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.
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.
Desi Arnaz with Lucille Ball
(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.
I Love Lucy (actor, producer)
1958-60 Westinghouse Playhouse (producer)
1962-65, 67 The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour (actor, producer)
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).
by Arnaz Desi. New York: William Morrow, 1976.
Christopher. Hollywood/TV. Austin, Texas: The University
of Texas Press, 1994.
The "I Love Lucy" Book. New York: Doubleday, 1985.
and Thomas J. Watson. Loving Lucy. New York: St. Martin's, 1980.
Lucille: The Life of Lucille Ball. New York: Hyperion, 1994.
Perez. Life On the Hyphen: The Cuban-American Way. Austin,
Texas: University of Texas Press, 1994.
G. Lucy & Desi: The Legendary Love Story of Television's Most
Famous Couple. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.
Lucy: The Life of Lucille Ball. New York: St. Martin's,
Steven, and Tom Gilbert. Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball
and Desi Arnaz. New York: Morrow 1993.
"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,
Love Lucy; Independent
Production Companies; Westinghouse-Desilu