Born Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III, March 2, 1917, in Santiago, Cuba; immigrated to United States, 1933; died of lung cancer, December 2, 1986, in Del Mar, CA; son of Desiderio Alberto (a politician) and Lolita (de Acha) Arnaz; married Lucille Ball (an actress), November 30, 1940 (divorced, 1960); married Edith Mack Hirsch, March 2, 1963; children: (first marriage) Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill, Desi, Jr. Education: Attended Colegic de Dolores and St. Patrick's High School, Miami, FL.
Desi Arnaz will forever be identified with nightclub entertainer Ricky Ricardo, the character he played on the classic television series I Love Lucy. The role mimicked at least two aspects of his real life: he was married to his costar, Lucille Ball, and before becoming involved in television he made his living as the hardworking leader of a rumba band. His achievements as a musician, actor, producer, and director were all a far cry from the career planned for him while he was growing up in Cuba. The son of a powerful politician and a woman said to be one of the great beauties of Latin America, he spent his youth enjoying his family's vast wealth. He was to study law at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, then return home to a ready-made practice.
Those plans crumbled on August 12, 1933, when the first Batista revolution, in which Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar organized a military coup and eventually became president, swept Cuba. Arnaz's father was jailed, and his money and property were confiscated. Sixteen-year-old Desi and his mother fled to Miami, Florida, where they spent the next six months negotiating the release of Desi, Sr. Young Desi, who barely spoke English, struggled through classes at St. Patrick's High School in Miami during the day, then worked to help pay the rent at the dingy boardinghouse that was now home. His first job was cleaning birdcages; he later graduated to working in a railyard, bookkeeping, and driving taxis and trucks.
The expensive education his family had envisioned for Arnaz was now out of the question, so he began considering other ways to advance himself. In 1937 he auditioned as a singer for Miami Beach's high-class Roney Plaza Hotel. He borrowed a suit for the occasion and convinced his former classmates from St. Patrick's to crowd the audience at his trial performance. Thanks to their enthusiastic cheering, he was hired to front the Siboney Septet for $50 a week. Bandleader Xavier Cugat saw Arnaz perform at the Roney and asked the young singer to tour with him. The pay was only $35 a week, but the experience and exposure were invaluable. After a year with Cugat, Arnaz confidently struck out on his own and was soon bringing in $750 per week as the headliner at the La Conga Cafe. Before long, he and his newly formed orchestra were playing dates at the best clubs in the United States, including New York City's Copacabana.
During a Copacabana engagement, Arnaz was spotted by George Abbot, who gave the Cuban a leading role in his musical Too Many Girls. RKO Studios bought the film rights to the hit show and invited Arnaz to Hollywood to recreate his character. The female lead was filled by an RKO contract actress, Lucille Ball, who became romantically involved with Arnaz soon after they met. Everyone from studio executives to gossip columnists considered the relationship a bad idea, but the pair continued seeing each other even after filming stopped and their careers took them to different parts of the country. On November 14, 1940, Ball went to New York City on a personal appearance tour. Arnaz was there, playing the Roxy Theatre. After the band's last show, Ball and Arnaz eloped, taking their vows before a justice of the peace at the Byram River Beagle Club in Greenwich, Connecticut.
The marriage was troubled from the start, largely due to the conflicting schedules of the two performers. Ball's contract with RKO kept her tied to Hollywood and necessitated early morning makeup calls. Arnaz traveled constantly with his band, and even when he had a local engagement, he usually arrived home just as his wife was leaving. Although he had parts in several films-- Cuban Pete and Holiday in Havana were written especially for him and featured music he composed--his movie career never developed enough to take him away from the nightclub circuit. The couple once estimated that in the first eleven years of their marriage, they spent just three years' time together and paid more than $29,000 in telephone and telegraph charges to each other. Their lives stabilized somewhat during 1946 and 1947, when Arnaz replaced Stan Kenton as the musical director of Bob Hope's radio show, but in 1948 he headed out on the road again.
Ball saw a way to save her marriage when CBS approached her in 1949 with the idea of turning her very successful radio program, My Favorite Husband, into a television show. She agreed, on the condition that Arnaz would be cast opposite her, thereby giving him a job that would not require constant touring. CBS rejected the idea, believing that the notion of an all-American woman married to a Cuban orchestra leader would be unacceptable to audiences. To prove them wrong, Arnaz and Ball put together an ambitious vaudeville revue featuring a series of comic routines about a woman trying to crash her bandleader husband's show. Vaudeville was nearly dead at the time, but the Lucy-Desi act drew rave reviews and large audiences. Once convinced, CBS agreed to let Arnaz costar in Ball's television show, I Love Lucy.
The program was an immediate success and is now regarded as a classic of television comedy. Arnaz was the perfect foil for Ball's antics, and his musical numbers, set in the fictional Tropicana nightclub, lent variety and interest to the program. Behind the camera, Arnaz immersed himself in work as the head of Desilu Productions, the couple's production team, and proved to be a shrewd television executive. He produced many other popular series, including December Bride, Our Miss Brooks, The Untouchables, and The Danny Thomas Show, and he created the three-camera technique still used for filming situation comedies.
Despite all efforts to save it, the Arnaz marriage ended in divorce in 1960, and the Lucy-Desi comedy partnership terminated as well. Arnaz went into semiretirement a few years later, spending most of his time on his horse farm in Del Mar, California. He did occasional television work, producing several pilots and the comedy series The Mothers-in-Law. In 1982 he played a straight dramatic role in Francis Coppola's film The Escape Artist. Poor health plagued him throughout the 1970s aand 1980s, however, and in 1986 he died of lung cancer at his home in Del Mar.
by Joan Goldsworthy
Desi Arnaz's Career
House singer at the Roney Plaza Hotel, Miami, FL, 1937; vocalist with Xavier Cugat's orchestra, 1938; leader of the Desi Arnaz Orchestra, 1939-51; musical director of Bob Hope's radio program, 1947-48; host of radio game show/Latin American musical showcase Your Tropical Trip, 1951; costar and executive producer of television comedies I Love Lucy and The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, 1951-60; president of Desilu Productions, 1951-63. Author of A Book, William Morrow, 1976.
- Andrews, Bart, The "I Love Lucy" Book, Doubleday, 1985.
- Arnaz, Desi, A Book, William Morrow, 1976.
- Look, June 3, 1952.
- Newsweek, February 18, 1952.
- New York Times, December 3, 1986.
- People, February 18, 1991.
- Time, June 6, 1952, December 15, 1986.