Thursday, February 10, 2011

HOLA Legends: Desi Arnaz

Desi Arnaz (March 2, 1917 – December 2, 1986), born Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III, was a Cuban-born American musician, actor and television producer. While he gained international renown for leading a Latin music band, the Desi Arnaz Orchestra, he is best known for his role as Ricky Ricardo on the classic American TV series "I Love Lucy," starring with Lucille Ball, to whom he was married at the time.

Arnaz's family fled to the U.S., following the 1933 Cuban revolution, led by Fulgencio Batista, which overthrew President Gerardo Machado. Soon thereafter, he turned to show business to support himself. In 1939, he starred on Broadway in the musical Too Many Girls. He went to Hollywood the next year to appear in the show's movie version, which starred Lucille Ball. They married on November 30, 1940.

He appeared in several movies in the 1940s, notably Bataan (1943). Following his discharge from the Army, he formed another orchestra, which was successful in live appearances and recordings. He hired his childhood friend Marco Rizo to play piano and arrange for the orchestra. When he became successful in television, he kept the orchestra on his payroll, and Rizo arranged and orchestrated the music for "I Love Lucy."

On October 15, 1951, he produced and starred in the premiere of "I Love Lucy," in which he played a fictitious version of himself, Cuban orchestra leader Enrique "Ricky" Ricardo. His co-star was his real-life wife, Lucille Ball, who played Ricky's wife, Lucy. Initially, the idea of having Ball and the distinctly Latino Arnaz portray a married couple encountered resistance as they were told that his Cuban accent and Latin style would not be agreeable to American
viewers. The couple overcame these objections, however, by touring together, during the summer of 1950, in a live vaudeville act they developed.

With Ball, he founded Desilu Productions. At that time, most television programs were broadcast live. His cameraman, Karl Freund, developed the multiple-camera setup production style using adjacent sets that became the standard for all subsequent situation comedies to this day. The use of film enabled every station around the country to broadcast high-quality images of the show. Arnaz was told that it would be impossible to allow an audience onto a sound stage, but he worked with Freund to design a set that would accommodate an audience, allow filming, and also adhere to fire and safety codes. He also convinced network executives to allow Desilu to cover all additional costs associated with the filming process, under the stipulation that Desilu owned and controlled all rights to the film. This unprecedented arrangement is widely considered to be one of the shrewdest deals in television history. As a result of his foresight, Desilu reaped the profits from all reruns of the series.

He also pushed the network to allow them to show Lucille Ball while she was pregnant. According to Arnaz, the CBS network told him, "You cannot show a pregnant woman on television." He consulted a priest, a rabbi and a minister, all of whom told him that there would be nothing wrong with showing a pregnant Lucy or with using the word pregnant. The network finally relented and let Arnaz and Ball weave the pregnancy into the story line, but remained adamant about eschewing use of pregnant, so Arnaz substituted expecting, pronouncing it 'spectin' in his Cuban accent.

After "I Love Lucy" ended and his marriage to Lucille Ball ended, he continued to act, play music and produce. He produced the TV series "The Mothers-in-Law," "The Untouchables," "The Ann Sothern Show" and "The Untouchables." He appeared on "Saturday Night Live" where he was host and musical guest, performing the songs "Babalú" and "Cuban Pete." He contributed to charitable and non-profit organizations.

He passed away due to lung cancer in 1986. He left behind the two children he had with Lucill Ball: Desi Arnaz, Jr. and Lucie Arnaz. The last person to speak to him was Lucille Ball, who phoned him on what would have been their 46th wedding anniversary. While both had remarried, they had become close friends in the following years. His death came just five days before Lucille Ball received the Kennedy Center Honors. In a speech read at the Kennedy Center Honors, he wrote that for him, "'I Love Lucy' was never just a title." He has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for his contributions to motion pictures and one for his contributions to television.

Singing the song "Babalú"

Singing "Cuban Pete" with Lucille Ball

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