Desi Arnaz (born Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III) (March 2, 1917 – December 2, 1986) was a Cuban American musician, actor, and television producer. He is best known for his role as Ricky Ricardo on the immensely popular 1951 television show, I Love Lucy, which has continued to run nonstop for a span of fifty-seven years. He is also remembered for his hit song, “Babalu” in 1946, and for introducing the Conga line to American audiences.
He, along with his wife, Lucille Ball, founded Desilu Productions, which became one of the most successful entertainment companies of the era, producing many top television programs and at one point owning RKO Pictures. Their I Love Lucy show opened the door wider for American acceptance of interracial marriage.
He was one of Hollywood’s most perceptive and powerful producers in television’s early years. His business skills and his use of new technological approaches enabled him to develop aspects of the medium that remain central to its existence as an ongoing economic and cultural force.
Arnaz has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: One at 6327 Hollywood Boulevard for contributions to motion pictures, and one at 6220 Hollywood Boulevard for television.
Desi Arnaz was born to a wealthy family in Santiago de Cuba. His ancestors had been among the original recipients of Spanish land grants in the eighteenth century. His father, Desidero Alberto Arnaz, was Santiago’s youngest mayor and then served in the Cuban House of Representatives. The 1933 revolution, led by Fulgencio Batista, overthrew the American-backed President Gerardo Machado and landed his father in jail for six months, and stripped his family of its wealth and power. Arnaz’s father was released when U.S. officials, who believed him to be neutral during the revolt, intervened on his behalf. Arnaz and his parents then fled to Miami, Florida.
Film career and the Army
Desi Arnaz began performing as a musician in 1936, playing guitar and percussion for a Latin orchestra. He then took a pay cut to work in New York City for Xavier Cugat, his mentor. Shortly afterwards, Desi Arnaz returned to Miami to lead his own band. It was there he introduced American audiences to the dance known as the Conga Line, which swiftly became a craze.
In 1939, Desi Arnaz starred on Broadway in the successful musical, Too Many Girls. He then went to Hollywood to appear in the 1940 film version at RKO Pictures, which starred actress Lucille Ball. The two were married in 1940.
Arnaz appeared in several movies in the 1940s, most notably Bataan (1943). Shortly after he received his draft notice, but before he was actually inducted, he injured his knee. Although he made it through boot camp, he was eventually classified for limited service, and ended up directing United Service Organization (U.S.O.) programs at a military hospital in the San Fernando Valley for two years. In his memoirs, he recalled discovering that the first thing soldiers requested was almost invariably a glass of cold milk. He arranged for beautiful starlets to greet the wounded soldiers as they disembarked and poured milk for them. After leaving the U.S. Army, he formed another orchestra, which was successful in live appearances and recordings. After he became engaged in television, he kept the orchestra on his payroll throughout the period he remained an active producer.
In addition, his musical career was very successful at this time, with his signature song, “Babalu,” being released in 1946, and becoming a hit, as well as other popular songs, such as “Cuban Pete.” Arnaz also served as orchestra leader on Bob Hope’s radio show from 1946 to 1947. Arnaz and his orchestra were also featured in the 1951 CBS radio series, Your Tropical Trip.
I Love Lucy
Arnaz produced and starred in I Love Lucy, playing a fictitious version of himself, Cuban orchestra leader Enrique “Ricky” Ricardo. His co-star was his real-life wife, Lucille Ball, who played Ricky’s wife, Lucy. Television executives had been pursuing Ball to adapt her very popular radio series, My Favorite Husband, for television. Ball insisted on Arnaz playing her on-air spouse so the two would be able to spend more time together. The original premise was for the couple to portray Lucy and Larry Lopez, a successful show business couple (he a band leader, she an actress) whose glamorous careers interfered with their efforts to maintain a normal marriage. Market research indicated, however, that this scenario would not be popular, so Arnaz changed it to make Ricky a struggling young orchestra leader and Lucy an ordinary housewife who had show business fantasies but no talent.
Initially, the idea of having Ball and the distinctly Latino Arnaz portray a married couple encountered resistance, as they were told that Desi’s Cuban accent and Latin style would not be agreeable to American viewers. The couple overcame these objections, however, by touring together in a live vaudeville act they developed with the help of Spanish clown, Pepito Pérez, and Ball’s radio show writers. Much of the material from their vaudeville act was used in the original I Love Lucy pilot.
With Ball, he founded Desilu Productions. At this time, most television programs were broadcast live and, as the largest markets were in New York City, the rest of the country received only kinescope images. Arnaz and Karl Freund, his cameraman, developed the multiple-camera setup production style using adjacent sets that became the standard for all subsequent situational comedies to this day. The use of film enabled every station around the country to broadcast high-quality images of the show. Arnaz was told that it would be impossible to allow an audience onto a sound stage, but he worked with Freund to design a set that would accommodate an audience, allow filming, and also adhere to fire and safety codes.
Network executives considered the use of film an unnecessary extravagance. Arnaz convinced them to allow Desilu to cover all additional costs associated with the filming process, under the stipulation that Desilu owned and controlled all rights to the film. Arnaz’s unprecedented arrangement is widely considered to be one of the shrewdest deals in television history. As a result of his foresight, Desilu reaped the profits from all reruns of the series.
Arnaz also pushed the network to allow them to show Lucille Ball while she was pregnant. According to Arnaz, the CBS network told him, “You cannot show a pregnant woman on television.” Arnaz consulted a priest, a rabbi, and a minister, all of whom told him that there would be nothing wrong with showing a pregnant Lucy or with using the word “pregnant.” The network finally relented and let Arnaz and Ball weave the pregnancy into the story line, but remained adamant about eschewing use of “pregnant,” so Arnaz substituted “expecting,” pronouncing it “‘spectin'” in his Cuban accent. Oddly, the official title of the episode announcing the pregnancy was “Lucy Is Enceinte,” employing the French word for pregnant.
In addition to I Love Lucy, he produced December Bride, The Mothers-in-Law, The Lucy Show, Those Whiting Girls, Our Miss Brooks, The Danny Thomas Show, The Andy Griffith Show, and The Untouchables (1959 TV series), all Top Ten shows in their time, as well as the 1956 feature film, Forever, Darling, in which he and Ball starred. His foresight in filming and retaining post-broadcast ownership of shows had a huge impact on the future of television syndication (reruns).
Beliefs, controversy, and patriotism
Arnaz and Ball avoided racial or ethnic jokes. Arnaz recalled that the only exception consisted of making fun of Ricky Ricardo’s accent, and noted that even these jokes worked only when Lucy, as his wife, did the mimicking. “When Fred and Ethel made fun of Ricky’s accent, they didn’t get a laugh.”
Arnaz was patriotic; in his memoirs, the first object of thanks is the United States itself: “I know of no other country in the world,” he wrote, in which “a sixteen-year-old kid, broke and unable to speak the language” could reach the success he had. Over the show’s six-year run, the fortunes of the Ricardos mirror that of the archetypal 1950s American Dream: At first, they live in a tiny brownstone apartment; Ricky’s fortunes continue to improve, and they move into a slightly larger one with a view after Little Ricky is born. Later, Ricky gets his big break and goes to Hollywood; shortly after returning to New York, all of them have the chance to travel through Europe. Finally, Lucy and Ricky head for a house in the country.
Arnaz married Lucille Ball on November 30, 1940, and initiated divorce proceedings in 1944, but reconciled before the interlocutory decree became final. He and Ball are the parents of actress Lucie Arnaz (born 1951) and actor Desi Arnaz, Jr. (born 1953).
Arnaz’s marriage with Ball began to collapse under the strain of his serious problems with alcohol, drugs, and womanizing. According to his memoir, the combined pressures of managing the production company as well as supervising its day-to-day operations had greatly worsened as it grew much larger. Arnaz was also suffering from diverticulitis. He and Ball divorced in 1960; she was 48 and he was 43. When Ball returned to weekly television, she and Arnaz worked out an agreement regarding Desilu, wherein she bought him out.
Arnaz married his second wife, Edith Mack Hirsch, on March 2, 1963, and greatly reduced his show business activities. He served as executive producer of The Mothers-in-Law, and during its two-year run, made four guest appearances as a Spanish matador, Señor Delgado.
Although Arnaz remarried after his divorce from Ball in 1960, they remained friends. Family home movies later aired on television showed Ball and Arnaz playing together with their mutual grandson, Simon, shortly before Arnaz’s death.
In the 1970s, Arnaz co-hosted a week of shows with daytime TV host/producer Mike Douglas. Vivian Vance appeared as a guest. Arnaz also headlined a Kraft Music Hall special on NBC that featured his two children, with a brief appearance by Vance.
To promote his autobiography, A Book, Arnaz, on February 21, 1976, served as a guest host on Saturday Night Live, with his son, Desi, Jr., also appearing. The program contained spoofs of I Love Lucy and The Untouchables. He also read Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky in a heavy Cuban accent (he pronounced it “Habberwocky”). Arnaz, Jr. played the drums and, supported by the SNL band, Desi sang both “Babalu” and another favorite from his dance band days, “Cuban Pete;” the arrangements similar to the ones used on I Love Lucy. He ended the broadcast by leading the entire cast in a raucous conga line through the SNL studio.
Arnaz and his second wife eventually moved to Del Mar, California, where he lived the rest of his life in semi-retirement. He owned a 45-acre (18 ha) horse breeding farm in Corona and raced thoroughbreds. He contributed to charitable and non-profit organizations, including San Diego State University. Arnaz made a guest appearance on the TV series Alice, starring Linda Lavin and produced by I Love Lucy co-creators Madelyn Pugh (Madelyn Davis) and Bob Carroll, Jr.
Arnaz, a lifelong smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer in early 1986. He died several months later, on December 2, 1986, at age 69. Two days earlier, on what would have been his and Lucille’s 46th wedding anniversary (November 30), she telephoned him. They shared a few words, mostly “I love you”s. She said “Alright, honey. I’ll talk to you later.” She was, in fact, the last person to ever speak with Desi Arnaz. His death came just five days before Lucille Ball received the Kennedy Center Honors. Actor Robert Stack read a written statement prepared by Arnaz days before which ended with the line, “I Love Lucy was never just a little title….” Arnaz’s body was cremated and his ashes were scattered.
Desi Arnaz has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: One at 6327 Hollywood Boulevard for contributions to motion pictures, and one at 6220 Hollywood Boulevard for television.
His true legacy, however, shines on millions of television sets daily: The I Love Lucy, television show. In fact, the airing of the show to this day is a testament to his talent as an actor and producer in the television industry. The life of Desi Arnaz is a representation of the American Dream that lured people to the United States at the time. Desi was not only active in the television industry, but also produced film, composed soundtracks, directed, and produced screenplays.
His daughter Lucie is an actress who, in 1986, earned the Sarah Siddons Award for her work in Chicago theater. She won an Emmy Award in 1993, for her documentary. In 1995, she performed in The Wizard of Oz in Concert: Dreams Come True a musical performance of the popular story at Lincoln Center to benefit the Children’s Defense Fund. The performance was originally broadcast on Turner Network Television (TNT), and issued on CD and video in 1996. In 2000, she played a season in London’s West End in a musical version of The Witches of Eastwick. She took over the role of Muriel in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels on Broadway on May 23, 2006. She replaced Joanna Gleason, who originated the role.
His son Desi, Jr. is an actor and musician as well. He played his father in the movie The Mambo Kings (1992), based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that treated his father with the utmost respect. In 1972, Desi joined the group Arizona and he has been involved in a new configuration of Dino, Desi & Billy. The newly formed group is called Ricci, Desi & Billy. It features Arnaz, Jr. reunited with Billy Hinsche, and joined by Ricci Martin (youngest son of Dean Martin) in place of his late brother, Dino. The group performs original material, as well as the songs of the 1960s the original band performed when they were a musical teen sensation.