March 2, 1917— Desi Arnaz, a musician, bandleader, director, and producer who made as large an impact behind the scenes as he did in front of the camera with wife Lucille Ball on the Fifties hit sitcom I Love Lucy, was born in Santiago, Cuba.
Arnaz arrived at his mega-success at a time when Hispanics were often not accepted in mainstream American society. (In fact, when he found out, at the peak of his success, that a hotel wouldn’t admit him because of his ethnicity, he opened nearby the 42-room Desi Arnaz West Hills Hotel, complete with a restaurant featuring his own personal recipes.)
When he instructed the chief writers of I Love Lucy on how he wanted his character portrayed (no flirtation with other women, never falling for Lucy’s schemes), he ended up protecting his own dignity. But intentionally or not, he was also ubverting American prejudices about Latinos. With Lucy and Desi, it was the Latino who was the sober, responsible one in the relationship, not the Anglo. (More problematic: the wife remained subservient.)
The rise to fame and fortune of Arnaz is emblematic of the striving immigrant success story. Forced out of Cuba with his family as a teenager, he was forced at one point to clean canary cages in his adopted country. In time, he became a member of Xavier Cugat’s band, then head of his own 16-member ensemble, before co-managing Desilu Productions, a sprawling television empire with multiple shows on the air—and even a merchandising sideline.
While the public chuckled at Desi’s slow burn on the air, it couldn’t begin to appreciate that he was, as Lucy put it, “a genius with keen instincts for comedy and plot.” She continued, in her posthumously published memoir, Love, Lucy: “He has a quick, brilliant mind; he can instantly find a flaw in any story line; and he has inherent good taste and intuitive knowledge of what will and will not play."
At the height of his fortune, much of this came undone—partly through the cumulative stress of juggling so many balls in the air, partly because of the personal issues present in his marriage to Ms. Ball from the start: his philandering, heavy drinking, and gambling. After nine years, Lucy and Desi were finished as an on-screen couple--and so was their marriage.
While Ms. Ball moved on with her life, enjoying a longer-lived marriage to comedian Gary Morton and establishing a friendly relationship with her ex, some of the pain of the breakup lingered. “I married a loser before…,” she told Barbara Walters in 1977. “He was brilliant. But he had to lose…Everything he built, he had to break down. And he still claims he’s the same way.”
Neither Lucy nor Desi apart reached the artistic heights they had scaled together. She had three sitcoms, two of them quite successful, but on the air she lacked him as a foil, and off the air she could not lean on him to do the tough but necessary work of negotiating with network brass and production crews. He could be counted on to be shrewd (shooting the show on film ensured that it would have enough technical quality to rerun forever in syndication) and innovative (his adoption of simultaneous shooting from multiple cameras remains par for the course to this day for sitcoms).
Desi’s last show, The Mothers-in-Law—one I recall watching as a child in the late Sixties—featured two top-notch comic actresses, Eve Arden and Kay Ballard, who exuded a Lucy-and-Ethel vibe, carried over by the sitcom’s two chief writers, who had served in the same role on I Love Lucy. As executive producer and director of 23 episodes, Arnaz kept a strong hand on production. But the show only lasted two seasons.