March 2, 2018:

Let’s raise a tall Cuba Libre to Desi Arnaz on the 101st anniversary of his birth. Known to most as the excitable husband of Lucille Ball on “I Love Lucy”, Arnaz was also a famously shrewd businessman and a television industry visionary.  
Desi’s father was the mayor of Santiago, Cuba and his mother was the daughter of one of the founders of Bacardi Rum. Desi’s life of privilege ended abruptly when the Cuban Revolution of 1933 thrust Fulgencio Batista into power. Battista confiscated Desi’s family property and the family fled to Miami where Desi’s father started an import/export company. With little money, the immigrants lived in a warehouse and survived on cans of pork-and-beans.  

At 17 Desi scraped together the cash to buy a used guitar. He displayed such immense talent that he was soon performing in local clubs and caught the attention of the legendary Xavier Cugat, Desi played in Cugat’s orchestra until his 1937 high school graduation when he started his own rhumba band. The Desi Arnaz Orchestra became internationally recognized and years later would serve at the Tropicana Club band on “I Love Lucy.” 

I Love Lucy
At the age of 23 Desi met 28-year-old starlet Lucille Ball on the set of the 1940 movie” Too Many Girls”. They were married six months later. By 1950 Arnaz and Ball had separately become radio stars. Arnaz was the bandleader for Bob Hope’s radio show while Ball gained fame as the scatterbrained housewife on the radio serial “My Favorite Husband”. CBS decided to turn her show into a TV series with Lucille as the lead. She agreed on the condition that Desi would be cast as her husband. One key reason was that Lucille wanted to keep the renowned womanizer off the touring circuit and close to home. 

Network executives believed that American viewers would never accept a “mixed marriage”. Determined to prove the executives wrong, Lucille and Desi went on the road with vaudeville type skits that were inserted into performances of his orchestra. Audiences loved the skits and the experiment convinced the studio that the show could be successful. Lucy and Desi established Desilu Productions and took control of the fledgling show despite constant conflicts with sponsors and network executives. 

True Visionaries
Sponsors objected to filming before a live audience but Desi maintained that Lucille worked best when she received audience feedback.  Arnaz was smart enough to realize that the success of the show was due to his wife’s extraordinary comedic ability. Madelyn Pugh Davis, a writer for the show, later commented “He always knew she was the star. Never in all those years did I ever hear him say “Where’s my part?” 

While Lucille and Desi wanted the show to be filmed in Los Angeles, the sponsor, Philip Morris insisted on New York where most shows originated. The entire U.S. wasn’t wired for television so live shows were recorded as low-quality kinescopes and shipped to distant stations. Since the East Coast was the largest cigarette market, Philip Morris wanted the best picture quality for that region. Arnaz developed a ground-breaking multiple-camera technique and advocated that the show be shot on high quality 35-mm film rather the low-quality kinescope recordings. The suits vehemently objected to the use of such expensive film, but Arnaz and Ball offered them a solution. The couple would slash their salaries and in return Desilu Productions would retain ownership of the show’s rights. This unprecedented arrangement remains one of the shrewdest moves in show business history.

In 1955 Desilu made history by broadcasting the first television reruns. They began showing early episodes of “I Love Lucy” because televisions were finally becoming an essential part of American homes and many people had missed the show’s early years. The reruns helped Ball and Arnaz became the first millionaires of the television industry. Under Desi’s leadership, Desilu produced additional hits including “Our Miss Brooks”, “The Untouchables”, and “The Danny Thomas Show”. 

On the darker side, Desi’s drinking and womanizing took a toll on the relationship and the couple decided to end their iconic show.  The last episode of I Love Lucy was filmed on March 2, 1960, Desi’s forty-third birthday. The next day, Ball filed for divorce, which for the sake of the two children was amicable. Desi resigned from Desilu Productions and sold his stock to Lucille for $3 million.  Lucy and Desi remained friends until his death from lung cancer in 1986. 

Have a great weekend and don’t scrimp on the Bacardi.

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