Desi Arnaz (1917-1986) is best known for the popular 1950s television show I Love Lucy, a situation comedy that he helped create along with his wife Lucille Ball, to whom he was married from 1940 to 1960. Arnaz played "Ricky Ricardo," a struggling Cuban-born bandleader whose high-spirited wife Lucy (played by Ball) was forever engaged in some sort of comedic mischief. Behind the scenes, Arnaz was known as a savvy businessman and producer and a trailblazer in the early years of television.
Although network executives were at first reluctant to cast the heavily accented Arnaz alongside an all-American redhead like Lucy, Arnaz and Ball agreed to contribute $39,000 from their salaries toward production costs of I Love Lucy to ensure that the series would be launched. The comedy quickly emerged as one of the most popular shows of the decade. As Scholastic Update noted in 1988, Arnaz's role on the show helped Americans to "accept Hispanic immigrants not just as exotic outsiders, but as Hispanic-Americans."
Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y De Acha was born on March 2, 1917 in Santiago, Cuba. His father Desiderio was mayor of Santiago and a wealthy property owner whose holdings included a cattle ranch, two dairy farms, and a villa on a small island in Santiago Bay. Desi's mother, the former Dolores de Acha, was the daughter of one of the founders of the Bacardi rum company. As a teenager, Arnaz was expected to attend college before embarking on a career in law and politics.
However, political unrest in Cuba dramatically changed the direction of Arnaz's life. In August 1933, the Arnaz home in Santiago was burned and ransacked. While Arnaz and his mother managed to escape to safety, his father, a newly elected congressman, was put in prison. While there, he was advised by the new chief of state, Fulgencio Batista, that he would be freed if he left the country. Promising to send for his wife (whom he'd later divorce) and son, Arnaz's father set out for Miami.
In June 1934, the 17-year-old Desi arrived in America and was greeted by his father, who had established an import-export company with two other refugees in Miami. To save money, father and son lived in the company warehouse and ate cans of pork-and-beans. They used baseball bats to ward off the rats that scurried through the building. After school, young Arnaz worked cleaning bird cages for a man who sold canaries on consignment in area drug stores.
During this time, Arnaz was recommended to a band-leader by a girlfriend's grandfather. Armed with a used guitar purchased for $5 from a pawnshop and a facility with the instrument—he'd used it often in Cuba to serenade the opposite sex—Arnaz persuaded his father to let him take this new $39-a-week job at the Roney Plaza Hotel. Xavier Cugat, the "king" of Latin dance music soon discovered the young musician. Upon graduating from high school and serving a stint in the Cugat orchestra, Arnaz debuted his own band in Miami Beach in December 1937.
The Desi Arnaz Orchestra won favorable reviews in New York and Miami. Collaborators, Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers, asked the young orchestra leader to audition for their upcoming Broadway musical Too Many Girls. Arnaz landed the part of the Latin American exchange student. Soon the 23-year-old was on his way to Hollywood to appear in the film version of the musical, starring 28-year-old studio actress, Lucille Ball.
"Lucy and Desi's first scene together in the movie Too Many Girls required him to take one glance at her and swoon dead away in ecstasy," commented Warren G. Harris in Lucy & Desi. "It didn't take much acting skill; by then, they were already in love in real life." The relationship was passionate and tumultuous from the start, punctuated by clashes of temper and jealousy. Many of the disagreements centered on Arnaz's flirtatious nature. Still, they came to care deeply for one another. Arnaz called her "Lucy" even though she had long called herself "Lucille." "I didn't like the name Lucille," Arnaz recalled in his autobiography. "That name had been used by other men. 'Lucy' was mine alone."
Lucy and Desi
On November 30, 1940, Ball and Arnaz were married in Connecticut with a wedding ring purchased at the last minute from Woolworth's. "Eloping with Desi was the most daring thing I ever did in my life," Ball recalled, according to Lucy & Desi. "I never fell in love with anyone quite so fast. He was very handsome and romantic. But he also frightened me, he was so wild. I knew I shouldn't marry him, but that was one of the biggest attractions." Upon returning to California, the couple settled into a five-acre ranch in Chatsworth, just outside of Los Angeles. Mindful of the practice of naming their residence after themselves as actors Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford had done, the couple decided on Desilu after eliminating such other possibilities as Arnaball, Ballarnaz, and Ludesi.
In May 1943, Arnaz received his draft notice to serve in World War II. Because of an injury, however, he saw only non-combat duty at Birmingham Hospital, 15 minutes away from Desilu. Convinced that Arnaz was being unfaithful to her, Ball filed for divorce in September of 1944. The divorce, though, was voided by a quick reconciliation.
Arnaz' officially shortened his name during his stint in the service (from Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha to Desi Arnaz). When his military service concluded, he returned to Hollywood, only to find his opportunities limited by his heavy accent. Despite critical acclaim for his performance in the movie Batman and gossip columnist Louella Parson's prediction that he'd be the next Rudolph Valentino, Arnaz found it difficult to secure significant parts. The new 22-piece Arnaz Orchestra, though, was getting favorable reviews, and Arnaz eventually landed a role in the movie Cuban Pete, in which he was touted as "The Rhumba-Rhythm King."
In 1948, Arnaz and Ball formed Desilu Productions to coordinate their various stage, screen, and radio activities. A year later, Arnaz asked Ball to marry him again—this time in an official Catholic ceremony. The ceremony was later played out again, albeit in a more fanciful manner, in an episode of I Love Lucy.
By 1950, Arnaz and Ball had both established themselves in the medium of radio. Arnaz first served as the bandleader for Bob Hope's radio show, then as host of the musical quiz show Your Tropical Trip; Ball portrayed the scatterbrained housewife on the radio serial My Favorite Husband. When the CBS television network decided to turn My Favorite Husband into a TV series, Ball insisted that Arnaz be cast as her husband. As the show's producer as well as its leading man, Arnaz helped bring movie-quality techniques to live television and negotiated a deal whereby Desilu retained full ownership of the show.
Fame and Fortune
Ball gave birth to the couple's first child, Lucie Desiree, on July 17, 1951, just as scriptwriters were putting the finishing touches on I Love Lucy for the show's October 15, 1951 premiere. The principal characters were Ricky Ricardo, a struggling Latin bandleader who would burst into Spanish whenever he got particularly exasperated, and his wife Lucy, a wacky housewife with showbiz aspirations but no real talent. Before long, I Love Lucy was a smash hit, televised around the world. "Rather than repelling audiences as CBS had feared," wrote Harris, "Desi's flamboyant Cuban-ness apparently had the opposite effect of attracting viewers." Casting Arnaz as a TV husband was "a case of awkwardness being recognized as an asset," observed a critic for the New York Times. The show won Emmy awards in 1952 and 1953 for best situation comedy.
As stars of the most popular show in America, Arnaz and Ball were under constant pressure to live up to the happily married image of their TV counterparts. But while tensions in the marriage increased, the series' popularity continued to grow. More Americans watched the January 13, 1953, episode featuring the birth of "Little Ricky" than tuned in to the inauguration of President Eisenhower, according to the New York Times. Lucille Ball gave birth to Desi Jr., the very same day.
Arnaz attributed the success of the show mostly to his wife's performance as the daffy Lucy. Madelyn Pugh Davis, a writer for the show, said in People magazine in 1991: "He always knew she was the star. Never in all those years did I ever hear him say, Where's my part?" Under Arnaz's direction, Desilu Productions became a media giant. In 1955 I Love Lucy began re-broadcasting earlier episodes—the first reruns ever shown of a current prime-time show—because so many viewers with brand-new televisions had missed the show's early years. As the New York Times observed, "The appeal of reusable filmed programs led eventually to a seismic shift in television production from New York to Hollywood, and made the program's creators millionaires."
In addition to I Love Lucy, Desilu produced such hits as Our Miss Brooks, The Untouchables, and The Danny Thomas Show. Arnaz and Ball also appeared together in movies such as The Long, Long Trailer and Forever, Darling. In 1957, Desilu bought RKO Studios, where he and Ball had met in 1940. By the mid-195Os Desilu was an empire that grossed about $15 million annually and employed 800 people.
Arnaz's personal life, however, was less healthy. Diagnosed with diverticulitis, a disease of the colon, he worked out a deal with CBS to replace I Love Lucy with a series of one-hour specials. Of greater importance, though, was the state of his marriage with Ball. Arnaz's well-documented drinking and womanizing took a tremendous toll on the relationship. "The more our love life deteriorated, the more we fought, the more unhappy we were, the more I drank," Arnaz wrote in his autobiography. "The one thing I have never been able to do is work and play concurrently and in moderation, whatever that means."
On March 2, 1960, Arnaz's forty-third birthday, I Love Lucy was brought to a close after 179 half-hour episodes, 13 one-hour specials and nine years on the air. Ending with the usual kiss-and-make-up ending, the last show gave no inkling about the state of the marriage off the air. On the following day, March 3, 1960, Ball filed for a divorce, which, for the sake of the two children, was amicable. Two years later, in 1962, Arnaz pulled out of Desilu Productions, selling his stock to Ball for $3 million. Running Desilu had "ceased to be fun," he said in his autobiography. "I was happier cleaning birdcages and chasing rats."
Arnaz spent much of his time immediately after the divorce on his 45-acre horse-breeding farm in Corona, California. Still, his bond with Ball was never completely severed, and, in the fall of 1962, he was brought in as executive producer of his ex-wife's new series The Lucy Show.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Arnaz remained active in show business. In 1967, he launched the NBC series The Mothers-in-Law, starring Eve Arden and Kaye Ballard. In 1976, Arnaz published his autobiography, A Book, which included an epilogue about Ball that stated, "I loved her very much and, in my own and perhaps peculiar way, I will always love her." Arnaz appeared on Saturday Night Live with Desi Jr. to promote the book.
In 1986, after years of smoking four or five Cuban cigars a day, Arnaz was diagnosed with lung cancer. Ball stayed with him for several hours before he lapsed into a coma. He died in the arms of his daughter, Lucie, on December 2, 1986. He was "a good daddy, but a lonely man at times, one who chose a difficult path," she said of him in Lucy & Desi.
Harris, Warren G., Lucy & Desi, Thorndike Press, 1992.
Metz, Robert, CBS: Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye, Playboy Press, 1975.