Desi Arnaz is best known as the comic sidekick to his wife, Lucille Ball, in the tremendously popular television sitcom I Love Lucy. He was also one of the great¬ est pioneers of Latin music in the United States, Perhaps more than any other Latin entertainer, he helped shatter negative Hispanic stereotypes in the United States.
Born in Santiago, Cuba, Arnaz came to the United States with his mother when he was sixteen. After arriving, he joined the big band of the great Xavier Cugat (see no. 26), who was riding a wave of popularity for a Latin dance craze, the rumba. Arnaz played with Cugat’s band briefly, then moved to Miami, Florida, and started his own band.
Arnaz is largely credited with popular¬ izing another Latin dance, the conga, which originated in Cuba. Although the dance was already known in the United States, he transformed it into a popular step that brought partygoers out of their seats.
In 1939, Arnaz was asked to act and sing in a Broadway musical, Too Many Girls. A year later, he starred in the film version, where he met a beautiful young actress, Lucille Ball. The two fell in love and married that same year.
After the 1940s, success for Arnaz came less from music than it did from film and televi¬ sion. He appeared in several movies, and in the 1950s, he and his wife became permanent fixtures in American culture with their hit tel¬ evision show, L Love Lucy. The program was one of televisions first sitcoms and one of the most successful of all time. Reruns are still being shown after more than fifty years.
Although audiences were drawn to the show for the hilarious antics of Lucille Ball, the show was also significant for the way it por¬ trayed its Hispanic male character. Arnaz basi¬ cally played himself—he was Ball’s husband, bandleader Ricky Ricardo. His character broke some previous stereotypes of Latin males in film and television. Ricardo was not a villain or a peasant.
Instead, he was a likable and trust¬ worthy middle-class husband and business¬ man—like many of the non-Hispanic men who watched the show.The show was also significant because Arnaz and Ball produced it themselves. When the major studios were not interested in the show’s concept, the couple formed their own compa¬ ny, Desilu Productions, to produce it.
The company eventually became a powerful finan¬ cial force in Hollywood, producing numerous other television programs. In I960, Arnaz and Ball divorced. Arnaz sold his share of Desilu Productions to his ex-wife and slowly withdrew from show business. He made his last appearance in a movie, The Escape Artist, in 1982, four years before his death.