COMMUNICATIONS PIONEERS: Lucille Ball

We all love Lucy. At one time she was the most popular person on TV. If you make a list of top 10 celebrities of all time, she’s probably on it (at least since the idea of “celebrity” only started about 1900.) But did you know what she did behind the scenes?

Lucille Ball and her husband were a power couple. He was a band leader (like being a rock star today) and she was a radio and movie star. Think of a couple like Beyoncé and Jay-Z and you’re not far off.

Lucy was more than just another star. She turned the idea of entertainment on its ear several times, and she did it at a time when most women were encouraged to stay at home with the kids. Not only that she did it while pretending to be a woman who stayed at home with the kids. Take a look:

Her role in inventing the TV sitcom

While working with CBS on a sitcom for radio, she was asked to help develop it into a TV show. This was pretty common at the time. Before TV, most of the common show types we think of today — game shows, soap operas, comedies, serial dramas — were on radio. When TV broadcasting became big, the radio stars moved over to TV if they could. Lucy and her team took the show, My Favorite Husband, and reworked it for TV.

Here was the amazing part. Lucy lobbied hard for the part of her husband to be played by her real husband, Desi Arnaz. At a time when America was very white and very Anglo-Saxon, Lucy wanted the world to see an Irish woman (the character’s maiden name was McGillicuddy) married to a Cuban immigrant. Somehow she got the studio to buy this, despite Mr. Arnaz’ strong accent.

The next thing Lucy did was make the characters semi-real. While their last name was Ricardo, they were clearly supposed to be based on the real Lucy and Desi. Other actors like Burns&Allen and Jack Benny, did this as well, but they based their characters on Hollywood versions of themselves. Lucy and Ricky Ricardo were regular folks with just a tiny bit of success, just like their audience.

The real revolution was that every show was filmed with multiple cameras rather than being performed live. Most TV shows of the day were live and if they were preserved at all — I am not making this up — it was by pointing a film camera at a TV set and recording the screen. Filming ahead of time was revolutionary and it allowed for better quality and better writing. It also means the shows survived in a high quality format that makes them watchable even today. Other shows followed suit and very few shows today are produced live other than news and “reality” competition shows.

A studio owned by a woman

The success of I Love Lucy led to the establishment of an independent studio for all of Lucy’s productions. At the time it was thought that TV networks were too big and powerful and limits were imposed on how much original programming they could produce themselves. Studios like Desilu (Lucy and Desi’s production house) and others grew out of this decision.

Lucy became the first female head of a Hollywood production house, ever, with the founding of Desilu. Not only is that an important part of women’s history it’s also noteworthy because of two of the TV programs Desilu produced. You’ve probably heard of them.

Star Trek has to date had 7 TV series and 13 movies. We’re talking about thousands of hours of entertainment even if you don’t talk about the books, comics, recordings, and other ancillary stuff. The ideas on display on the show have led to the development of the cell phone, the tablet, voice-controlled computers, and a lot of other things we take for granted today.

Mission:Impossible ran for seven seasons on TV and has produced five movies to date with a sixth one scheduled for this year. The films, spanning 22 years, are one of the most successful film franchises in history.

Lucille Ball personally greenlit these shows when they started and the company she built prospered. It was bought by Paramount, which became part of Viacom, one of the largest media conglomerates in history.

Anything but a dumb redhead

Lucille Ball may have played dumb for television, but it’s very clear that the world of telecommunications is better because of her.