6 fascinating failed and forgotten TV series from Desilu Productions

Lucille Ball gave the world 'I Love Lucy' and 'Star Trek.' Here are the overlooked shows of her pioneering studio.

Image: The Everett Collection

In October 1958, LIFE magazine ran a massive eight-page article on Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball. "Arnaz and Ball Take Over as Tycoons – $30 Million Desilu Gamble," the headline declared. The I Love Lucy stars and power couple had entered the production business, with a splash.

"Desilu owns the biggest array of TV film-making facilities in the industry," the profile boasted. Lucy and Desi had made millions — and made millions for many others — off the back of I Love Lucy. But that iconic sitcom had ended in 1957. What was next for Desilu?

Well, the two bosses were headlining The Lucy–Desi Comedy Hour, but they certainly kept busy off the set with a slew of other productions. Over the next decade, Desilu would craft groundbreaking adventure series such as Star Trek, Mission: Impossible and Mannix.

But, as with any studio, there were some lesser series along the way. Let's take a dive into the archive to appreciate some of those overlooked shows. Due to time slots and whatnot, they vanished rather quickly. But each was interesting in its own right and brought something new to the table.

1. Whirlybirds


A series centering around helicopter pilots in California, Whirlybirds set the mold for transportation-heavy adventures like The Love Boat and Riptide that would follow decades later. Each week, guest stars would pop in to charter flights from Whirlybirds, Inc. Much of the allure came from seeing the Bell helicopters in action. After all, they were still relatively new modes of flying. The Bell 47J Ranger seen on the show had been introduced in 1956. In fact, the genesis of this show can be traced to the novelty of Lucy Ricardo hopping on a Bell 47 in the I Love Lucy episode "Bon Voyage." People marveled at the hovering aircraft enough that Ball persued an entire series around the machines. In syndication, it was known as Copter Patrol, while its star, Kenneth Tobey, later reprised his character of Chuck Martin on a 1960 episode of Lassie, "The Rescue."

Image: The Everett Collection

2. This Is Alice


In the late Fifties, Dennis the Menace and Leave It to Beaver turned the sitcom spotlight to kids. It was a rather new concept in the medium to focus on adolescents instead of adults. This Is Alice attempted to create the female version of Theodore Cleaver. Young Kathy Garver, who would go on to star in Family Affair, auditioned for the lead role of Alice, a little girl growing up in Georgia. It ended up going to the pigtailed Patty Ann Garrity, but Garver landed a supporting role on the series. The syndicated series ended up in an 8PM slot on Thursdays, just after ABC's Beaver aired, which put it up against another Desilu production, December Bride on CBS.

Image: The Everett Collection

3. Guestward, Ho!


In the 1950s, television had a powerful impact on pop culture, largely because it had much less competition — no internet, no smartphones. When you did well in the ratings, it meant you did really well in the ratings. I Love Lucy had nearly a 50 Nielsen rating, meaning that a whopping half of TV owners were tuning in. There was one negative side effect to such massive success — the actors were typecast. Americans could simply not imagine the Ricardos and Merzes as other people. They were real. Vivian Vance, best known as Ethel Merz, found out the hard way when she was cast as the lead in Guestward, Ho! She filmed the pilot but was axed from the series thanks to her own bosses not being able to separate fictions, "I kept waiting for Lucy to come in," one network exec fretted. Thus, Vance was replaced, as Joanne Dru came in to star as Babs Hooten, a real-life Big Apple mom who moved her clan to New Mexico to run a dude ranch. There was even a cute, Opie-ish kid (Flip Mark) and a dog. Alas, this Western comedy only lasted a season on ABC.

Image: The Everett Collection

4. Harrigan and Son


This father-son legal comedy might only be remembers for its far more famous classmate — The Flintstones. Both sitcoms premiered on Friday nights on ABC in 1960, with the live-action Desilu show leading into the animated adventures in Bedrock. With Fred and Barney speeding off to instant fame, the stakes were suddenly higher for the preceding timeslot. And a series revolving around an veteran lawyer who constant blurted quotes in Latin was perhaps not the best way to hook families awaiting a cartoon with dinosaurs. Notable guest stars such as Eva Gabor, John Astin and Ken Berry gave the lawyer high jinks a great pedigree. In another time? It could have clicked.

Image: ABC / Wikipedia

5. Fair Exchange


The most fascinating aspect of this forgotten comedy was its length. The fish-out-of-water sitcom ran for a full hour. Yes, 50 years ago, networks were still experimenting beyond the standard 30-minute sitcom. With twice the time to fill, Fair Exchange was essentially two shows in one. Two young women, one from NYC and one from London, both the daughters of WWII buddies, switch households. Judy Carne played the Brit visiting in Manhattan; Lynn Loring was the Yank in the U.K. Both went on to great success after this noble failure. Carne was later shouting, "Sock it to me!" on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. Decades later, Loring had worked her way up the Hollywood ladder to become the president of MGM/UA Television Productions. After CBS axed Fair Exchange, fans flooded the network with letters, and the sitcom was briefly revived in half-hour form.

Image: The Everett Collection

6. Glynis


Welsh actress Glynis Johns is perhaps best known to American families as the mom in Disney's Mary Poppins. If her eponymous sitcom had clicked with viewers, she might not have landed the role. Glynis hit small screens a year earlier than Poppins, bringing a high concept to Wednesday nights — as a lead-in to The Beverly Hillbillies and Dick Van Dyke, two of the top three shows on televsion. Johns played a mystery writer married to a defense attorney (Keith Andes). Together they solved crimes — with laughs along the way. Think Murder She Wrote meets Perry Mason with punchlines. It seems rather brilliant, no? Perhaps it was just a bit too ahead of its time. In fact, it was. Two years later, in 1965, CBS reran the 13 episodes as a summer filler in place of The Lucy Show. It came in sixth in the Neilsen ratings.

Image: The Everett Collection


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