Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz are the faces that come to mind whenever you see the Desilu title identified. Never was the label more proudly displayed than the signature a top the water tower that once overlooked this studio. It could be seen at ground level from every street on the backlot. Your not in Mayberry if you don’t see this water tower.
Lucy and Desi proudly claimed ownership in 1956 and the studio thrived unlike ever before. Thomas Ince once had a plan, but strange things happen around here. RKO, the next owner after DeMille, never had a plan, just do what you wish on this wild backlot ranch nicknamed 40 Acres.It actually gave the lot charm, comparable to some nice orphan kid growing up at Boystown.
Television was starting to taking off back in the mid 50’s and the landscape around this lot would end up in a majority of classic television series going forward. Lucy and Desi have a crystal ball. There’s a new sheriff in town and he smokes cuban cigars. Money is spent wisely, not foolishly, and efficiency is introduced to a studio that use to make decisions from the saddle of a horse.
Enter Danny Thomas:
One afternoon I was watching Andy Griffith reruns with my mom and I asked ‘Who is that Danny Thomas guy whose name is on the credits?”
My mom kicked into church mode and spoke in sincere heart warming terms, “Donnie, he is a Saint- he helps kids with serious needs” …My mom began tearing and choking up, for she also had a physical disability that handicapped her for her entire life. Because of a bad hip socket at birth, as a young child, she had some horrific and almost barbaric remedies performed on her. Forever, she walked with a metal, adjustable, heavy duty crutch. It often doubled as a machine gun when not in cane walking mode. It was a really cool looking- crutch/weapon in the hands of her young son. Best compared to Cage’s gun in Combat, the only thing missing from my mom’s crutch is a bayonet!
Bless her heart…Her ailment started long before St. Jude was founded by Danny Thomas on February 4th, 1962 in Memphis Tennessee.
My mom is my hero and Danny Thomas is her hero.
From that moment on- he had my stamp of approval and I soon noticed his name is involved in quality, both on TV screens and countless kids hearts…
1953-Danny obtained his own T.V program with posturing by his agent to a struggling ABC Network. To acquire the services of coveted Ray Bolger, ABC had to take on Danny Thomas. The network was skeptical of this throw-in due to previously low ratings in other endeavors. After some brainstorming, the network came up with a series for him titled Make Room for Daddy. In 1953, it was billed as the best new show on that TV in your living room.
In 1957, it shifted to CBS and slid into The Lucy Show time slot. That show finished off with 180 episodes, many that somehow became lost. “More on that in a future film vault post”
While working on Make Room for Daddy, Danny and aspiring producer/director Sheldon Leonard developed a bond and Sheldon became the shows executive producer. Thomas/Leonard Productions was born. A powerhouse merger that home based off the Desilu Lot.
It was responsible for :
The Real McCoy, The Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle, The Joey Bishop Show, The Bill Dana Show, and The Dick Van Dyke Show.
The Bill Dana Show starred- Bill Dana, but Don Adams played Byron Flick, and Jonathan Harris, who would soon star in Lost in Space. This show ran from 1963 to 1965.
Sam Denoff, Bill Persky, Jerry Parris, Marlo and Danny Thomas produced…That Girl.
Desi Arnaz ran the Desilu Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse at this same time. Desilu had so much going on it occupied three movie lots, two in Hollywood and Culver City’s old Thomas Ince facility.
In 1965, Sheldon left the partnership to develop the series I Spy. In 1967, Mr. Thomas tried to buy Desilu from Lucille Ball, but was unsuccessful.
Andy Griffith was the first spin off on American television. It originated from a 1960 episode of Make Room for Daddy. Success poured Danny’s way as several of his TV shows reached Number One. He is also responsible for casting Mary Tyler Moore as Laura Petrie.
Andy Griffith was a spin off of No-Time for Sergeants and Gomer Pyle was a spin-off of the Andy Griffith series. All these shows could be found on the Desilu backlot. Gomer Pyle too became another huge success, In it’s 5 year run, it only fell under top three rated shows once. where it fell to tenth. NBC wanted to spruce up the ratings for Star Trek and was penciled in that Friday night 8;30 time slot, thinking Gomer was in decline. Not the case, Gomer zoomed back to the top and Star Trek got canceled.
All these iconic shows filmed on the Desilu backlot and the negatives ended up here also, in the film vaults that time forgot…more on that to come.
I had a Gomer Pyle lunch pale, I wanted it because it has the Gomer’s barracks in the background as Sgt. Carter gets splashed in the face by a water hose. I loved Frank Sutton. He was the perfect Sergeant. He was a W.W2 in the Army and saw combat in the Philippines. Frank was also a black belt in karate.
Much of this era- and decades before- ended up in film vaults on the backlot. Ironically, shows that filmed at this bunker would eventually end up inside this cement fortress with 8 blast doors. This vault area will be a topic of discussion in my next post.
I wish to thank Danny Thomas, Marlo Thomas, along with Terre and Tony for their effort in making St. Jude the place where kids can fulfill their lives. Let’s all say a prayer for these wonderful in need…
Outside the studio main gate…On Ince Blvd.
The surroundings of what was then Desilu were very simple and middle class. Neighborhood bungalows often provided shelter for the employees that worked inside this studio facility. A laundromat with the name Paramount engrained in the mortar sits across from the main gate. Industrial grade facility, uniforms and costumes get cleaned here from your all time favorite films. The building adjacent to it supplies ice. Ice is a big thing, and gets used in various ways. These commodities are extremely important yet go unnoticed, but not on Ince Blvd.
Next door to the Ice Company, across a tiny ally that looks like something that Elliott Ness would raid, is your last chance for gas. A legendary bar winks at you caddy corner and is across from The Plantation where all the studio executives create things. Things we watch on television. The mid 60’s was the peak for quality T.V. Roof antennas and rabbit ears pulled in shows being filmed in every backlot in Hollywood. The Culver Hotel looks down on all of this landscape.
The gas station that fueled your hasty exit was Richfield, back then. It was typical of any in the USA. Quarts of oil sit on display outside a tiny fix -it garage. Two cars could fit inside, like the two cells in Andy Griffith. In fact, the next closet gas station from here is Goobers, just down the road. He’s not always open, so don’t be that Man in a Hurry.
Soda machines stand side by side cigarette machines for the big spenders, and a last chance phone booth sits proudly along side some 55 gallon oil drums. Your having a good day if the soda is cold and you have enough coins to place your call. Collect calls sometimes work, if your mothers on the other end. The Herald Examiner also is interested in your quarters and displays its daily headlines proudly through a crusty yellow cover surface.
In 1965, my family bought color to keep up with those fancy silks Batman and Robin wear. A revolution on channels 2 through 13. Less content resulted in extremely High Quality T.V. We saw the same faces and actors on several of our television series and began to feel like we knew them. Who doesn’t feel they already know Gavin McCloud for example or Burt Mustin. Bruce Lee lived directly behind the studio on Van Buren street and neighborhood kids did know him. Color worked everywhere with The Dynamic Duo and The Green Hornet. Art directors and wardrobe had plenty to work with in our most colorful decades. Even That Girl produced 136 color episodes.
One afternoon I stopped with my sister to get gas for her candy apple red- GTO. My dad gave it to her since I’m still in single digits. Nancy gets out to pay while we receive a full service treatment. I fiddle with her 8 track, since I can’t drive yet, but I can rock. The band Cream begins to play White Room- at the station. I’m happy as I rock my head sideways, welcome to the 60’s – my sister interrupts points out a crowd that is looking and/or waiting to use the phone. My eyes pan like the lens of a camera, anxious women fidgeting, each dressed more colorfully that the next- block the folding glass door, it’s then who I realize who’s inside-Marlo Thomas.
It’s like a casting call and every actress wants to use this phone. They will have to wait there turn, Marlo Thomas is using it for something important. My sister and I love –That Girl. I role down the power windows and gawk.
Secretly, I had a crush on this woman before I was certain I even liked girls. There she is-as adorable as can be. She’s animated inside her booth and her mannerisms make this seem like the opening scene in an episode. We pick…That Girl!
Like the opening scenes yet this isn’t being filmed, it’s real. The only thing missing is the train speeding alongside the New York skyline, by with the irresistible jingle I grew up loving composed by Sam Denoff and Earl Hagen.
Diamonds, daisy’s, snow flakes and That Girl, chestnuts, rainbows, springtime That Girl…
This is coming from a boy who couldn’t get enough war and machine gun T.V, but spring must be in the air, this had a grab factor. It’s that girl with the umbrella, with the fancy Thursday night prime time slot.
Ms. Thomas wanted the show title to be-That Girl. The studio preferred The Marlo Thomas Show, every show at Desilu had the stars name attached, Marlo wanted a fictitious character, Ann Marie Henderson was born.
Written and lived by…Donnie Norden