100 years ago today, one of television’s great pioneers was born–Desi Arnaz. Desi was born in Santiago de Cuba, the second largest city in Cuba, behind Havana. Desi’s family was well off and he enjoyed a happy, carefree and idyllic childhood. Desi’s father was the mayor of Santiago. In 1933, when Desi was 16, his entire world came crashing down when the Batista Revolution came crashing into town. Desi’s father was imprisoned. All three of the Arnaz family’s homes were destroyed during the Revolution. Six months later, the Arnazes fled to Florida, now penniless.
Now living in Miami, Desi finished his last year of high school. His best friend was Al Capone, Jr. Desi and his father, the former mayor of Santiago, lived in an unheated warehouse where they ate beans from a can for dinner. They regularly took turns chasing rats out of of their living space. Desi found work cleaning canary cages. Desi’s father ended up starting a small business building mosaic art pieces (fireplace mantels, for example) after capitalizing on broken tile that came from a nearby business. Barely speaking English, Desi also attended English language courses in Tampa.
At the age of 19, Desi found work performing in a small musical group–The Siboney Septet (even though there were only five members, maybe they hoped for more?). Desi was now earning $50/week. Not a lot of money, but was more than he had been earning for quite some time. The Siboney Septet regularly performed at a hotel in Miami. It was at one of these performances where famous bandleader Xavier Cugat (whom you’ll remember as a rival of Ricky Ricardo’s in I Love Lucy) spotted Desi and offered him a job with his orchestra. Desi actually had to take a $15/week pay cut, but was willing to gamble, because Xaxier Cugat’s band had the “name” and prestige that could open doors. This is one of the first glimpses of Arnaz’ innate business acumen that would serve him well in about fifteen years.
After about a year with Cugat’s band, Desi decided to take another gamble–he was going to form his own orchestra. The Desi Arnaz Orchestra started playing in small clubs and developed a following. Eventually the Orchestra ended up in New York City. Desi is also credited with starting the Conga craze in the United States. In 1939, while performing with his orchestra, Desi was spotted by Broadway director George Abbot. Abbot was casting his new play, Too Many Girls and was looking for a someone for the role of Manuelito, the Argentinian football player. Desi won the role and was soon performing on the stage. In 1940, RKO purchased the rights to the story and soon a film version was in the works. Many of the Broadway cast members, including Desi, were brought to Hollywood to appear in the film. Too Many Girls (1940), a B-movie musical at best, may be largely forgotten today and in all honestly, isn’t all that great of a film, may perhaps be one of the most important films ever made–not because of anything that happened on screen, but for what happened off screen. Without this film, television could be very different today.
When casting the ingenue role in Too Many Girls, RKO bosses settled on 28-year old Lucille ‘Lucy’ Ball. Lucy who started as an extra and bit player in 1933 at RKO, had steadily moved up the ladder, getting bigger and better parts with each passing year. She managed to score some supporting roles in A-list films, like 1937’s Stage Door with Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers, but she was nowhere in the same league as either star. In 1938, Lucy finally scored a leading role in The Affairs of Annabel, but this was a ‘B’ film. The film was a modest success and Lucy had proven that she could carry a film. By 1940, after starring in numerous ‘B’ films, Lucy was known as “Queen of the Bs” at RKO. Too Many Girls was just another ‘B’ to her.
During a pre-film meeting, in June(ish) of 1940, the future of the world was changed when Lucy met 23-year old Desi Arnaz. Fresh off the soundstage after filming a cat fight scene with Maureen O’Hara in Dance, Girl Dance, Lucy looked worse for the wear. Dressed in a torn gold lamé gown, while sporting tousled hair and a big, fake black eye, Lucy looked a fright and Desi was not impressed. Lucy, on the other hand, took one look at the young, very attractive Cuban singer, and said in her autobiography, “It wasn’t love at first sight, it took five minutes.” Later that evening, at a cast party, Lucy returned, all cleaned up and Desi was smitten. After a whirlwind six months of filming their movie, traveling back and forth across country for their respective film and music commitments, and of course, dating when they were able, Lucy and Desi married on November 30, 1940.
Their marriage is famously tempestuous. Both Lucy and Desi had their respective careers–two very demanding careers that kept them apart much of the time. Desi tried a film career, but in 1940s America, his thick Cuban accent prevented him from getting many film roles. His best film is arguably 1944’s Bataan, where he plays Felix Ramirez, a Mexican soldier during World War II. In this film, (spoiler alert!) he plays an excellent death scene. By the end of the 1940s, Lucy’s film career was really not going anywhere, even after two studio changes (MGM and later Columbia). In 1948, she was appearing on radio in CBS’ My Favorite Husband, playing Liz Cugat (later renamed to Liz Cooper), a character very similar to Lucy Ricardo on I Love Lucy. In 1950, CBS wanted to move My Favorite Husband to the burgeoning new entertainment medium, television.
Lucy was very eager to take on this new opportunity, but with one provision, she wanted husband Desi to appear with her on the new show. Lucy and Desi were tiring of their routine and were looking for a project that could keep them together. They also wanted children and after a series of miscarriages, that dream looked to be finally coming true by the end of 1950, Lucy was pregnant with daughter Lucie Arnaz. CBS balked at the idea of a Latin being married to an American girl like Lucy and were hesitant to take on the project. Lucy and Desi, in an effort to prove CBS wrong, formed a vaudeville act and took their show on the road. For anyone who is a big fan of I Love Lucy (like me), their act consisted of “The Professor” bit from Ep #6, “The Audition,” and the “Sally Sweet/Cuban Pete” bit from Ep #4 “The Diet.” Their road show was a massive success and CBS was successfully won over.
By early 1951, Lucy and Desi had formed their own production company, Desilu Productions. Desi was President and Lucy held the Vice President position. After successfully selling their pilot (basically their Vaudeville show), they went to work on their weekly series. They assembled their crew using the writing staff from My Favorite Husband, an Academy Award-winning cinematographer, Karl Freund, (who was interested in the novelty of television) and a variety of other professionals. They also hired their supporting actors, Vivian Vance and William ‘Bill’ Frawley, who would forever be linked together for eternity (I’m sure much to both Vance and Frawley’s chagrin). With all the players in place, I Love Lucy was born.
Early on, before the first episode was filmed, Desi made one of the shrewdest business deals in television history–CBS was hesitant to pay all the extra costs accrued by the film, live audience, etc., so Desi offered to have Desilu pay all the extra fees in exchange for the rights to all the episodes. CBS, obviously not knowing what they were doing, laughed and said (and I paraphrase): “Sure. You can own the episodes.” Desi, Lucy and Desilu made millions from the residuals of I Love Lucy.
Desi Arnaz ended up being one of the most powerful television producers of the 1950s. He is credited, along with Freund, with inventing the three-camera filming technique that became standard practice for all scripted comedy shows. This invention became a necessity when CBS wanted I Love Lucy to be filmed in New York, live. Desi and Lucy balked, stating that they lived in Los Angeles and intended to stay in Los Angeles. Desi also did not want to film I Love Lucy live, as it used kinescope film which was of very poor quality. While the East Coast feed looked decent, the West Coast would be treated to a blurry and fuzzy picture. Desi decided he wanted to film the show on 35mm film same way that films were produced. The three camera filming technique is just one of the innovations that emerged during Desi’s fifteen year tenure as one of the top producers in America.
In addition to filming the series, Lucy and Desi also wanted to film the series in front of a live audience. Desi argued that Lucy needed a live audience to do her best work. He retrofitted a soundstage with bleachers that could accommodate an audience. He arranged the lighting and other necessary production equipment in a way that would not obstruct the audience’s view. Finally, of course, he had to install or modify parts of the soundstage to up to various fire and city building codes.
In addition to the filming technique and the live audience-equipped soundstage, Desi is also credited with inventing the rerun while simultaneously challenging the social mores of the day. During the show’s second season, Lucy found out she was pregnant. Pregnancy depicted on screen was taboo. Lucy and Desi were worried that their show was done. Desi decided that Lucy Ricardo should be pregnant too. CBS was horrified. Desi made a deal with CBS: They will let three members of the clergy (priest, rabbi and minister) review each of the “baby” episodes to determine whether any of the content was objectionable. Obviously, they didn’t find anything “bad,” in fact, they told CBS (and I paraphrase), “What’s wrong with a married couple having a baby?” The only concession the I Love Lucy crew made was that the word “pregnant” would not be used in an episode.
To accommodate Lucy’s condition, the cast and crew produced as many episodes as they could before Lucy was unable to work any further. While Lucy was on maternity leave, Desi decided to re-air previous episodes. CBS again, playing the negative nelly role, said “who is going to want to watch something they’ve already seen?” (oh how little they know, I’ve probably seen every episode of I Love Lucy 100+ times). To appease them, Desi, Vivian and Bill filmed new flashback segments that will set up the rerun. After the rerun episodes aired, CBS discovered that the rerun episode got a higher rating the second time around than it did the first time. After this, the flashback segments were dumped and CBS aired reruns of I Love Lucy during the show’s hiatus in the summer. As a result, the cast and crew were also able to shorten their seasons (30 episodes/season vs. 35).
I Love Lucy ran from 1951-1960 (The last three seasons were a series of weekly specials, titled The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour. The official last episode of I Love Lucy, #179 “The Ricardos Dedicate a Statue,” aired in 1957). In that time, it was one of the most popular shows on television. In 1953, it was the most popular show, garnering staggering ratings. Episode #51, “Lucy Goes to the Hospital” got higher ratings than President Dwight Eisenhower’s inauguration. Almost 72% of the television sets in America were tuned to I Love Lucy, when Lucy Ricardo gave birth to Ricky Ricardo, Jr. Lucille Ball had also given birth to real-life son, Desi Arnaz IV on the same day the episode aired. Since I Love Lucy’s debut in 1951, the show has never been off the air. It regularly airs all over the world, every single day. The show won numerous Emmy Awards including accolades for both Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance. William Frawley received multiple nominations, but never won. Desi on the other hand, was never nominated.
By the mid to late 1950s, Desilu Productions was a thriving enterprise producing multiple television shows, including The Untouchables, Make Room For Daddy and Our Miss Brooks. In the 1960s, Desilu went on to produce The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show and Star Trek. Desi retired from Desilu in the early 1960s. He dabbled in television here and there and even taught a college course on television production in San Diego in the 1970s. In 1976, Desi published his autobiography, A Book (Excellent book by the way, if you can find a copy, it’s out of print). In 1982, Desi appeared in his last film, The Escape Artist. In early 1986, Desi was diagnosed with lung cancer. By the end of 1986, Desi was nearing the end. On November 30, on what would have been their 46th wedding anniversary, Lucy called Desi. While he was too ill and weak to speak on the phone, daughter Lucie (who was caring for him) held the phone up to his ear. Lucy told him “I Love You” over and over again. That was the last time they spoke. Desi passed away a couple days later, on December 2. He was 69.
Desi Arnaz was a television pioneer. While he lacked any sort of formal business training, he was one of the most powerful television producers in the country. What he lacked in education, he made up for in intuition, willingness to take risks, negotiating skills and simply an unwillingness to take “no” for an answer. He didn’t receive the appreciation or accolades in his lifetime (simply, I Love Lucy would not exist were it not for him. Even Lucy herself would attest to this) and was often just thought of as “the Cuban bandleader,” “Lucy’s husband,” or even “Ricky Ricardo.” But he was much more. Finally, some thirty years after his passing and sixty-plus years since I Love Lucy, he is finally being recognized for his contributions to television. In 1990, he was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences inducted Desi into their Television Hall of Fame. In 2009, a statue of Desi was added to the plaza in front of the Television Arts and Sciences Headquarters in Hollywood. His statue joins the Lucy statue that was installed in the early 1990s.
In his autobiography, Desi says: “If we hadn’t done anything else but bring that half hour of fun, pleasure, and relaxation to most of the world, a world in such dire need of even that short a time-out from its problems and sorrows, we should be content.”
Thank you for everything Desi. Feliz Cumpleanos!