The President Wore a Dress To the Stockholders Meeting
from TV Guide magazine, July 15-21, 1967
by Dwight Whitney
as she turned a losing studio into a $30,000,000 success
One day last February a well-known Hollywood attorney named Milton A. (Mickey) Rudin was trying to reach his client, Lucille Ball, in Miami, where she had gone supposedly to talk Jackie Gleason into appearing in a movie she planned to make.
If Rudin's call was a little slow getting through, there was a reason for it. Rudin was calling her not as Lucy the funny actress, or even as Lucy the serious producer, but as Lucy the lady tycoon-the $75,000-a- year president and 60-percent owner of the largest TV-producing facility in the world, and as such he suspected (a suspicion later verified by the lady herself) that Lucy was in Miami not so much to see Gleason as to "hide" from her attorney. As Lucy's personal legal counsel as well as influential board member of Desilu Productions Inc., he wanted her to come to a decision on a much more urgent matter.
Madame President was well aware of the facts. Charles Bluhdorn, the fast-talking financier who in eight years of wheeling and dealing had gobbled up some 65 companies and molded them into a $650,000,000 conglomerate giant known as Gulf & Western Industries, had just bought Paramount, the conservatively managed, old-line movie company next door to Desilu's main studios. Now he wanted to acquire Desilu, with its 36 soundstages and 62 acres spread out so temptingly over three separate parcels of expensive real estate. The rumor mills had been working overtime for several months, Desilu stock was fluctuating erratically, but Lucy still couldn't make up her mind.
In a purely business way, the proposed merger seemed too good to pass up. The exchange of Desilu for G&W stock would make Lucy wealthy in fact as well as name. She subsists on salary alone-the eminently taxable $350,000 a year she gets as a performer plus the token $75,000 she gets as an executive, her larger assets being plowed back into the company. Among other things, the new deal would relieve her of the staggering interest burden on the $3,000,000 she borrowed from the City National Bank of Los Angeles in 1962 to buy out her ex-husband and long-time partner, the former president of Desilu, Desi Arnaz.
Sale to G&W would bring, all told, some $17,000,000 worth of G&W stock for the studio, once RKO, which she and Desi had bought in 1958 for $6,150,000. Oh, how they laughed when the Arnazes did that! Lucy, the funny, redhead, an owner? Desi, the bango- playing ex-bandleader, a captain of industry? Hah! About $10,000,000 worth of G&W stock would go to the "funny redhead," and the deal would be so arranged as to allow Lucy a substantial capital gain. Moreover, it would relieve her of the role which she had had thrust upon her by Desi's determination to retire -- the role of Madame President.
On the other hand, part of Lucy liked being Madame President. It set her apart. It reminded her pleasantly that a little girl who used to lead basketball cheers back in Jamestown, N.Y., the archetype of the daffy starlet who wasn't supposed to have a brain in her head, could really swing in the board room. As a woman who behaved like a woman, it amused her to occupy the austere oak-paneled executive suite once occupied by Joseph Kennedy and Howard Hughes, holding sway over 2000 employees, some 3878 stockholders and a company doing a gross annual business of $30,000,000. She gussied it up with large flower - patterned furniture in decorator shades of yellow and green and a silver tea service that belonged to her grandmother; and wondered -- but not very much - what Joe Kennedy would think of a Capri-clad President having her nails done during a business conference.
Indeed, the whole thing sounded like one of Lucys wackier scripts, but this time the "audience" wasn't laughing. By and large she had done a surprisingly good job, if only by virtue of choosing good people to advise her and having sense enough to listen to them. In the closing days of Desi's regime, Desilu's profits were at an all-tirne low-the annual report showed a $665,387 loss that season- and morale was about the same.
In four years Madame President, in her cockamamie, gee-whiz way, had completely reversed that trend. The loss was now a profit of $830,094, as listed in the last annual report. The rental business to other independent companies, one of the most profitable aspects of the studio's operations, was flourishing, and Desilu's own production units had several solid hits going.
One of them was Mission: Impossible, a show which she had bulled through over strong opposition both from within her own studio and, particularly, from the network. Even Desi found this the kind of talent you had to step aside for: "Lucy ees the mos' beautiful president in the Hew Hess Hay," he said. "She has done a ma’nifcent job. Han that's hall the compliments she's going to get from me in one day."
She had an almost fanatical loyalty to her people and hated to fire anybody. She evoked the same sort of loyalty and love from Desilu personnel, from the lowliest grip she greets so heartily on the studio street, to Ed Holly, her vice presidentin charge of administration and finance, who oversees studio operations for her. She made Desilu one of the most pleasant -and casual- places to work in town.
She spoke right out. She did not hesitate to say that she thought the networks had "creatively abdicated" by selling out to the movies. "Saves them the trouble of having to come up with their own creative ideas. Show business is in the hands of people selling cheese." She thought Fred Friendly, the former CBS News president who wrote the recent polemic on the transgressions of commercial TV, "had a good squawk. They throw in the old I Love Lucys instead of something vital." She conducted stockholders meetings with zany aplomb. At the first one back in 1963, she set every body straight rightaway. "Our policy around here is conservatism,"' she stated. "We don't go around blowing our horn about anything we're not sure of." She even wore a dress for the occasion.
Her enthusiasms spilled over joyously on all counts. Once somebody presented Madame President with a box of paints; she made 5O paintings in two days. If she liked a joke Milt Josefsberg, script consultant, told her, she would squeal and stomp her feet little-girl fashion, rattling the plaster in new husband Gary Morton's office directly below, from which he executive-produces The Lucy Show. "That's Lucy laughing," the onetime night-club comedian customarily explained to startled guests, adding, "She's my boss from 9 to 5, but at 5:30 she's home making coffee for me." Sometimes he punched a button on the executive intercom. "Wanda, put Mrs. Morton on!"
No business conference was too important for Gary or her children, little Lucie and Desi, to interrupt. Hi, honey, how's everything?... Did you get enough to eat? . . . Just a sandwich! Now I've told you....All right, dear, we'll be waiting for you. Bye now.
Yet at the same time she could be an absolute female bearcat when it came to a business deal. She had become adept at what Hollywood has come to know as "the Lucy game." The game was played every spring, and it consisted of Lucy casually announcing she was tired of doing The Lucy Show and just might skip the whole thing in favor of “more time with Gary and the kids.” When Lucy did this, the whole CBS Television network shook. It could not afford to lose a show with the popularity of Madame President’s.
Invariably the result was the same. Last year, for example, she notified CBS that "I have other things I want to do" on Jan. 17. On March 1 she allowed herself to be "wooed back" with what Variety termed "the largest single telepix deal ever made," involving in excess of $12,000,000. Among its more alluring features: CBS financing for the show at a record $90,000 per half hour, two one-hour CBS financed Lucy specials, and a deal for future daytime stripping of her present series which Rudin estimates will bring in excess of $7,000,000 to Desilu before it is through.
As Rudin, the architect of Lucy's CBS contract, so delicately put it: "I do not deny that Lucy’s contractual right to say yea or nay at any time has had certain business advantages. But I don't think it's what motivates Lucy. It is important to her to be reminded every year how much she is loved and wanted."
This was the woman now about to enter the arena-Rudin hoped-with Charlie Bluhdorn. Her instincts told her there were certain dangers involved. It was entirely conceivable, for instance, that once the papers were signed, Desilu might end up as a housing development or an extension of the cemetery directly north of the studio, both potential high-profit ventures. She had felt unrest within studio ranks ever since it became known that Bluhdorn was sniffing around. Already he was shaking up Paramount, easing out the old management in favor of younger blood. She could visualize mass "realigmnents" of Desilu talent and all that nice easy informality washed away in a sea of dollar signs.
At the same time there was considerable evidence that Bluhdorn's interest in show business, for the moment at least, was genuine. Much was made of the economic advantages of tearing down the wall between the two studios, eliminating the costly necessity of two prop shops, two commissaries, two sawmills, two wardrobe departments, etc. But no one really believed that such penny ante economies swayed a Bluhdorn. More likely he saw a TV-less movie studio and a movie-less TV studio, which by a happy accident happened to be next door to each other. And, it should be added, sitting on property sopotentially valuable as to make Bluhdorn a sure winner no matter how he played it.
As for Lucy, she was forced to acknowledge the wisdom of the new Rudin ideology: "A company in TV alone cannot survive today's market. You have to make 20 pilots to get three. How do you amortize that? Diversify, Lucy, diversify."
So Lucy "hid" in her Miami hotel room, furrowed her pretty brow and wrestled her dilemma. When Rudin couldn't get any satisfaction out of her on the phone, he himself took off for Florida. Lucy describes what happened:
"Everybody had heard about the merger. Panic! Still I couldn't make up my mind. Mickey came down. He had to have an answer, he said. Twenty-four hours or we blow the deal!'
"Well, we went over the whole thing again, and I started to cry. 'I need an hour,' I told him. 'I just gotta have an hour.' More thinking. I said to him, 'Do you know, Mickey, I haven't even seen this man?’
"'Now, Lucy,' he said, 'I've told you about him. Will you talk to him on the phone?'
"'No,' I said, 'I like to see a man's eyes, shake his hand.'
"Well, I talked to him anyway, and do you know what he said? He said, ‘Miss Ball, one of the things I am prepared to like about you is that you care.' I cried again. Then I said yes.
What will happen to Madame President now is tantalizingly unclear. When the merger is finalized, the old Desilu Productions will disappear and its assets will be placed in a newly formed subsidiary of Gulf & Western. Lucy will remain president of this subsidiary for the moment. But it is generally thought that it will be John Reynolds of Paramount who will ultimately inherit the mantle, and Lucy will become the erstwhile -- albeit very rich -- Madame President. Which, she says, suits her just fine.
Still, neither Bluhdorn nor anyone else can afford to be too cavalier about the lady. Lucy wields power, as her annual dealings with the network have shown. Moreover, the "Lucy image" spearheading your TV programming is translatable into dollars. Bluhdorn treats her accordingly. He was holding important management meetings at Paramount recently when he suddenly decided "we better go over and pay our respects to Miss Ball." Several million dollars’ worth of tycoonery, led by Bluhdom, solemnly trooped out the door and down the street to Desilu. They came for 10 minutes and stayed for 2 hours. "He touched on matters he knew bothered me," Lucy said later. "He was charming. He travels fast, talks fast and acts on impulse. I just hope he stays alive."
During their conversations it came out that the fast-traveling Charlie Bluhdom had had a little difficulty getting into Desilu. A skeptical studio cop had stopped those suspicious-looking strollers at the gate.
Lucy hasn't stopped laughing yet.
Cover of TV Guide, July 15-21, 1967
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