The Cuban Who Revolutionized American TV
Editor’s Note: More than a decade ago, Hispanic Outlook Publishing recognized the remarkable achievements of Desi Arnaz as told to our talented reporter, the late Allison Waldman, by Lucy and Desi’s daughter, Lucie Arnaz. In this issue, as we shine a spotlight on Lucie’s latest musical triumphs and the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, New York (a first of its kind instructional “boot camp” for those pursuing a career in the art of comedy), we once again present “The Legacy of Desi Arnaz; The Cuban Who Revolutionized American TV.”
When the definitive history of 20th-century entertainment is written, the contributions of Desi Arnaz to the art of music and television — as an innovator, a creative force, an astute businessman and a winning and popular entertainer — will surely be included. Now, more than 50 years [now more than 60 years] since the inception of the classic “I Love Lucy,” his face and voice are still recognizable to people young and old around the world.
This Cuban-born American entertainment icon, Ricky Ricardo’s alter-ego and loving foil to superstar Lucille Ball, is a man whose life was marked by impressive achievements. Few have done more to shape show business as we know it. In myriad ways — technical, cultural and societal — the influence of Desi Arnaz was dramatic, revolutionary and enduring.
Professor James von Schilling of Northampton College, author of “The Magic Window:
American Television, 1939-1953,” published by Haworth Press, described Arnaz as an amalgam of Cuban charisma and show business razzmatazz. “He successfully tapped into his Hispanic heritage while giving an American showbiz feel to his performances,” von Schilling said. “He could perform ‘Babalu;’ for example, which was rooted in the religion and drumming of Cuban slaves, then follow it with a Broadway-type tune sung in English.”
The rise of Arnaz in the entertainment world was interwoven with his romance and marriage to Lucille Ball. Together, they were a flamboyant and fiery pair — the Cuban Casanova and the beautiful movie star. Not many — not even Lucy — gave their union a great chance to survive. But it did. Throughout the 1940s, their marriage went through rocky times, but they stayed together. And it was their desire to work together that brought about “I Love Lucy.”
CBS wanted Ball to bring her popular radio situation comedy, “My Favorite Husband,” to the new medium of television. She was interested but only if they’d let Arnaz play her husband. Her reasoning was simple: if Arnaz were in the show, he wouldn’t have to be on the road with his orchestra performing in nightclubs and theaters. Arnaz was interested, but CBS wasn’t. They didn’t believe American audiences would accept an all-American girl with a Cuban husband. So it was up to Ball and Arnaz to prove that it could work.
With their own money, they developed an act, tried it out on his nightclub tour, filmed the successful performances, presented it to a sponsor who agreed to back the show, then convinced the network to give them a chance. Those were the first steps on an obstacle course that led to “I Love Lucy,” and with every step along the way it was Arnaz’s invention that fueled the journey.
“I Love Lucy” was an endeavor that brought out the best in both. It catapulted Lucille Ball to superstardom; she became the first lady of comedy. And it was Arnaz who discovered her gifts. Until then, no one realized that Ball could be a clown. She soared higher and farther with his guidance than she ever did on her own.
The show was a catapult for Arnaz as well. And he made an enormous contribution to the stature of Latino men on screen. “No one improved the image of Latins at that time more than my father,” Lucie Arnaz said.
“Desi was really a popularizer of Hispanic-based art, more so than a strictly Hispanic artist,” she said. The famous “I Love Lucy” theme is a perfect example. Written by non-Hispanics, it was performed by the Desi Arnaz Orchestra whose conductor (Wilbur Hatch) wasn’t Hispanic either. But half the orchestra members were Hispanic, and they’ve given TV audiences worldwide a genuine Latin drumming sound to the theme song that’s fresh and striking even today. Just like the theme song, only a portion of Desi’s art was Hispanic. But that portion was genuine, and the rest of his artistry made it easily acceptable to his non-Hispanic audience.
“Back then, in the early 1950s, you saw Latins as waiters and bellhops, slimy lounge singers and lazy Mexicans sleeping under sombreros,” Lucie explained. “Desi was almost single-handedly responsible for the image changing to a bright, funny, loving, educated and successful man-to-be-reckoned-with.”
To worldwide audiences who embraced every installment, there was no question that Señor Ricardo was a man to be respected and loved. Arnaz made sure that Ricky was a substantive example of a productive Hispanic role model.
“He would receive mail from Latin men all over the world thanking him for his portrayal on TV that so many millions of people grew to know and love,” she said. “It changed the way Americans looked at Latins.”
Behind the Scenes
But it was in the real world as producer and prime force behind “I Love Lucy” that Desi Arnaz truly made his mark for Latinos. He had a genius for television. Every time you see a TV show such as “Friends” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” filmed before a live audience, thank Arnaz.
“Specifically, he’s credited with inventing the process by which TV comedies have been filmed since the early 1950s, but that’s an exaggeration,” Professor von Schilling explained. “Others had developed parts of the process before him (the three camera set-up, for example), but nobody put all the parts together the right way until Desi and ‘I Love Lucy.’ So, in that sense, he taught the world how to make well-produced TV comedy shows, and that’s been a source of pleasure and satisfaction to millions of Americans and people worldwide every day for the last 50 years.”
And then there were reruns. Before “I Love Lucy,” only kinescopes — films of the broadcasts off the TV screen — were kept, and they had no lasting value. By coming up with a way to shoot each episode before multiple 35 mm motion picture cameras, Arnaz, with cinematographer Karl Freund, revolutionized television. The multiple camera format thrives to this day. And those episodes rerun in syndication were a goldmine. So when you click on reruns of “Seinfeld” and “Happy Days,” thank Desi Arnaz — they were his idea.
“Desi was regarded for years as an astute, talented and under-appreciated ‘player’ in TV and Hollywood. His deal-making ability and his commitment to the success of Desilu and ‘I Love Lucy’ were legendary,” said von Schilling.
By 1952, “I Love Lucy” was the first television show to reach 10 million viewers, a record it surpassed in 1953 when 44 million viewers tuned in for the birth of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo’s son (a storyline that Desi had to convince the network to let them do). By 1954, Desilu was a major company, producing hits such as “The Loretta Young Show,” “The Untouchables” and “The Red Skelton Show.”
In 1957, the Arnaz business acumen and ambition led to Desilu acquiring RKO Pictures, the very studio that had hired him as a contract player in 1940.
Early Days of Arnaz
Arnaz learned what it took to be a success at a very young age — and he learned it the hard way. After a privileged childhood in Santiago, Cuba, Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y De Acha III, the only son of rancher and politician Desiderio Alberto Arnaz II and his wife, Dolores de Acha, had his world rocked. Instead of attending Notre Dame University, then law school and then returning home to Cuba to go into politics, he and the entire Arnaz family were victimized by the Batista uprising of 1934. The three family ranches were seized, looted and burned, and Arnaz’s father was imprisoned. Desi Arnaz and his mother fled to Miami with little more than the clothes on their backs.
“He talked a little about the beauty of Santiago, but truthfully, he did not talk about his life there much except that his family lost everything in the revolution,” Lucie recalled. “I think talking about his youth was very depressing for him. After he wrote his autobiography in 1974 (“A Book”), I understood why. He had led a charmed life in Cuba. What a horror to have it all taken away in an instant!”
Arnaz didn’t let the horror hold him back. He switched gears. After stints of menial jobs such as cleaning birdcages, a 17-year-old Desi schemed his way into show business, becoming a band singer and conga player.
“Desi had no formal training as a musician, singer or actor, and he probably would not have gone into show business or the arts had he remained in Cuba,” von Schilling explained. “But within two years, he was performing in a Broadway show (‘Too Many Girls’), and a year later, he’d begun a film career in Hollywood followed by radio, nightclubs and TV. In all of these situations, he was lucky enough to be working with — and learning from — some of the top names in popular entertainment: producers, directors, writers, composers, actors, comedians, etc.”
And while he was learning, he was also teaching. He proudly spread the pearls of his Cuban culture. “He was proud of the music and the conga — which he was responsible for bringing to the United States!” Lucie remembered. Arnaz also popularized dances such as the rhumba and the mambo.
He taught his children about the treasures of his heritage too. “At home, Dad played his guitar and sang many Spanish songs. He cooked his favorite Cuban dishes — arroz con pollo, picadillo, puerco asado with mojo criollo sauce, frijoles negros — and everything he cooked was sensational. He was extremely proud to be Cuban. He used his Spanish in such kind ways too — calling people ‘amigo.’ But I must add, I heard him talk about how proud he was to be an American citizen. He was very patriotic towards this country and always was grateful for the opportunities it afforded him and his family.”
Ultimately, perhaps the greatest gift that Desi Arnaz shared with the world, his most enduring lesson, is still with us — “I Love Lucy.” “All the laughter that Desi spawned among TV audiences has made the world a healthier place, balancing out some of the tensions and difficult problems of modern life,” von Schilling enthused.
“I think he also taught the world how to approach life directly and passionately, how to plunge yourself wholeheartedly into the work you do and the people you encounter — and how to do all that with a smile, a style and a generous nature.”
Lucie Arnaz offered this assessment: “His passion was intense and electrifying, and his humor was his anchor and his float. He was a very generous man who, as my mom used to say with tremendous affection and compassion, never understood the word ‘moderation.’ Probably true. That was his weakness, and it was his greatest gift to everyone who knew him. I miss him terribly every day. But if you look at the overall 69-year picture, I think he accomplished a lot. More than most.”
Professor von Schilling concurred. “He’s arguably the most successful ‘crossover’ Hispanic performer that our culture has produced thus far. He was the ‘I’ in ‘I Love Lucy,’ which was the country’s most popular entertainment in the early and mid-1950's and permanently changed our mass media and show business industry. That’s remarkable! And he gave us his big, warm smile; his bright and sparkling eyes; his charm, grace and his handsome looks; and his eagerness to perform, to sing and dance before any sort of audience. That legacy can be seen every night around the world over 50 years after [now over 60 years after] ‘I Love Lucy’ began and with no signs of diminishing.”