ARNAZ, DESI

U.S. Actor/Media Executive

Desi Arnaz is best known for his role as Ricky Ricardo in the early television situation comedy, I Love Lucy. The series, which starred his wife, Lucille Ball as his fictional wife, Lucy Ricardo, appeared weekly on CBS. The show originally ran from the fall of 1951 through the 1957 season, and during this time ranked consis-tently among the top three national pro-grams. In addition to this recognition of Arnaz as perfect comic straight-man for Ball's genius, however, he was one of Hollywood's most perceptive, and powerful, producers in television's early years. His shrewd business skills and his realization of particular combinations of the television's technological and cultural connections enabled him to develop aspects of the medium that remain central to its economic and cultural force.

Arnaz began his show business career in 1935. After singing and playing guitar with the Xavier Cugat orchestra, Desi toured with his own rumba band, but his big break was being cast in the Broadway show, Too Many Girls in 1939. He met Lucille Ball in Hollywood the next year when both had roles in the movie version of the play. They were married in 1940 and continued their careers, Lucille in motion pictures and radio, and Desi in music.

Ball had also gained success with her CBS radio program, My Favorite Husband, in which she starred as the wife of a banker, played by Richard Denning. CBS was interested in creat-ing a television version of the show, but when Ball insist-ed that Desi play her husband, the network felt that viewers would not be attracted to a show not easily related to their own lives. Execu-tives at CBS were skeptical about whether Arnaz, a Cuban band leader, would be believable and readily accepted by viewers as Lucy's husband. In order to prove the network wrong, Lucy and Desi s-et out on a nation-wide stage tour to designed to gauge public reaction to their working together in a comedy act. CBS was im-pressed with the positive public response to the couple as well as with a sample script for a TV series developed by the writers from My Favorite Husband.

The basics were there, including Desi as Ricky Ricardo, a struggling band leader, and Lucille as Lucy, a house-wife with little talent but a giant yearning to break into show business. This homey battle-of-the-sexes premise for the show convinced the network that viewers could relate, and a pilot version of the program im-pressed the Philip Morris Compa-ny, which agreed to sponsor thirty-nine programs for the 1951-52 season on the CBS network Monday nights at 9:00 P.M. Arnaz and Ball insisted on producing the show in California so they could work together and live at home, an arrangement which had been impossi-ble with Lucille acting in films an on radio while Desi toured with his band, a situation which had strained their marriage. The idea of recording I Love Lucy on film was directly related to the couple' desire to work together in show business as a family and to live in their home in California.

In 1951, before the perfection of video tape, nearly all television shows were live productions, fed from the East Coast because of time-zone differences. Philip Morris approved the idea of filming I Love Lucy, but the sponsor wanted a live audience, which had been effective on radio. Desi and cinematographer Karl Freund, a veteran of pre-World War II German expressionist cinema working in Hollywood, devised a plan for staging the show as a play, performing each act before an audi-ence, and simultaneous-ly filming with three or four cameras stationed in different loca-tions. Because this technique in-creased network production costs, CBS asked the Arnaz and Ball to take a cut in salary to compensate for the increase. In negotia-tion, Arnaz agreed, providing Desilu, a company he and Ball had created, would then own the shows after the broadcasts. A few years later the couple sold the films back to CBS for more than four million dollars, a sum that provided the economic base for building what became the Desilu empire. The practice of filming television episodes also paved the way to TV re-runs and syndication. After I Love Lucy was established as a hit, Desilu applied its multi-camera film technique to the product-ion of other shows, such as Our Miss Brooks, December Bride, and The Lineup. By 1957, Desilu was so successful that addition-al facilities were needed and it bought RKO Studios from the General Tire and Rubber Company.

Desilu had become the world's largest studio. But as the business grew ever larger, Arnaz and Ball drifted apart, ending their 20-year marriage in 1960, and split-ting their interests in Desilu. In 1962, Ball bought Arnaz's share in the company, and he retired for a short time to his horse-breeding farm. Both later married others, and Desi returned televi-sion, forming an independent production company and making occasional guest appearances. Desilu was purchased by Gulf Western Industries in 1967. Desi Arnaz died in 1986 and Lucille Ball in 1989. I Love Lucy is still popular with television audiences today, thanks to the pioneering production techniques of Desilu.

-B. R. Smith

 


Desi Arnaz with Lucille Ball

DESI (Desiderio Alberto, III) ARNAZ. Born in Santiago, Cuba, 2 March 1917. Attended Colegio Delores, Jesuit Preparatory School, Santiago, Cuba. United States Medical Corps., 1943-45. Married (1) Lucille Ball, 30 November 1940 (divorced, 1960), children: Lucie Desiree, Desiderio Alberto, IV (Desi, Jr.). Began entertainment career as singer, with Xavier Cugat Band, 1935-36; formed own band at The Conga Club, Miami, Florida, 1938, height of the "conga craze"; Broadway musical debut, Too Many Girls, 1939; RKO film version of the musical, 1940; music director for the Bob Hope radio show, 1946-47; performed with Ball in radio show, My Favorite Husband, 1947-50; produced pilot for I Love Lucy with own funds, 1951; performed as Ricky Ricardo, I Love Lucy, 1951-57; president and co-founder, Desilu Productions, 1951-62. Recipient: Best Performance of the Month, Photoplay Magazine, 1943, for Bataan. Died in Del Mar, California 2 December 1986.

TELEVISION

1951-57 I Love Lucy (actor, producer)
1958-60 Westinghouse Playhouse (producer)
1962-65, 67 The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour (actor, producer)

FILM

Too Many Girls (1940); Father Takes a Wife (1941); The Navy Comes Through (1942); Four Jacks and a Jill (1942); Bataan (1943); Holiday in Havana (1949); Cuban Pete (1950); The Long, Long Trailer (1954); Forever Darling (1956); The Escape Artist (1982).

PUBLICATIONS

A Book by Arnaz Desi. New York: William Morrow, 1976.

FURTHER READING

Anderson, Christopher. Hollywood/TV. Austin, Texas: The University of Texas Press, 1994.

Andrews, Bart. The "I Love Lucy" Book. New York: Doubleday, 1985.

Andrews, Bart, and Thomas J. Watson. Loving Lucy. New York: St. Martin's, 1980.

Brady, Kathleen. Lucille: The Life of Lucille Ball. New York: Hyperion, 1994.

Firmat, Gustavo Perez. Life On the Hyphen: The Cuban-American Way. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1994.

Harris, Warren G. Lucy & Desi: The Legendary Love Story of Television's Most Famous Couple. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.

Higham, Charles. Lucy: The Life of Lucille Ball. New York: St. Martin's, 1986.

Sanders, Coyne Steven, and Tom Gilbert. Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. New York: Morrow 1993.

Schatz, Thomas. "Desilu, I Love Lucy, and the Rise of Network TV." In, Thompson, Robert, and Gary Burns, editors, Making Television: Authorship and the Production Process. New York: Praeger, 1990.

See also Ball, Lucille; I Love Lucy; Independent Production Companies; Westinghouse-Desilu Playhouse