DESI ARNAZ Biography - Other artists & entretainers


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Desi Arnaz was born on March 2, 1917, in Santiago de Cuba, the son of the mayor of Santiago and his wife, Dolores Acha y de Socias. She was one of the most prominent and beautiful women in Latin America, whose father was one of the three original founders of the Bacardi Rum Company. The family owned three ranches, a palatial home in the city, and a vacation home on a private island in Santiago Bay.


In 1932, Desi’s father was elected to the Cuban Congress. On August 12, 1933, when the Batista revolution exploded in Cuba, the Congress was dissolved and most of its members, including Dr. Arnaz, were imprisoned. In a matter of 24 hours, the Arnaz properties were confiscated, and their homes were burned to the ground.


After escaping to Havana with his mother, 16 year old Desi successfully arranged his father’s release from prison. In June of 1934, Desi and his father received permission to emigrate to Florida, where his mother would join them some years later.


For Desi, life in his newly adopted country was both difficult and exciting. Realizing that he needed to learn English in order to get along in the U.S., Desi enrolled in St. Patrick’s High School, and received his diploma in 1937. He worked at whatever jobs he cound find, including driving taxis and cleaning bird cages at a local pet store before school.


At about this same time, he discovered he could combine his love of music with his need for money. He bought a $5 guitar at a pawn shop and joined a rumba band called the Siboney Septet, which worked at the Roney Plaza Hotel in Miami. It was there that he first heard Xavier Cugat. Soon after auditioning for him, young Desi was on his way to New York with Cugat’s orchestra.


Several months later, after leaving Cugat in New York in order to form his own band, Desi introduced the Conga at Mother Kelly’s in Miami Beach. The conga soon became a dance craze all over the United States.


In 1939, while appearing at New York’s La Conga, he was cast in the hit Rogers and Hammerstein Broadway musical, ‘Too Many Girls’. Soon after, RKO bought the film rights to the play, and signed Desi to play his stage role in the film.


It was in 1940 on the set of ‘Too Many Girls’ that Desi met actress Lucille Ball. After a tempestuous 5 month courtship, they eloped to Greenwich, Connecticut, on November 30, 1940. They were wed in a private, hastily arranged ceremony at the Byram River Beagle Club. After leaving New York in 1941, the couple bought a home in Chatsworth, California, which they christened the Desilu Ranch. Desi tried to break into movies in Hollywood, but directors were wary of casting anyone who had an accent. During the early World War II years he made 3 movies for RKO, including the patriotic 1943 film, ‘The Navy Comes Through’. His best break came in 1943, when he had a major role in the movie ‘Bataan’, for which he received a Photoplay Award. This, however, was to be his last Hollywood film for a decade.


After receiving his citizenship papers in 1943, Staff Sergeant Arnaz served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps at Birmingham Hospital. Although he had wanted to be a bombardier in the Air Force, an accident in which he tore cartilage in his knee prevented him from fulfilling that dream. After the war ended in 1945, he formed The Desi Arnaz Orchestra and toured the country. All the touring kept him from Lucille for months at a time, and they began a desperate search for a project they could work on together.


In 1950, CBS asked Lucille Ball to take her popular radio program, ‘My Favorite Husband’, to the new medium of television. Her answer was yes, if Desi could play her husband. CBS did not like the idea of the all-American Lucille being married to a Latin band leader on television, so Lucy and Desi decided to take their act on the road, to see if the America public would accept them as a couple. Their vaudeville act attracted crowds and delighted fans across the country. They went back to CBS and pitched their idea again. This time it worked. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz entered into negotiations to star in a new CBS comedy, entitled ‘I Love Lucy’.