Anytime you watch a rerun, or dance in a conga line, or yell, “Lucy, you got some splainin’ to do,” pause and thank Desi Arnaz.
Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III was born in Cuba in 1917 to a wealthy father who was the mayor of the city of Santiago, and a mother who was an heiress to the Bacardi Rum fortune. His family was stripped of its substantial wealth and forced to flee to Miami after a revolution in 1933.
Desi worked odd jobs to support his family before becoming a professional musician, playing guitar and percussion for a Latin orchestra in New York. He returned to Miami to head up his own combo, which caused a sensation when they introduced the conga line to America. Arnaz soon found himself on Broadway in the musical Too Many Girls in 1939. The following year, Desi went to Hollywood to appear in the filmed version of the play. It was there that he met actress Lucille Ball. As Lucy later states, “it wasn’t love at first site. It took a full five minutes.” They eloped on November 30, 1940 – seventy years ago this week.
Late autumn would prove special for Desi on several occasions. In the fall of 1950, CBS executives approached Lucy to bring her popular My Favorite Husband radio show to television. She agreed as long as Arnaz was cast as her husband in the show. This met with a fair amount of resistance from network executives fearing that American audiences wouldn’t warm to the Cuban-accented Arnaz. They needn’t have worried. After I Love Lucy debuted during the autumn of the following year, it went to top the television ratings where it remained for most of its nine-year run.
Arnaz produced the show employing a three-camera setup that allowed for shooting before a live audience. He also insisted that the show be captured on film, and that Desilu Productions, the company that Arnaz and Ball created, retain the rights. This single act created the rerun. The couple was also able to purchase RKO Studios in the autumn of 1957.
Shortly after the show ended, the marriage dissolved. It had been a rocky relationship for years due to Desi’s drinking and womanizing. Desi sold his shares of Desilu to Lucy and lived in semi-retirement near San Diego for the rest of his life raising thoroughbreds.
The late autumn wasn’t always good for Desi. He passed away from lung cancer on this date in 1986. Lucy, who remained a friend, telephoned him shortly before he died.
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