Desi Arnaz [1917-1986]
Desi Arnaz first gained national attention as a musician with his hit single, Babalú, but it was his role as Cuban-American bandleader Ricky Ricardo on the popular TV comedy, I Love Lucy, that made him famous and helped introduce Latin music to a much larger American audience.
Born in 1917 in Santiago, Cuba, Arnaz was the son of Desiderio Alberto Arnaz, the city’s mayor and a member of the Cuban House of Representatives, and Dolores de Acha, whose father was one of three founders of Bacardi Rum. The Arnaz family were wealthy landowners, but that changed in 1933 when Fulgencio Batista overthrew Cuban President Gerardo Machado. The Batista regime jailed Arnaz’s father and confiscated all of the family’s property. After being incarcerated for six months, Arnaz’s father was released and he fled with his family to Miami, Florida.
Desi Arnaz eventually moved to New York City and found work as a singer, guitarist and conga player. He honed his musical skills with popular Latin bandleader Xavier Cugat, who served as his mentor. In 1937 Arnaz returned to Miami Beach with his own band and introduced the conga line, which soon became a national phenomenon. A decade later, in 1947, he scored the hit, Babalú, before focusing on his Hollywood career. He appeared in the movie Too Many Girls, starring Lucille Ball, whom he later married.
In 1951 Arnaz and Ball debuted in the television show I Love Lucy, with Arnaz as a struggling bandleader and Ball as his wife. Initially, CBS executives had resisted the idea of Arnaz playing Ball’s husband, saying audiences wouldn’t accept the idea of her being married to a Cuban, but the network reluctantly agreed. In his role as a bandleader, Arnaz helped popularize Latin music as fun but lightweight.
More importantly, as one of the first Cuban-Americans to star on a popular television series, Arnaz served as a role model for many Latin-American viewers and aspiring entertainers. He also proved to be an innovative entrepreneur, helping to develop the three-camera shoot for situation comedies that is still used today. He introduced live audiences and retained all of the rights to each episode after it aired, allowing his production company, Desilu Productions, to earn royalties when they were played as re-runs.