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Saluting Desi Arnaz

On the 100th anniversary of his birth, we celebrate this TV pioneer

  • Desi Arnaz
    CBS/Getty Images

    Much More Than Ricky Ricardo

    En español | Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III was born in Santiago de Cuba, on March 2, 1917. His father was the city’s mayor, and his mother belonged to the upper-class family who founded Bacardi, the rum-distilling company. Young Arnaz was raised in luxury and privilege, yet under the strict discipline of the Jesuit school he attended.

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  • Desi in leather jacket
    Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

    An Upper-Crust Family

    In 1933, Sgt. Fulgencio Batista’s revolt forever changed the Arnaz family’s future. Helped by a servant, Arnaz and his mother hid in Havana while the rebels took over their properties. Arnaz’s father, freed from jail, departed for Miami with $500 in borrowed cash in his pocket. In June 1934, the 17-year-old Arnaz arrived in Key West by ferry and embraced his father for the first time in the United States, his new home.

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  • Desi Arnaz in a tuxedo
    Courtesy of Everett Collection

    Everything Changes

    One afternoon, his high school friends stopped by to see him play with the Siboney Septet, clapping profusely every time he sang. In the audience was the well-known Spanish bandleader Xavier Cugat. Impressed by all the cheering, he offered the young singer an audition. The following day, Desi sang “In Spain, They Say Sí, Sí” for Cugat, who then hired him on the spot.

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  • Desi Arnaz rhumba routine
    Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

    Start in Music

    His orchestra’s success landed Arnaz a role in Rodgers and Hart’s Broadway musical Too Many Girls. In 1940, after 294 performances, he accepted the same role in the movie version of the musical. While filming, he fell madly in love with his costar, the beautiful Lucille Ball. Filming got tricky as the couple spent their nights clubbing in Hollywood.

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  • Enter Xavier Cugat
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    Enter Xavier Cugat

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  • Desi Arnaz singing
    Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

    His Star Rises

    During World War II, promoter Sidney Piermont suggested that Lucy and Desi do theater together to cater to an audience eager for distraction. Their song-and-dance routines were a hit and provided the foundation for what would later become their TV projects. Meanwhile, Arnaz was drafted into the military, but a bad knee limited his work to a military hospital in Los Angeles.

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  • Ann Miller y Desi Arnaz en 1940
    Courtesy Everett Collection

    From Broadway to the Big Screen … and Lucy

    I Love Lucy allowed Arnaz to establish a series of important innovations: recording the episodes in front of a live audience, for example, while using three cameras at the same time, a practice later adopted by most sitcom producers. He also fully controlled rights to the series and allowed a pregnant Ball to appear on-screen. Success was instant and overwhelming. In 1953, the couple signed an $8 million contract with Philip Morris, the largest in TV history at that time.  

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  • Desi carries Lucy over the threshold of his dressing room
    Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

    Wedding Bells

    With their financial interests and the well-being of their children in mind, Desi and Lucy split on good terms and continued to be friends until the end of their lives. In 1961, Ball married comedian Gary Morton, but only after receiving Arnaz’s approval. In the meantime, the actor surprised his ex-wife with the news that he wanted to retire from the business and quit as director of Desilu. In November 1962, Ball became the sole president of the company.

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  • A middle aged caucasian couple look at a map outdoors with text that reads keep life fun and your calendar full.

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    With time to enjoy his homes, friends and family, Arnaz disappeared almost entirely from the entertainment industry. He last appeared in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1982 film The Escape Artist. He died of lung cancer on Dec. 2, 1986, at age 69. Ball died in 1989, at age 77. Lucy and Desi stayed in touch until the end — testimony to an enduring relationship that changed the history of television.

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  • Lucy and Desi at home
    George Rinhart/Corbis/Getty Images

    A glimpse of Desilu

    Desi Arnaz found immortality when he fell in love with Lucille Ball. Together, they started a television empire that put smiles on millions of faces around the world. Yet Arnaz was much more than Ricky Ricardo: The real Desi was a talented musician always true to his Cuban roots, a TV innovator, and a savvy businessman. Today, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, we pay tribute to his extraordinary life.

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  • Lucille Ball And Desi Arnaz
    Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images

    Wartime Entertainment

    Desi Arnaz found immortality when he fell in love with Lucille Ball. Together, they started a television empire that put smiles on millions of faces around the world. Yet Arnaz was much more than Ricky Ricardo: The real Desi was a talented musician always true to his Cuban roots, a TV innovator, and a savvy businessman. Today, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, we pay tribute to his extraordinary life.

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  • I Love Lucy
    CBS/Getty Images

    ‘I Love Lucy’

    Desi Arnaz found immortality when he fell in love with Lucille Ball. Together, they started a television empire that put smiles on millions of faces around the world. Yet Arnaz was much more than Ricky Ricardo: The real Desi was a talented musician always true to his Cuban roots, a TV innovator, and a savvy businessman. Today, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, we pay tribute to his extraordinary life.

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  • Desi Arnaz directing
    Leonard Mccombe/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

    Desi the Innovator

    Desi Arnaz found immortality when he fell in love with Lucille Ball. Together, they started a television empire that put smiles on millions of faces around the world. Yet Arnaz was much more than Ricky Ricardo: The real Desi was a talented musician always true to his Cuban roots, a TV innovator, and a savvy businessman. Today, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, we pay tribute to his extraordinary life.

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  • Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz with their son Desi
    Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

    End of an Era

    Desi Arnaz found immortality when he fell in love with Lucille Ball. Together, they started a television empire that put smiles on millions of faces around the world. Yet Arnaz was much more than Ricky Ricardo: The real Desi was a talented musician always true to his Cuban roots, a TV innovator, and a savvy businessman. Today, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, we pay tribute to his extraordinary life.

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  • Desi Arnaz congratulates Lucille Ball whom he recently divorced
    Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

    Friends Forever

    Desi Arnaz found immortality when he fell in love with Lucille Ball. Together, they started a television empire that put smiles on millions of faces around the world. Yet Arnaz was much more than Ricky Ricardo: The real Desi was a talented musician always true to his Cuban roots, a TV innovator, and a savvy businessman. Today, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, we pay tribute to his extraordinary life.

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  • Performers Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz At Their Daughter's Wedding
    Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

    One Family

    Desi Arnaz found immortality when he fell in love with Lucille Ball. Together, they started a television empire that put smiles on millions of faces around the world. Yet Arnaz was much more than Ricky Ricardo: The real Desi was a talented musician always true to his Cuban roots, a TV innovator, and a savvy businessman. Today, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, we pay tribute to his extraordinary life.

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  • Desi Arnaz later in life
    Ron Galella/WireImage/Getty Images

    Retired and Happy

    Desi Arnaz found immortality when he fell in love with Lucille Ball. Together, they started a television empire that put smiles on millions of faces around the world. Yet Arnaz was much more than Ricky Ricardo: The real Desi was a talented musician always true to his Cuban roots, a TV innovator, and a savvy businessman. Today, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, we pay tribute to his extraordinary life.

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  • Desi Arnaz
    AARP

    View More Slideshows

    Desi Arnaz found immortality when he fell in love with Lucille Ball. Together, they started a television empire that put smiles on millions of faces around the world. Yet Arnaz was much more than Ricky Ricardo: The real Desi was a talented musician always true to his Cuban roots, a TV innovator, and a savvy businessman. Today, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, we pay tribute to his extraordinary life.

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