WESTINGHOUSE-DESILU PLAYHOUSE

U.S. Anthology Series

Westinghouse-Desilu 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.

Westinghouse-Desilu 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.

Westinghouse 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.

The 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.

Westinghouse-Desilu 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 reruns.

-Mary Desjardins

HOST Desi Arnaz

WESTINGHOUSE SPOKESPERSON Betty Furness

PRODUCERS    Desi Arnaz, Bert Granet

PROGRAMMING HISTORY 48 Episodes

CBS
October 1958-September 1959          Monday 10:00-11:00
October 1959-June 1960                       Friday 9:00-10:00

FURTHER READING

Anderson, 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, 1985.

Sanders, Coyness Steven, and Tom Gilbert. Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. New York: William Morrow, 1993.

 

See also Anthology Drama; Arnaz, Desi; Ball, Lucille