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Desi Arnaz: 1917-1986: Bandleader, Entertainer, Producer - Young Latin Bandleader

cugat ball film orchestra

Xavier Cugat, then the king of Latin music in the United States, caught Arnaz's act one night and hired him, but Arnaz had to accept a salary cut down to 25 dollars, on the understanding that, if he did well, they would renegotiate. Arnaz turned out to be very popular and soon was bumped to thirty-five dollars. Before long Arnaz decided he could do better on his own and told Cugat he intended to form his own band. Cugat offered instead to let him bill his new act as the Desi Arnaz and his Xavier Cugat Orchestra. Arnaz agreed to pay Cugat a royalty of 25 dollars per week to use his name. When Cugat asked why only 25 dollars, Arnaz—already displaying his business savvy—gave Cugat the same deal Cugat had given him. He told Cugat that if they did well, they would renegotiate. Arnaz debuted his new band in 1937. The opening was a disaster; two of the musicians were not even Latin. For the next night, Arnaz played the conga, an instrument then unknown in the United States.

At a Glance . . .


Born Desiderio Alberto Arnez y de Acha on March 2, 1917, in Santiago, Cuba; died on December 2, 1986, in Del Mar, CA; married Lucille Ball, 1940 (divorced 1960), married Edie Hirsch; children: (with Ball) Lucie Desiree, Desi.


Career: Producer, entertainer, bandleader. Played guitar in a band at the Roney Plaza Hotel; played with the Xavier Cugat Orchestra; formed Desi Arnaz Orchestra, 1937; appeared in the Rodgers and Hart Broadway musical Too Many Girls; reprised role in film version of Too Many Girls, performed in minor films, on the radio, and with his successful Desi Arnaz Orchestra, beginning 1940; formed Desilu Productions with Ball, 1948; produced and starred in I Love Lucy, 1951-60; bought RKO Studios, 1957; executive produced The Lucy Show, 1962; produced The Mothers-in-Law, 1967; published autobiography, A Book, 1976.


Awards: Two Emmy awards for Best Situation Comedy, 1952, 1953.


Before long, Arnaz was headlining at La Conga, a New York nightclub. He was discovered there by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, who put him in their new Broadway musical, Too Many Girls, in the role of a Latin exchange student. When Too Many Girls was made into a movie, Arnaz was asked to reprise his stage role. The film also starred a redheaded actress named Lucille Ball. When the two met, "Desi was in greasy makeup and old clothes, and I thought he wasn't so hot," she later recalled, according to People. Arnaz had the same impression of Ball, dressed in her bedraggled costume and sporting a fake black eye. Both of them quickly overcame their first impressions and, by all accounts, the chemistry between them was undeniable. In one of their first scenes together, Arnaz was to take one look at Ball and faint dead away in ecstasy. It didn't take much acting. He was the first man to call her Lucy, rather than her preferred Lucille. Six months later, the 28-year-old B-movie actress and the 23-year-old bandleader were married. They eloped in Connecticut with a ring bought at the last minute at a Woolworth's. They settled just outside Los Angeles in Chatsworth, California, on a five-acre ranch they called Desilu.

For the next few years, the couple—not yet Hollywood royalty—made their living with various projects in film, theater, and radio. Arnaz was drafted to serve in World War II in May of 1943, though an injury kept him on noncombat duty at a hospital near Chatsworth. Between touring with his band and his time away for military service, Arnaz, a notorious ladies' man, had plenty of freedom for extramarital affairs. In September of 1944 Ball, fed up with her husband's infidelity, filed divorce papers, but the couple reconciled and the process was never finalized. Arnaz received critical praise for his role in the film Bataan, and one columnist even predicted he would be the next Rudolph Valentino. Despite these successes, he was having a tough time breaking into film because of his thick accent. The now-22-piece Arnaz Orchestra was doing very well, though, and led to a role in the film Cuban Pete, which billed him as "The Rumba-Rhythm King."


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