Monday, October 4, 2021

Desi Arnaz on I Love Lucy

Although today it seems impossible that anyone else could have played Lucy's husband on I Love Lucy, at the time of the show's debut the casting of her real-life husband Desi Arnaz was historic. Desi Arnaz became the first Latino to star on an American sitcom. I Love Lucy was also historic in being the first American television to portray a mixed marriage.

Desi Arnaz was born on March 2 1917 in Santiago de Cuba. It was following the Cuban Revolution of 1933 that his family immigrated to Miami. It was in the United States that Mr. Arnaz launched his music career. His Desi Arnaz Orchestra proved highly successful, to the point that he came to the attention of Rogers and Hart. They cast him in a role in their 1939 Broadway musical Too Many Girls. Desi Arnaz reprised his role when RKO adapted Too Many Girls as a 1940 musical. It was here that he met Lucille Ball. The two fell in love and married.

As to Lucille Ball, she was an established movie star by the end of the Thirties and continued to be a popular performer in the Forties. It was in 1948 that she was cast in the role of Liz Cooper on the radio show My Favorite Husband. My Favorite Husband proved popular, so in 1950 CBS decided they wanted to adapt the hit program for television. CBS asked Lucille Ball to reprise her role as Liz Cooper on the television version of My Favorite Husband, but Miss Ball insisted that real-life husband Desi Arnaz play her husband on the show. CBS rejected the casting of Desi Arnaz on My Favorite Husband as they did not believe audiences would accept an "All-American" woman and a Cuban man.

In response to CBS, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz then created their own vaudeville act, which was written by My Favorite Husband writers  Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll Jr. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz took their vaudeville act on the road and it proved to be very successful. The success of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz's vaudeville act persuaded CBS executive Harry Ackerman that a show starring the couple could be successful. At the same time Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz's prospective new show generated interest at CBS's archrival NBC. With the prospect of losing Miss Ball to NBC, Harry Ackerman eventually gave into Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz's wishes and the result was I Love Lucy.

For those few of you who are unfamiliar with I Love Lucy, the show centred on housewife Lucy Ricardo and her husband, upcoming Cuban bandleader Ricky Ricardo. The two lived in an apartment in New York City, which they rented from their neighbours Ethel and Fred Mertz. Many of the show's plots rotated around Lucy's efforts to break into show business, often as part of Ricky's act.

As to Ricky Ricardo, no secret was made of the character's Cuban ancestry. In fact, Ricky was essentially a fictionalized version of Desi Arnaz himself. Just as Mr. Arnaz had immigrated to the United States so too had Ricky. Desi Arnaz's Cuban flavoured music featured prominently in the series, Today Ricky could be considered a bit of a Latin stereotype. He was highly excitable and he had a bit of a temper. When upset it was not unusual for Ricky to erupt with a stream of rapidly spoken Spanish.

While there were aspects of the character of Ricky Ricardo that could be considered stereotypical, there were other aspects of the character that ran contrary to common assumptions made about Latinos in the United States in the early Fifties. Ricky Ricardo was college educated, having attended Havana University. Starting out as the bandleader at the Tropicana, he eventually bought the club and renamed it the Club Babalu. Ricky offered a sharp contrast to other Latino character on television in the Fifties. Frank the gardener on Father Knows Best, who was so naive that it seems likely he couldn't function in American society without the Anderson family. Pepino on The Real McCoys was always deferential to the McCoys and often the target of Amos McCoy's tirades.

In portraying a character who embraced his Cuban identity, while at the same time being married to a white woman, I Love Lucy challenged the homogeneity of American television in the Fifties, a time when the vast majority of characters, particularly on sitcoms, were white. At the same time I Love Lucy proved that a show could be inclusive and yet still be successful on American television. Indeed, it was not only one of the most successful shows of the Fifties, but one of the most successful shows of all time. Both as an actor on I Love Lucy and as a producer and business man behind the scenes, Desi Arnaz was very much a pioneer, paving the way for other Latinos on American television. While Latinos are still rare on American broadcast network television, the fact that there are any at all can largely be attributed to Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball insisting on a TV show that reflected their real-life marriage.

1 comment:

Caftan Woman said...

I enjoyed this look at history and entertainment. Desi is a popular fellow in this family.