Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III was born March 2, 1917 in Santiago, Cuba, to Desiderio II and Dolores de Acha. The family was wealthy and often spent leisure time at one of their three ranches in the country. In November of 1932 the Arnaz family was ecstatic over the election of Desi's father to the Cuban Congress in Havana, after 9 years as mayor of Santiago. The family intended to move to Havana, but unrest, fueled by economic turmoil and the imposition of martial law by Cuba's dictator Machado, broke out into a political uprising. The Arnaz family lost their home in Santiago, when angry mobs ransacked and burned the homes of government leaders. Desi and his mother managed to escape only moments ahead of the mob. The father, already in Havana to start his term as Congressman, was jailed for six months, then released after no charges were brought against him. However, by then the family's properties, wealth, and power had all been lost.
Fearing for their lives, the Arnaz family fled to Miami, Florida where they spent the better part of a year trying to survive on menial jobs and business ventures such as importing bananas. It was during this time that Desi spent a few dollars and bought a guitar from a local pawnshop. Through friends of his father, he auditioned for their rumba band, "Siboney Septet". This small group was a relief band playing in between sets at the Roney Plaza Hotel. Buddy Rogers led the main orchestra. During one of the group's performances, Xavier Cugat caught the act and offered Desi a job with his orchestra. Desi wanted to accept Cugat's offer, however, he told him he had to finish high school. Six months later Desi graduated and wrote to Cugat who offered him a job at $25 a week. Desi was certain he would find a future with the Xavier Cugat Orchestra.
For Desi, working with Cugat was just like going to school. He learned how to manage a big band orchestra. After a year with Cugat, Desi and a friend left Cugat to return to Miami to start their own rumba band. Already business savvy, Desi convinced Cugat to let him use Cugat's name. In consideration of a mere $25 per week royalty, the Desi Arnaz and his Xavier Cugat Orchestra was born. His first engagement paid him $650 a week with 12 weeks guaranteed. However, after the first night performance, Desi and his combo were fired. With some hasty rearranging of music and the introduction of La Conga dance, Desi was given another chance and became a hit! The restaurant was renamed La Conga, and his orchestra became the talk of Miami. Early supporters of his talent were Joe E. Brown and Sonja Henie. It was this successful engagement that led him to perform in a new nightclub to open in New York.
Once in New York City his performances attracted some top entertainers. Included in this group were Rodgers and Hart, who were casting for their stage production, Too Many Girls. Apparently Lorenz Hart had seen Desi at La Conga in Miami. If Desi could handle the comedy routines, and act and sing, he was a shoe-in for the role of Manuelito. Hart spent time with Desi teaching him how to read a script, and how to audition. Hart also gave him pointers on acting techniques. At the audition, director George Abbott sensed Desi was a novice, however he took a liking to the kid and gave him the part. So successful was Desi at doing the Conga that the first act finale of the play was changed to end with the entire cast of Too Many Girls joining in a Conga line. The cast included Eddie Bracken, Hal LeRoy, and Van Johnson, who was in the chorus. It opened in New Haven, Connecticut on September 28, 1939. A month later the show arrived in New York to play at the Imperial Theatre. The reviews published in the papers the following morning were great. Too Many Girls was a hit! Desi Arnaz was the toast of New York!
RKO bought the motion picture rights for Too Many Girls, and Desi was signed to recreate his Broadway role. His arrival at RKO seemed almost unbelievable to him. As he said later, "I was about to drive through the gate of one of the most famous motion picture studios in the world to co-star in a film. I had to pinch myself to believe it."
At the studio he met with Richard Carlson, Ann Miller, and Frances Langford, who were to replace some of the Broadway actors. "I couldn't understand why they wanted to replace the Broadway actors. We never failed to stop the show at least once or twice nightly," said Desi. That same day, a woman walked into the studio with a black eye and tangled hair. She looked like she had been badly beaten, but stopped by to casually say hello to the cast. Desi asked George Abbott, "Who the hell was that?" He answered, "That's the girl who is going to play the ingenue part." A few hours later a woman walked into the rehearsal room dressed in a pair of tight-fitting beige slacks and a yellow sweater. She had beautiful blonde hair and big blue eyes. Desi asked the piano player who she was. He answered, "You met her earlier today, that's Lucille Ball." It was love at first sight for Desi, and this film led to their romance.
The film version of RKO's Too Many Girls was not as popular as the Broadway version. The plot was about a father of a wealthy co-ed (Lucille Ball), who hires four football heroes to protect her. After the promotional tour in New York for this picture, Desi and Lucille Ball Arnaz (married on November 30, 1940) returned to RKO to resume their movie careers. Desi had been offered a three-picture deal to fill his next two years.
His second movie in 1941 was Father Takes a Wife, with Adolph Menjou and Gloria Swanson. Desi was to play an operatic tenor. RKO bought the film rights to the song "Perfidia" and Charlie Koerner, president of RKO, was hoping to have Desi sing this song with his own guitar accompaniment. However, the studio had an Italian tenor dub his voice in the style of an operatic aria. It was supposed to be a ballad. Needless to say, this was a good indication that the film was headed nowhere.
In 1942 he filmed Four Jacks and A Jill with Ray Bolger, Eddie Foy, Jr., and Ann Shirley. Desi later said of this film, "I hope nobody remembers this. I wish I could forget it myself." He played a dual role; prince and taxicab driver. It was supposed to be a musical comedy. The prince would have the cab driver wear his clothes and go in his place to supper at the Waldorf. But Desi didn't think the audience was going to know whether it was the prince at these functions or the taxicab driver. Following the completion of this film, RKO did not have another picture for him so he went off salary. He had made $20,000 in a short time, but his career as a motion picture actor was nothing to talk about.
In between films Desi and Lucy spent a few weeks gardening and tending to their newly acquired ranch, Desilu, in Chatsworth, in the San Fernando Valley. Desi's next project, The Navy Comes Through (1942) was an ultra patriotic picture of a U.S. merchant marine ship that heroically battles the Nazis. The cast included Pat O'Brien, George Murphy, Carl Esmond, Jackie Cooper, and Jane Wyatt, as a nurse. The picture received good reviews, however, RKO did not renew Desi's contract. At completion of this film, Desi toured for the Army and Navy Relief, to raise funds for the widows and families of our soldiers and sailors killed overseas. Hollywood Caravan involved many stars, including Eleanor Powell, Joan Blondell, Charles Boyer, Bob Hope, Laurel and Hardy, and Groucho Marx.
Once back in Hollywood, Desi was given the opportunity to appear in Ken Murray's Blackouts. During this run Louis B. Mayer came backstage and asked Desi to meet him in his office the following day. Rumor has it Lucy asked Mayer to catch Desi's act and try to place him under contract at MGM. Upon accepting Mayer's offer, Desi became an MGM contract player. He was very excited to finally have a good Hollywood break. So, he thought.
Desi's first project wasn't ready to begin production so he accepted a USO tour. After a few weeks of entertaining the troops, the commanding officer informed Desi he was on his way back to Hollywood. MGM was starting the 1943 production of Bataan. This was an early wartime drama with Robert Taylor, George Murphy, and Robert Walker about soldiers defending a bridge for General MacArthur to use in his escape from the Philippines. It was this film that gave Desi his first recognition as an actor. He was given a Photoplay Award.
Upon completion of this movie, Desi enlisted in the Army Air Force. His two years of service were not pleasant. "Everyone knew I was married to Lucille Ball, so naturally all those guys could think of was anyone who came from Hollywood was a glamour boy," said Desi. He spent a lot of time doing latrine duty and peeling potatoes because he wouldn't let anyone get away with an insulting remark. The separation of Lucy and Desi was very difficult for both of them. They were still very much in love. With Lucy's somewhat success in movies and Desi in the Air Force, the relationship suffered. In September of 1944 Lucy filed for divorce. She couldn't handle the separation, and Desi's infidelities. Lucy had heard of Desi's escapades with USO starlets. Desi managed to take a few days leave to spend time with Lucy. They worked out their problems, and their tormented love affair continued. Desi was discharged from service on November 16, 1945.
Back at MGM, Desi found they had no projects for him in 1946. He met with Jack Cummings who was producing a film with Esther Williams and included a part for a Latin romantic interest. Desi was too late. The part had been given to Ricardo Montalban. Desi managed to buy himself out of his MGM contract and formed his own band.
Luck was on his side, and he was able to obtain a contract at Ciro's of Hollywood. During this engagement Howard Welsh, one of the executive producers at Universal Studios, offered Desi a low-budget musical picture Cuban Pete. The plot was simple; it was Desi playing Desi, an orchestra leader on his way to New York City, co-starring Joan Fulton, Beverly Simmons and Don Porter. If nothing else, it would help introduce his orchestra to the public. Upon completion of the film and his contract at Ciro's, Desi's orchestra went on a national tour ending in New York to play at the famed Copacabana. His band was a success, and record sales were good with song hits "Cuban Pete" and "Babalu."
Lucy, alone at the Desilu ranch, managed to work out a deal with her friend Bob Hope, who was looking for a musical director for his radio program. Desi fit the bill, and he was on his way back to Hollywood. After this contract ended, Desi decided not to renew. Desi and his orchestra made more money on tour, so he started his band tours again.
During this period, Desi's went before the cameras in Columbia's 1949 production Holiday in Havana with Mary Hatcher and Ann Doran. Desi wrote the title song and performed five other numbers in this almost forgotten movie which took only two weeks to shoot. With no other film offers, Desi went back on the road, accepting contracts at Ciro's in Los Angeles and at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. Before year's end, however, the Arnaz's were contracted to appear for the first time together on CBS Television as guests on the Ed Wynn Show on December 24, 1949.
It wasn't until the early part of 1950 that things started to really click. CBS had already started to talk to Lucy about transferring her radio show My Favorite Husband to television. Lucy was dead set on having Desi play her husband. This would end the years of separation the couple had endured. During the pre-post production of the series, Desi was offered a radio series by CBS, Tropical Trip, on Sunday afternoons.
In order to convince CBS that Desi and his wife would be believable as a married couple, Desi set up a vaudeville tour with his band. The reaction of the public was overwhelming, and CBS finally agreed to let Desi play the husband on I Love Lucy. By the time the final negotiations were made, both of the Arnaz's had good salaries per episode plus 50% of the profits and full 100% ownership of all the episodes. With this, Desilu Productions was formed. A few years later Desi sold the I Love Lucy episodes back to CBS for $4.5 million. Lucy said years later, "We never made any royalties on any of the reruns. We had no idea we were inventing the rerun." These reruns were made possible by Desi's shrewd decision to have the series shot on film instead of broadcast live. Live broadcasts were seldom recorded and thus were lost to posterity. Filming of the series meant that it would live on for decades to come.
Desi hired the best staff he could find. The writers felt the Ricardos would have to have neighbors to help develop character and action. Thus Fred and Ethel Mertz were created. Desi lined up auditions for a number of actors, but after meeting William Frawley, he knew he had found the perfect Fred. The casting of Ethel Mertz took a little longer. Finally, at the recommendation of Director Marc Daniels, Desi was introduced to Vivian Vance who was hired on the spot. With all the pieces of the puzzle in place, I Love Lucy was launched. By early 1952 the American Research Bureau had announced that I Love Lucy was the first show in TV history to reach 10 million homes.
In 1954 the now famous husband and wife team were signed by MGM to co-star in The Long, Long Trailer for $250,000. By the time the final box office receipts were in, they were paid $300,000, a substantial amount of money for the time. The film would take them on a cross country tour hauling a long trailer with the couple becoming involved in some typical I Love Lucy type situations.
Desi was finally given the recognition he had so long sought. He had a family (Lucie and Desi, Jr.) and a new contract for two more years of I Love Lucy. This was the largest single television contract ($8 million) ever negotiated. He had a hit movie with MGM and a top selling record with Columbia, the "I Love Lucy Theme," and the flip side was "There's a Brand New Baby at Our House." He also made the list of the Ten Best Dressed Men in the United States with the likes of President Eisenhower, Rex Harrison, and Danny Kaye.
The series continued to be the number one show in the nation. The threecamera system for situation comedies shot on film had caught on, and everyone wanted to share in the success of Desilu. Desi and Lucy continued to expand their business ventures. Desi started taking on more projects for Desilu, adding Our Miss Brooks starring Eve Arden, The Loretta Young Show, The Danny Thomas Show, Ray Bolger Show, Willy with June Havoc, December Bride with Spring Byington, Red Skelton Show, and some of the Jack Benny Shows. By the end of 1956 Desilu was a major production company, filming about 229 half-hour shows a year!
Also in 1956 the Arnaz family sold their Desilu ranch in Chatsworth and moved to Beverly Hills. MGM released their second feature film, Forever Darling, starring Desi and Lucy, Louis Calhern, and James Mason as a guardian angel. This film produced by Zanra Productions, (Arnaz spelled backwards), was not the commercial success they had hoped for.
Desi started to feel the pressure. He had to work long hours supervising the studio, all of the Lucy shows, the commercial tie-ins with dozens of manufacturers, and the creation, development and sale of new pilots. He was working too hard and his health was beginning to deteriorate. Also, by this time he was spending weekends away from the family in Del Mar, California. His abuse of alcohol was now a major problem.
In the 1957-58 season, Desi started the Lucy-Desi Comedy Hours as well as his personal love/hate project, The Desilu Playhouse, an hour-long weekly show he hosted himself. At this time he learned that General Tires, owers of RKO Studios, was willing to sell to Desilu. His friend Howard Hughes, who had once owned RKO and had met Desi during his run at Ciro's, advised Desi, "Grab it! Even if you tear it down and make it into parking lots, you've gotta make money." After negotiations, Desi came up with the necessary down payment of $2 million, and the old RKO Studios were now Desilu Studios for an asking price of $6.5 million.
Over the years I Love Lucy attracted film stars who had never appeared on television. It was considered an honor to appear on Lucy, so the distinguished list of guests included John Wayne, Bill Holden, Rock Hudson, Harpo Marx, Orson Welles, and Charles Boyer. Desilu's new clout helped to attract Ray Stark and his partner who offered some Warner Bros. properties. Desi opted for buying only one, The Untouchables, starring Robert Stack, who replaced original choice Van Johnson. This new show became a hit in ABC's 1959-60 season line up and was soon in the top five of all the series Desilu had ever developed.
By the end of 1959 Desi was ready to sell Desilu. "It was just too much," said Desi. "I wanted to sell. I wanted to sell then more than ever." The relationship between Desi and Lucy, that had charmed the nation, was essentially over. All the hard work he had put into the studio had only helped turn him into an alcoholic and womanizer. In November of 1959 Desi asked for a divorce. "I just can't take it anymore. Perhaps if we had just done I Love Lucy and we had stayed in Chatsworth, and I hadn't gotten involved in so many projects, this wouldn't have happened," said Desi. The last hour-long show was Lucy Meets the Mustache Man with Ernie Kovacs on April 1, 1960. With I Love Lucy now over, the relationship terminated in divorce on May 4, 1960.
Desi remained as producer of the new The Lucy Show. After a year, he married Edie Hirsch and retired from television. Later CBS offered Desi $50,000 to develop some ideas for tv series. He produced a 1966 situation comedy called The Mothers-in-Law starring his good friend Eve Arden. It only achieved moderate success in two seasons. It seemed he just couldn't get started again. Many believed that without Lucy, he was lost.
Except for an occasional talk show, he was rarely seen in the 1970s, and spent most of his time with his second wife. When fans saw him on two local Los Angeles talk shows, The Sam Yorty Show, and the Nosotros Awards Show, they didn't see the Desi they had admired years earlier. On the Yorty Show he was incoherent and after a commercial break, it was announced that Desi was not feeling well and had to leave. In 1974 he was a guest star on an episode of NBC's Ironside. He then made an appearance with his son in 1975 on Saturday Night Live which sparked some interest in Desi's new book titled, "A Book." Later he made appearances on The Tonight Show, The Danny Thomas Show, and The Dean Martin Show.
In March of 1982, Siempre En Domingo, a nationally televised Spanish program, made him guest of honor at Carnival. The Hispanic community of Miami wanted to acknowledge his contributions to the entertainment industry. He performed a song and dance number with his son, Desi, Jr., and daughter Lucie.
With his health failing in 1982, he accepted what he knew could be his last chance to appear in a feature film, the Warner Bros./Zoetrope release The Escape Artist starring Raul Julia, Joan Hackett, Jackie Coogan, produced by Frances Ford Coppola. He played a corrupt politician like the ones who had run his family out of Cuba so many years ago.
In 1983 he lost his wife Edie to cancer. Desi was alone, but not forgotten. His son Desi, Jr., who finally had stabilized his own life, had gotten through to his father and both were now in programs to help put them in control of their lives. Finally, Desi Arnaz, Sr. was enjoying the last few years of his life. With grandchildren in the family, Lucy and Desi were very much the doting grandparents. One cannot help watching the recent 1993 TV film produced by Lucie Arnaz, Lucy and Desi: A Home Movie, and feel joy and happiness at seeing Desi and Lucy together again, sharing special moments with the grandchildren, as Desi tries to teach them how to sing "Babalu." It is unfortunate it could not have been this way back in 1960.
Desi succumbed to cancer on December 2, 1986. He died in the arms of his daughter, who when interviewed on local television, said, "I hope he will always be remembered as the 'I' in I Love Lucy.
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