) has gone before!  If you’re a Trekkie or a fan of Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible, or loved Kevin Costner as Elliot Ness in The Untouchables you might not know it, but you can thank Lucille Ball… 

Ball was America’s sweetheart, the red-headed comedian who could make you laugh until your sides ached. But she was much more than just a funny face. Born in Jamestown, New York, in 1911, Ball didn’t simply conquer Hollywood; she broke the mold for what a female entertainer could achieve. While most people know her from her iconic roles, particularly Lucy Ricardo on “I Love Lucy,” what’s far less known is the business acumen that made her an entertainment mogul. The story of Lucille Ball isn’t just one of humor and acting talent; it’s also a masterclass in entrepreneurial vision and business strategy.

Before founding Desilu Productions with her then husband Desi Arnez in 1950, Ball spent two decades zig zagging between Hollywood and New York, with bit parts in Hollywood blockbusters, off and on Broadway plays and various radio adventures along the way. Eventually she permanently landed in Hollywood and made a name for herself as something of a B-movie actress.  Not satisfied with the parts she was getting, Ball and her husband, Desi Arnaz, founded Desilu Productions in 1950 and launched the hit series I Love Lucy a year later, based on a radio program she’d starred in called My Favorite Husband. 

Executives at CBS, where Lucy was to air, were hesitant about putting a show on the air featuring a white Ball married to a Hispanic Arnez.  Ball was adamant that Arnez take the role and the network acquiesced and the rest is history. 

Hollywood executives didn’t know what hit them. Here was a woman, and a female comedian at that, taking the reins in an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry. The traditional rules of business didn’t seem to apply to her, and that was exactly how she liked it. Desilu wasn’t just a vanity project; it was an enterprise built on strategic risks and forward-thinking. It was this business mindset that led to her demanding full ownership rights of “I Love Lucy” and choosing to film it, rather than do it live—a move that invented the rerun and residual incomes for actors.

But Desilu wasn’t just about one show; it was about creating an entertainment ecosystem. Under Ball’s groundbreaking leadership, the company went on to produce series that would spawn billion dollar spinoffs and movies for two generations and counting.  Among the brightest stars were “Star Trek”, “Mission: Impossible” and “The Untouchables.” Indeed, when Gene Roddenberry first pitched the show to Desilu everyone wanted to pass… except Ball.  She ordered a pilot episode filmed and when the network rejected that she did the almost unthinkable and had a second produced.  This one, titled “Where No Man Has Gone Before” was picked up by the network and the rest is history.   

By the time Ball sold Desilu Productions for $17 million in 1967— the equivalent of around $150 million today—she had set the gold standard for what actors and actresses could aspire to achieve. She showed that you could be a woman, you could be in entertainment, and yes, you could be business-savvy enough to build and steer and sell an empire.  Industry giants of today such as Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon, both of whom are as powerful behind the camera as they are in front of it, can thank Lucile Ball for clearing a path through the jungles of mid 20th century Hollywood. 

Lucille Ball passed away in 1989 at the age of 77, after a career that spanned 63 years. That career got its start at age 14 when her mother enrolled her in acting class in order to distance Ball from the 21-year-old troublemaker she’d been dating.  Although the acting classes themselves were a bust, as her teachers had no confidence Ball could succeed in drama, she took that lack of confidence as a challenge and promised herself she would prove them wrong. Not only did she indeed prove them wrong, she used her success in front of the camera to cut a path behind it that no woman had previously done… and did it all while bringing smiles to the faces of generations of Americans.