Playhouse, an anthology series broadcast on CBS between 1958-60,
never received the critical acclaim of Playhouse 90 or Studio
One, nor did it last as long as those two dramatic programs.
However, among the episodes in its brief run were two productions
that, in effect, served as pilots for The Twilight Zone and
The Untouchables, two of the most memorable (and most widely
syndicated in reruns) television shows of the 1960s.
Playhouse was produced by Desilu, a telefilm production company
owned by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball that owed its genesis and initial
success to a single series--I Love Lucy (CBS, 1951-57). By
the late 1950s, the company was producing, through a variety of
financial arrangements (wholly owning, co-producing, leasing of
facilities and personnel), several situation comedies and western
dramas. Desilu Playhouse was to be the realization of Arnaz's
dream to make Desilu the most significant telefilm production company
and to give himself the opportunity for creative play and control
beyond his role as producer and actor on I Love Lucy and
The Lucy-Desi Hour (an hour-long comedy series with the cast
and characters of I Love Lucy that aired once a month during
the 1957-58 television season). Departing from the standard practice
of networks committing to series only after a sponsor had agreed
to bankroll production costs, CBS bought Desilu Playhouse
on the strength of the Desilu track record and with a promise that
The Lucy-Desi Hour would be among the planned package of
dramas, comedies, and musical spectaculars.
committed to sponsorship a month after the sale to CBS in early
1958, agreeing to a record of $12 million production cost outlay.
The company was already sponsor of the prestigious anthology series
Studio One, but this show as canceled shortly after the deal
with Desilu. Historians as well as former personnel of Desilu and
Westinghouse suggest that it was Westinghouse president Mark Cresap's
love of I Love Lucy and the persuasiveness of the charming
Arnaz--who promised Cresap that the series would double Westinghouse's
business in the first year--that encouraged the company to lay out
so much money for the telefilmed anthology series.
first episode of the Westinghouse-Desilu Playhouse, aired
in October 1958, was "Lucy Goes to Mexico," a Lucy-Desi Hour
with guest star Maurice Chevalier. The following week the first
dramatic hour premiered, "Bernadette" (a biography of Saint Bernadette,
the young girl claiming visitation from the Virgin Mary in 19th
century Lourdes, France), starring Pier Angeli. Despite Arnaz's
claim that the series would never show anything offensive to children,
it highest rated telecasts were the two hours of The Untouchables,
featuring Robert Stack as Eliot Ness, leader of the crack FBI team
who pursued Al Capone and other gangsters during Prohibition. When
The Untouchables became a regular series on ABC in 1959, it was
the subject of great controversy because of its violence and allegedly
negative stereotypes of Italian-Americans.
Playhouse did not survive long for a variety of reasons--the
inability to attract big star guests every week, the waning power
of the anthology series form due to cost and subject matter, the
growing popularity of other dramatic programming (such as westerns
and cop shows), and the divorce of Ball and Arnaz, which ended their
partnership as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo as well. Although Westinghouse-Desilu
Playhouse did prove Desilu to be multi-faceted at telefilm production,
Desi Arnaz did not get a chance to expand his acting range, and
the musical spectaculars he had envisioned producing for the series
fell short of the quantity and quality promised to Westinghouse.
The legacy of the series lies in its launching of The Twilight
Zone and The Untouchables, and its continuation of The
Lucy-Desi Hour, which still appears regularly in syndicated
SPOKESPERSON Betty Furness
Desi Arnaz, Bert Granet
HISTORY 48 Episodes
October 1958-September 1959 Monday
October 1959-June 1960
Christopher. Hollywood TV: The Studio System in the Fifties.
Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1994.
Andrew, Bart. The "I Love Lucy" Book. New York: Doubleday,
Sanders, Coyness Steven, and Tom Gilbert. Desilu: The Story of
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. New York: William Morrow, 1993.