13 February, 2009
Desi Arnaz (March 2, 1917 – December 2, 1986) was a Cuban musician, actor and television producer.
Desi Arnaz was born Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III in Santiago de Cuba to Desiderio Alberto Arnaz (1894-1973) and Dolores de Acha (1896-1988). His father 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, 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.
In 1939, he starred on Broadway in the successful musical Too Many Girls. He then went to Hollywood to appear in the 1940 movie version at RKO, which starred actress, comedienne, and future wife Lucille Ball. At the time, he also played guitar for Xavier Cugat.
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. In his memoirs, he recalled discovering that the first thing soldiers requested was almost invariably a glass of cold milk, so he arranged for beautiful starlets to greet the wounded soldiers as they disembarked and pour milk for them. After leaving the 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.
On October 15, 1951, Desi produced and starred in the premiere of I Love Lucy, in which he played 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. Desi would often appear at, and later own, the Tropicana Club which, under his ownership, he renamed Club Babalu. 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, together with Ball's radio show writers. Much of the material from their vaudeville act was used in the original "I Love Lucy" pilot, including Lucy's memorable seal routine. (Segments of the pilot originally ran as the sixth episode of the show's first season.)
With Ball, he founded Desilu Productions. At this time, most television programs were broadcast live, and as the largest markets were in New York, the rest of the country received only kinescope images. Karl Freund, Arnaz's cameraman, developed the multiple-camera setup production style using adjacent sets that became the standard for all subsequent situation 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 Enciente," employing the French word for pregnant, although the episode titles never appeared on the show itself.
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, The Untouchables, and Star Trek TOS, all top shows in their time, and 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).
Arnaz married Lucille Ball on November 30, 1940, and she initiated divorce proceedings in 1944, but returned to him 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. 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. He was widowed in 1985, when his wife Edith died.
Although Arnaz remarried after his divorce from Ball in 1960, they remained friends, and grew closer in his final decade. Family home movies later aired on television showed Ball and Arnaz playing together with their grandson, Simon (or "Simón", if Arnaz's mock protests are to be believed), 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. The spoofs of I Love Lucy were supposed earlier concepts of the show that never made it on the air. They were "I Love Louie", where Desi lived with Louie Armstrong, "I Loathe Lucy", where Desi was a wife beater, and "I Love Desi", where Desi was married to a clone of himself. 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 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, California, and raced thoroughbreds. He contributed to charitable and non-profit organizations, including San Diego State University. Arnaz would make 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 was diagnosed with lung cancer in early 1986. He died several months later on December 2, 1986.