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Friday, August 07, 2015

Desi Arnaz, the man who invented the rerun

Long before there was dictator Fidel Castro's Cuban Revolution in 1959, there was a revolution in 1933 that swept into power the previous dictator, Fulgencio Batista, who ousted an actual president, Gerardo Machado. The 1933 revolution led to the transformation American television -- and hence, television around the world -- by bring to our shores Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III who became an Exceptional American named Desi Arnaz, better known as Ricky Ricardo, the "I" in "I Love Lucy."

The company he and his wife, Lucille Ball, formed -- Desilu Productions -- would become a virtual hit factory for TV shows, but eventually wore him down. Make no mistake, this was a business partnership and Lucille Ball was just as skilled when it came to the business end of show business.

The list of their shows reads like a list of the top ranked TV shows of the 1950s and 1960s --"Our Miss Brooks," "The Danny Thomas Show (Make Room for Daddy)," "December Bride," "The Real McCoys," "The Ann Sothern Show," "The Untouchables," "The Andy Griffith Show," "My Three Sons," "The Dick Van Dyke Show," and of course, "I Love Lucy."

The use of movie-style filming techniques instead of cheap kineoscopes was expensive in the short-term, but paid dividends later as all these shows made money as syndicated reruns as television needed to fill the maw of time. In 1955, the show became the first to air reruns in prime time.

Born into great wealth on March 2, 1917, in Santiago de Cuba, at 16, Arnaz saw his family lose its three ranches, a palatial home, and a vacation mansion on a private island in Santiago Bay, Cuba, to the Batista revolution. His father was jailed for six months. The family fled to Miami where Arnaz worked odd jobs. He later said he chased rats and cleaned bird cages. Upon graduation from St. Patrick Catholic High School in 1936, he entered show business as a guitarist for the Siboney Septet at Roney Plaza in Miami.

Drums were his forte and he joined the orchestra of the King of Rumba, Xavier Cugat, briefly in 1937. Charming and personable, as well as handsome, Arnaz formed his own band and started a conga craze in America. In 1939, he debuted on Broadway in the musical, "Too Many Girls." When the play became a movie, Arnaz went to Hollywood and became a minor film star for a minor studio, RKO, where he met another minor player, Lucille Ball. Everyone else called her Lucille; he called her Lucy. While she was six years older than him, the two fell in love and married on November 30, 1940. Actress Maureen O'Hara recalled, "She talked about Desi all the time. I said, 'Go ahead and marry him if you love him'."

He spent World War II running USO shows. He faced racial stereotyping in Hollywood, in part due to his heavy accent. After the war, she landed a role as the housewife in "My Favorite Husband," a CBS radio show that debuted on July 5, 1948, as a fill-in for the popular "Our Miss Brooks." Ball played a zany housewife. Meanwhile, Arnaz was on the road with his band. Seeking to work together as a couple, Ball and Arnaz tried to turn "My Favorite Husband" into a TV show.

"I Love Lucy" debuted on CBS on October 15, 1951, and has aired continuously since then. Not only were Ball and Arnaz great actors albeit in roles patterned after their lives, but the writing was superb. Bill Asher directed 110 of the 179 episodes; in the 1960s, he produced "Bewitched," Ball's slapstick and Arnaz's timing as the straight man were excellent. Ball was a great mime, definitely the equal of Harpo Marx, which she proved in one episode. Another episode had Ball work with an actress playing her mother-in-law from Cuba who spoke no English. It is a hilarious show.

But for Arnaz, the show's success was vindication. The actor whom Hollywood shunned for his accent won the hearts of people in their living rooms. Biographer Warren G. Harris wrote, "Rather than repelling audiences as CBS had feared, Desi's flamboyant Cuban-ness apparently had the opposite effect of attracting viewers."

Arnaz and Ball not only had their own show but spawned others. They owned Monday night for CBS, drawing as many as 70 percent of the viewers. Within a few years they bought RKO from General Tire. The controversy over the show was not their mixed race marriage but the discovery that she had registered as a communist in the 1930s.

They weathered that political storm when Arnaz told gossip Hedda Hopper, "The only thing red about Lucy is her hair, and even that is not legitimate."

But the marriage was over. In 1960, they divorced amid his 14-hour workdays and numerous affairs. She once pulled a gun on him and pulled the trigger. It turned out to be a lighter and as she stood there shocked, he casually pulled out a cigar and lit it. Even Steve McQueen would be in awe of that level of coolness.

"The more our love life deteriorated, the more we fought, the more unhappy we were, the more I drank," Arnaz wrote in his autobiography. "The one thing I have never been able to do is work and play concurrently and in moderation, whatever that means."

In 1962, Arnaz left as president of Desilu. In 1963, he sold his half of Desilu to his now ex-wife, who continued the studio in the 1960s, adding such shows as "My Favorite Martian," "Gomer Pyle, USMC," "I Spy," "Hogan's Heroes," "Star Trek," "Family Affair," "That Girl," "Mannix," and "Mission: Impossible." Ball was the first woman to head a major Hollywood studio. Eventually, she too sold out the business as it was too much work for her.

The quality of the shows that Desilu produced in its 20-year run made it the MGM of television. In fact, Hollywood continues to produce "Mission: Impossible" and "Star Trek" movies. Arnaz's ability to recognize talent and give them free rein helped him and his studio attract movie talent at a time when TV was the shunned by Hollywood. Besides the rerun, Arnaz invented the spinoff series with a two-part episode of "Make Room For Daddy" giving birth to "The Andy Griffith Show," which later spun off "Gomer Pyle, USMC."

Arnaz produced one other show after leaving Desilu, "The Mothers-In-Law" for NBC. But the man who had helped found prime-time television was burned out. After years of cigar smoking, Desi Arnaz died of lung cancer on December 2, 1986, in the arms of his daughter. Lucy Arnaz said he was "a good daddy, but a lonely man at times, one who chose a difficult path,"

Twice in his life, he had it all. In Cuba, they took it away from him. In America, he walked away from it. I do not do many celebrities in this series but his contribution to American culture -- and that of Lucille Ball -- went well beyond their superb performances on an excellent TV show.

My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here. And the Kindle version is here.


  1. Don, I saw "In 1962, Arnaz left as president of Desilu. In 1963, he old his half of Desilu to his now ex-wife". I expect "old" should be sold?

  2. To his dying day, he called Lucy, "My Little Trooper" for her hard work and talked with a fondness in his voice. Saw one of the last interviews he did before death took him, and he still seemed to dote on her verbally for all her hard work.
    Theirs was some of the best tv we will ever see.

  3. Don, you done some good splaining!