One of my first bro-crushes had hit his career peak and was on teevee reruns before I even began kindergarten. Desi Arnaz captured my attention because he seemed so exotic, yet kind and friendly on the show on which he co-starred with his wife, Lucille Ball. Both individuals seemed almost like family to me, but the character, Ricky Ricardo resonated with me. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only person who was fascinated with Desi Arnaz.
Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y De Acha (Desiderio Arnaz III) was born on March 2, 1917 in Santiago de Cuba. His mother, Dolores de Acha, was an heir to an executive at the Bacardi Rum company. His father, Desiderio Alberto Arnaz II had been Santiago, Cuba’s youngest mayor and had served a term in the Cuban House of Representatives. The Arnaz family was very well-to-do and owned two mansions, and three ranches.
During the 1933 Cuban Revolution when Fulgencio Batista grabbed power in a coup d’état, Arnaz’s maternal grandfather was arrested and jailed. The family properties were confiscated by the Batista regime. After six months, the grandfather was released and the family fled to Miami, Florida. The sixteen-year-old Desi was sent for his education at St. Patrick Catholic High School.
Following graduation, the young Arnaz worked briefly as a guitar player for Xavier Cugat’s swing band in New York City. He returned to Miami to head up his own combo. Arnaz became a musical hit maker and had started on his own road to fame.
After he moved back to New York, he was offered a starring role was in the Broadway musical, “Too Many Girls”, in 1939. The following year he was chosen to appear in RKO’s film version of the show. The female lead in the movie was Lucille Ball. The two stars married in November of that year.
After being drafted into the military, Arnaz injured his knee and was called up for limited service during the second World War. He became director of the USO program at the military hospital near Los Angeles.
By the late 1940s, Lucille and Desi had their own radio series. Lucy starred in the CBS Radio Network’s “My Favorite Husband”. Desi hosted his own musical show, also on CBS Radio. Arnaz also served as orchestra leader for Bob Hope’s radio program in 1946 and 1947.
The new medium of television was tempting to Desi and Lucille, so they proposed an outline of the show to CBS executives. The budding television network at first wanted the program broadcast live from New York City. Also, some of the executives believed that the couple wouldn’t seem credible to the public, due to Arnaz’s latino accent. There was the worry that the couple would break a taboo about bicultural couples.
To prove that the show would do well, Lucy and Desi went on tour, in early 1951, performing comedy skits as a husband-wife team in front of live audiences. During the summer of that year, the two produced a film pilot for their series and paid for it with $5,000 of their own funds.
The network was sold on the program and signed the couple and left production rights as the responsibility of the Arnazes. The half-hour show aired during prime time on Monday nights at 9:00 Eastern Time/8:00 Central Time. “I Love Lucy” was an immediate and continuing audience success. During its six-year run, it became the most successful television program in history. The couple decided their program would abide by “basic good taste” by avoiding humor based on physical and mental disabilities. They also avoided ethnic humor except for the times when they poked fun at themselves.
Two groundbreaking developments were instigated by Arnaz. 1. He insisted that “I Love Lucy” be recorded on film, not poor quality kinescope. 2. He contracted with CBS that the couple’s company, Desilu Productions, retain full ownership of the program.
The “I Love Lucy” live run ended in 1957. Desi made his mark, mostly behind the scenes in other television work. His marriage to Lucille Ball ended with their divorce in 1960, but the two remained good friends. In 1963 Arnaz sold his share of Desilu to Ball.
That same year, Arnaz married Edith Hirsch. He purposely cut back his television activities but was executive producer of “The Mothers-In-Law”. He also guest starred on an NBC “Kraft Music Hall” episode. Arnaz had a noteworthy appearance on “Saturday Night Live” with his son, Desi, Junior. Desi and Edith lived in semi-retirement at Del Mar, California. Arnaz taught courses in studio production and television acting at San Diego State University.
Gossip of serious illness had been circulating in the rumor mills since Desi’s diverticulitis hospitalization in 1981. He was an habitual smoker most of his life and was seen with lit cigarettes on the set of his television shows. He remained a smoker of Cuban cigars into his older years. Arnaz was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1986. He died later that year, on December 2nd, at the age of 69.
The Blue Jay of Happiness enjoys this biographical tidbit: The youthful Desi Arnaz was a close friend of Al (Sonny) Capone, the son of the gangster Al Capone. Desi and Sonny were classmates at St. Patrick High School.