"Loosy! You'f got some 'splainin' to do!"
featuring:"Desi Arnaz & the FBI"
The genius of some can be clouded by the fame of another during an innovator’s lifetime. For a Cuban musician turned early television mogul his genius was overshadowed by the lesser talent, but greater star, in a married entertainment couple.
Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III (forever equated with the happy-go-lucky and sometimes clueless TV husband Ricky Ricardo) was a pioneer in television production. A true Renaissance man, Desi Arnaz was a musician and bandleader on the cutting edge of musical integration, an actor, a business man, producer, director, and founder of a production juggernaut named Desilu Productions. Yet, his genius is often overlooked in favor of the screwball comedy stylings of his iconic wife, the red-headed comedienne, Lucille Ball.
The early Spaniards also discovered a peaceful population of aboriginals living there. These Natives were called the Arawak. Precious little is known about them from their earliest contacts with the first Europeans – within a short time, they had been enslaved to work in the fields to produce sugar cane and a newly discovered plant. The Spanish had a monopoly on the seeds of this new plant, and the world’s demand for its product was closely controlled by them then. It was tobacco, the addictive smoking substance unknown to the Old World before Columbus’ voyages.
The Arawaks died in captivity under abuses from their Spanish overlords. Also, the Spaniards brought diseases with them, such as small pox, for which the hapless Arawak had no natural immunity. Within a few years of discovery, the Arawak were gone. To fill their slave labor needs, the Spanish started trafficking in humans, bringing the first black Africans to Cuba early in their occupation of the Caribbean.
The only thing left as a reminder that the Arawak Indians had ever existed was the name of their lush island home: Cuba
Cuba’s politics were volatile, but so was the political climate in almost all Caribbean island nations in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. Its island neighbor to the east (formerly known as Hispaniola) holding both Haiti and the Dominican Republic lived in a near-constant state of revolution and flux.
Cuba became the nearest place for political asylum for people fleeing their native islands. For many, like the family of Dominican national/patriotic poet Salomé Ureña, political asylum in Cuba in the late 19th Century meant life. Her father had been president of the country, but in a coup, the government was overthrown. Rather than face a death squad, they fled to safety in Cuba.
Cubans before Castro (and the upsets of the early 20th Century) had as much chance to survive and thrive as did any Westerner. Many families became quite wealthy from sugar plantations, as distillers, and as tobacco growers and exporters. Cuba is the birth place of Cuban cigars, believed by aficionados to be the best in the world because of the climate in which the tobacco is grown. The commercial potential of Cuba’s agricultural bounty was realized by many landowners and agribusiness concerns.
The de Acha family wealth meant the young couple lived in comfort. Alberto de Acha’s money from Bacardi’s global success allowed him to own a palatial home, three ranches, and a vacation mansion on a private island in Santiago Bay, Cuba.
Into this world of Cuban gentry was born Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III on March 2, 1917. Although his full surname, “Arnaz y de Acha”, honored both his mother and his father, he later used a truncated version, Desi Arnaz, as his moniker. The boy reaped the benefits of privilege without becoming a spoiled child. He went to Colegio Delores, a Jesuit Preparatory School in Santiago de Cuba.
The good times for the Desiderio Arnaz family came to an abrupt end, however. Cuba’s political landscape seemed to change monthly, and in 1933 the government helmed by President Gerardo Machado was ousted. He had been in office since 1925, and although he instituted many public works programs and strove toward economic improvements, the country by then was embroiled in labor strikes and an economic depression. A general strike hit; combined with widespread unrest, economic distress, and rioting, a revolt was launched. This revolutionary group included many students and literati. Machado fled the country; a provisional president was installed by the rebels but was himself almost immediately overthrown by a military revolt. In turn, a military junta was established by the coup’s leader, Ramón Grau San Martín. In early 1934 this government was toppled as well.
Alberto de Acha, as a moneyed member of the bourgeoisie, was jailed by the new leftist government. All of his property was confiscated. He spent six months in jail before the United States, intervening on his behalf, secured his release.
During the summer of 1934, the 17-year-old Desi was packed off to another Catholic prep school near Tampa, Florida, to help him improve his English language skills. As the dispossessed Arnaz clan came to America with none of their former wealth, they all pitched in and did what work they could find: cleaning bird cages (!) and selling tiles.
Desi Arnaz had Cuba’s manically rhythmic music in his blood. He also could play guitar and congas, and as a means of earning money he fell in with a group called The Siboney Sextet, playing Cuban standards as well as other pop tunes. Looking toward the big time, the 18-year-old moved to New York City and got a steady “internship” as a vocalist for Xavier Cugat’s big band in 1935. Desi’s pay for working with Cugat was less than what he was making with The Siboney Sextet, but he felt it worthwhile to work with a pro. [Cugat, Desi’s senior by 17 years, was a Spaniard who spent his formative years in Havana (1905-1915) before coming to New York City. He was a notorious tightwad, and he squeezed Desi for every minute’s worth of what he paid him.] Desi stayed with Cugat’s band for six months, learning the ropes.
He wanted his own group, and to get that, he made a deal with Cugat in 1938. Desi offered a billing spot in his new band’s name and a cut of his earnings for Cugat’s stingily granted materiel support. This group, with the extremely unwieldy name of “Desi Arnaz and his Xavier Cugat Orchestra, direct from the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City”, was almost a complete disaster.
Cugat’s contribution was to send Desi a bunch of Italian and Jewish musicians from New York. None was familiar with Latin music, and they also had no percussion instruments (Desi’s conga drum was the only percussion at the outset). Desi improvised some homemade percussion – one of his “inventions” was a frying pan nailed to a board. When struck, this gave a sound like a cowbell. He then had to teach these players conga rhythms and rumba beats. Desi returned to Miami with his new musical group of Jewish-Italian “Latinos”. They finally got the act down well enough to début in a Miami club called (appropriately) The Conga Club.
He was a hit. He took the conga to the masses; the masses embraced Desi Arnaz.
One of the other actresses in this film played a character called “Consuela”. This woman (born in Jamestown, New York, in 1911) was Lucille Désirée Ball. She was a natural redhead who hennaed her locks for a brassier look. Desi walked away from that picture with a woman six years his senior. [This seniority was downplayed by Ball all her life – in fact, when the I Love Lucy show was cast, she insisted that actress Vivian Vance (neighbor Ethyl Mertz – only two years older than she) be dressed dowdier and married to the obviously older William Frawley (truly old enough to be Vivian’s father) to make Lucy seem even younger. In reality, Desi Arnaz was the baby of the set.]
In that era, a Cuban marrying a “white” woman was almost anathema – such a relationship would have been perceived by most ignorant Americans as “interracial” (this prejudice would rear its ugly head in later years). Despite expected societal problems they married on November 30, 1940.
This power couple settled in to their married lives. Desi went on to work his music, creating an even bolder Latin-based sound in the mid 1940s that gave him hits with “Babalu” and “Cuban Pete”. [The song featured in the Jim Carrey movie The Mask, but it has an interesting back story. Written in 1936, it is one of only a few rumba songs originating in England. The songwriter was named Norman Henderson, but for this Latin “Race” record he used the Hispanic-sounding “Jose Norman” as the author’s name].
Desi did a few grade-B movies, and then appeared in an excellent 1943 war movie, Bataan. For this film he was the recipient of Photoplay Magazine’s “Best Performance of the Month”. Ironically, after making the war movie, Desi got his draft notice to report for active duty. He racked one of his knees before reporting, but he was assigned anyway to limited service in the USO (entertainment/morale division).
He directed programs at a military hospital in the San Fernando Valley, and he came up with a brilliant publicity gimmick. He noted that one of the first things an injured soldier requested upon intake was, oddly, a glass of cold milk. Desi saw this as an opportunity to make them feel a bit better by arranging for movie starlets to come and be the “milk servers” for these combatants. Desi’s hitch in the Army lasted two years; he ended with a rank of Staff Sergeant in the US Army Medical Corp.
He formed another orchestra. He honed his nightclub emcee skills, and began bantering with his audiences, strolling table-to-table while singing “Cuban Cabby” (complete with imitation “hoof beats” supplied by his band). His showmanship was extraordinary. In his own words in 1945, talking to his agent, he said, “I know exactly the kind of orchestra I want…when a band… in New York plays Latin music…the sound is…tinny.” He went on to complain that another bandleader’s work was lush but “it has no balls”. In the end he wanted the best of both worlds – a big, bold sound that didn’t grate, could get people dancing, but could also be toned down for romance.
Radio was king then, and Lucille Ball had her own radio show called My Favorite Husband (featuring another actor as the hapless husband in the comedy). Desi, meanwhile, was in demand for his arranging skills, and he got a prime gig with Bob Hope’s radio show as musical director from 1946-1947 (and Desi introduced his female vocalist, Jane Harvey, to Bob Hope who then took her on tour with him). [Jane Harvey (who sang with Benny Goodman’s band before joining Desi’s) reported Desi was driven but always willing to help others get a break, even if there was nothing in it for him. It was probably from his financial struggles with Cugat this altruistic bent developed.]
Life was good for Desi Arnaz.
Then, in 1946, he played a show that would put him on the FBI’s radar for the next few decades.
Desi Arnaz saw something different in the medium, though. While most people thought of television as transient, Desi pioneered the idea that it didn’t have to be. In 1950, CBS pitched an idea to Lucille Ball about converting her popular radio show to a television version. She agreed on one condition – her TV husband had to be played by her real-life husband, Desi.
Executives seemed to believe America was not ready for a Latino man on television (unless he played a stereotype). Desi, to prove a point, took Lucy on the road, working up a vaudeville act they presented in every conceivably objectionable place imaginable. The audiences loved the rapport between the two; they liked the gentle ribbing Desi took from Lucy about his accent, and CBS execs had been convinced the show could work as a “mixed” couple comedy. Before starting out on this trip, as a sound business move, Desi created a production company called “Desilu Productions” to finance and expense the show.
The original concept was for both the husband and wife to be in show business and successful. However, that idea was change to that of a struggling cabaret bandleader and his wife on the rise to success (mirroring Desi’s closer-to-home reality).
It worked up the struggles as Desi’s character, Ricky Ricardo, found eventual fame as a band leader, owning the club he formerly worked in, and the fictional couple moved off to affluent Westport, Connecticut toward the series’ close. It was the first program to present a very pregnant woman on-camera (Lucy Arnaz was born in 1951; Desi Arnaz, Jr. in 1953). For this touchy subject, Desi consulted clergy from various religions; all advised there would be nothing wrong in showing a pregnant Lucy or in saying “pregnant” on TV. CBS relented on showing a pregnant Lucy but insisted on changing the word “pregnant” to “expecting” (which Ricky Ricardo pronounced as ’spectin’).
I Love Lucy was a runaway hit. Like The Addams Family over a decade later, CBS’ competitors madly scrambled for a similarly styled show with a focus on a screwball hausfrau who was big on physical comedy and slapstick. There were many imitators; the best of the lot was probably the show radio comedienne Joan Davis did from 1952-1955. This program, following Lucy’s style almost to the letter, was I Married Joan, and featured future Gilligan’s Island actor, Jim Backus (who went on to play the quirky millionaire, Thurston Howell III)
However, I Love Lucy’s truly groundbreaking work happened off-camera and was the result of Desi Arnaz’ brilliance and seizing an opportunity overlooked by nearly everyone in television. Almost all televised programs were “live”, meaning they were performed in real-time and broadcast as the action occurred. Some movies were shown on television, but the earliest shows were one-offs – the network may or may not bother to record them as they played (NBC notoriously reused its film from many iconic early programs, taping over them to save money).
Desi Arnaz invented the “rerun” and the concept of syndication (paying for a program to run long after its first-run options had been exhausted). It was a pioneering stroke of genius, and one which paid off in millions of dollars for the TV couple. Desi’ approach was a preservative one: he told the CBS execs he wanted to film every episode. They could not understand why he would do that – he described his intent to rerun the shows at a later time – CBS didn’t believe anyone would ever want to see a show again, so their problem wasn’t with the filming.
CBS’ “problem” with Desi’s concept – which was alien to television at the time – was a double-pronged innovation. First, for filming the show, he (and the show's sponsor, tobacco giant Phillip Morris) insisted on having a studio audience present, physically sitting in seats and laughing and clapping as prompted or when appropriate. This seemed insane then, but he stuck to his guns. It was felt only “live” broadcasts could benefit from an audience – Desi’s very valid point was that in such an environment he and Lucy could get immediate feedback on which gags and jokes worked or fell flat. Since they were filming, it allowed them to modify or upgrade their material on the fly, producing a tighter sense of comedic timing. He was told it would be impossible to allow an audience onto a sound stage, but he helped design a set that accommodated an audience, allowed filming, and adhered to fire and safety codes.
The other innovation for which Desi Arnaz can be credited he borrowed from German expressionist filmmakers. Desi had cut his chops in film, and he was a natural at understanding scene staging and camera placement. For I Love Lucy Desi wanted a multi-camera set-up to film simultaneously different scenes from different viewpoints as needed. CBS balked at this; they felt four cameras were overkill. They were making a sitcom, not “high art”. Desi stuck to his guns – his vision would not be denied. CBS gave him the four cameras in exchange for he and Lucy taking a pay cut in salary to offset the costs of the extra equipment and operators. Cannily, and in perhaps one of television’s most lucrative moves, Desi agreed to the pay cut if and only if when the show ended he was allowed to keep all the film masters. CBS, not terribly prescient, agreed – who would want to see this old sitcom once it was off the air?
The program’s original pilot (never aired, but seen on archival documentaries) roughly followed the format of the couple living in the New York brownstone. It was clear they had no money left for extravagances – the set was plainly and cheaply constructed (a gauze cloth backdrop can be seen moving in the bedroom stage set). However, it was good enough to get them the deal. A real pilot (more lavishly produced) aired and the show went on until 1957.
Meanwhile Desi and Lucy were the hottest properties in Hollywood. They made a classic screwball comedy in 1954 called The Long, Long Trailer (about a couple on the road with a large Airstream). That same year, Desilu outgrew its space and another studio property was purchased. Their production company over the next decade created, financed, and produced some of television’s best known programs (I Love Lucy, The Jack Benny Show, The Andy Griffith Show, and Star Trek, to name but a few). By the end of the decade Desilu was the biggest studio in Hollywood. Although they had successfully made The Long, Long Trailer under Desilu’s banner, in 1956, the pair made another big-screen movie called Forever, Darling. It was a box-office flop, leading to the decision to limit projects to television (although Desilu would have another big-screen hit in 1968 with Yours, Mine and Ours, starring Lucy and Henry Fonda).
The FBI’s first director and its current one while Desi Arnaz was active in entertainment was J. Edgar Hoover. This man, a paranoiac, believed Communists were everywhere in the US, literally hanging around in school yards trying to indoctrinate American children into the ways of Communism.
Paradoxically, he flatly denied and refused to believe there was any such thing as organized crime in America, however. No matter how much evidence was presented he turned a blind eye to it – such an organization could not exist when he was in control of the best law enforcement agency in the world. Unfortunately, for J. Edgar Hoover and America the reverse was the truth – Communism was not a threat at all, but organized crime has done more damage to the country economically than any perceived “Communist” could have ever hoped.
About 1950, a ridiculously overzealous US Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, got it in his head that the US State Department had not only been infiltrated by Communists, but they were subversively spreading their Red influence throughout not only other branches of government but were deeply invested in undermining US society as well. This sparked a hunt for Communists behind every post, under every bed, on every school board. The era of McCarthyism started, and the rabid dog response was immediate and ruinous not just for the country but for individuals as well. None were hit harder than the denizens of Hollywood.
Accusations of being a Communist tainted many celebrities’ careers. The most tangential connection to anything remotely considered “Communist” was enough to have an actor or playwright blackballed. The same method used in the Salem Witch Trials held sway in the McCarthy Hearings in the early 1950’s – just as any suspected “witch” in Salem could help himself or herself by pointing out other witches, so, too, and any suspected Communist could help himself or herself by pointing out other Communists. When directed to do this, many Hollywood talents flatly, and rightfully, refused to implicate others. Those people, not Communists themselves but uncooperative, were “blackballed” – out of fear, the Hollywood élite turned its back on such celebrities and that person might never work again in his or her preferred capacity (whether as actor, screen writer, etc.). [Future President Ronald Reagan, good all-American that he was, sang like a canary and implicated dozens as card-carrying Communists – none were proven to be afterward, but Reagan’s cooperation allowed him to continue working in television.]
In 1953, a certain Cuban band leader and television actor was brought to the attention of J. Edgar Hoover. It seems that in 1946 this Cuban musician had played a show in California that had been sponsored by the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences, & Professions (HICCASP). Desi Arnaz played his spot and moved on to better things without a thought. During the Communist Witch Hunt of the early 1950s, however, the group that sponsored the 1946 show was reported as a “known” Communist organization (in the same way that McCarthy “knew” there were communists in the State Department – he just knew, that’s all).
Desi Arnaz’ origins as a Cuban in a time of political flux in that country did not help divert suspicion from him and the FBI opened an investigation of him and his activities. The net result is several volumes of heavily censored and absurd, poorly maintained files taking the most ludicrously innocent activities and conflating them into a national threat.
Reading through these files is tough simply because entire passages are blocked out. But enough can be gleaned to underscore the terrific waste of taxpayer dollars and agents’ time on such a whimsical exercise thanks to Hoover’s paranoid concerns about Communism. [The same extravagant waste of money and labor went into investigating ex-Beatle John Lennon in later years for “subversion”.]
The routine material on Desi Arnaz is present in his files (of which there are seven volumes): his birth in Cuba, his US Army service record, general biographical information. Senator McCarthy was completely discredited in 1953, censured by the Senate for his overzealous misuse of his office in 1954, and he died of alcoholism at the age of 49 in 1957. Yet, Desi Arnaz, not found to be a Communist nor ever a member of any Communist party, remained on Hoover’s radar.
Desi Arnaz was a red-blooded man’s man. He smoked too many cigarettes (Phillip Morris sponsored I Love Lucy, and although Lucy smoked as well, she didn’t burn through them the way Desi did). He also drank too much, something Lucy railed about on occasion. His drinking got him in trouble on more than one occasion. Desi’s FBI file, for example, dutifully records his arrest on a drunk and disorderly charge in 1959 (a very intoxicated Desi had been found staggering in the streets of Hollywood by two plainclothes police).
After I Love Lucy ran its natural course in 1957, Desi and Lucy worked on other television projects through Desilu Productions. In 1960, CBS realized the huge mistake they’d made in giving Desi the film for the series, and they had to buy the canned episodes back from Desilu to the tune of $4 million. This fattened Desilu’s coffers considerably; the company forged ahead and developed new television shows.
The same year that Desi Arnaz was arrested for public drunkenness he and Desilu were working on a new show. It was based on a book written by Prohibition-Era gang-buster Eliot Ness, and it was called The Untouchables. It was filmed in a noir-ish style, heavy on the action. This show sparked major controversy from the start because of its violence.
Almost from the outset the show was attacked by critics both professional and Joe-on-the-street, claiming it was too violent for children (it was too violent for children, but it wasn’t meant for children in the first place). However, to thwart some of the criticisms about the program, Desi Arnaz (either smugly or naïvely) wrote a letter to J. Edgar Hoover on Desilu letterhead asking the Director to endorse his program. He also asked if it would be okay to refer to the show’s two-fisted agents as “FBI men”. With the seriousness of a heart attack, J. Edgar Hoover personally responded to Desi that the FBI would not endorse his or any other televised entertainment, and no, he could not call his shows’ characters FB men. He rightfully and drily pointed out that neither Eliot Ness nor the rest of his “Untouchables” were FBI agents - they were attached to the Bureau of Prohibition.
Having received this response from Hoover, Desi Arnaz then (at some point probably suspecting he was a target) spent the next several years off-and-on in effect making Hoover his errand boy.
Later, Desi sent Hoover a list of job applicants for Desilu Productions to check out for him. In 1962, Desi was developing a new show called Junior All Stars, hosted by Don Drysdale. It was a baseball program oriented toward athleticism in children. He wrote to Hoover asking him to endorse the show. Hoover replied he would not.
There is a hilarious scenario played out (still instigated by Hoover’s belief that Desi just had to be a Communist) in one of the files. In 1966, Desi Arnaz was approached by a man he only knew casually (the man’s named is blacked out in the file) for a job. By this time Fidel Castro had taken over Cuba, and the country was isolated from all contact with the US. Many Cuban nationals had fled, and although living in the United States they thought of themselves as the Cuban government in exile. There was a group of these people calling themselves The International Free Cuban Relief Fund for Cuban Government in Exile Association. This man wanted a job heading up that group – he approached Desi Arnaz because of Desi’s “connections” with J. Edgar Hoover.
Desi asked this man to send him a résumé. The man did. On it, he had listed “J. Edgar Hoover” as a personal reference (making light of the conversation he and Desi had recently). Desi dutifully (and probably spitefully and merrily) sent this document to Hoover and asked him how well he knew this applicant. Hoover responded by saying he’d never heard of that particular person, and he dispatched agents to the man’s house in Florida. This person was horrified at the fuss, explained it as a joke, and was castigated by the FBI.
Desi spent much time irritating the famous Director of the FBI with his picayune requests for employee background checks and silly endorsement requests. By that time it is almost certain Desi knew of the FBI’s interest in him and he was having fun at Hoover’s expense.
In perhaps one of the great ironies of the time, Desi Arnaz was an extremely, almost jealously, patriotic American. He was the exemplar of the immigrant rags-to-riches story, and he wrote in his memoirs, “I know of no other country in the world [in which] a sixteen-year-old kid, broke and unable to speak the language” could achieve the successes he had managed.
Lucy bought out Desi’s share of Desilu in 1962, and he decided to retire and concentrate on horse breeding at a farm he owned. Desi married again to Edith Mack Hirsch (died 1985) on March 2, 1963. Although he’d scaled back his TV work he occasionally guest-starred on different shows. He also executive produced a sitcom, The Mothers-In-Law (1967-1969).
He and his second wife Edith had moved to Del Mar, California, where they lived quietly. Desi owned a 45-acre horse farm in Corona, California. He spent his retirement time racing Thoroughbreds and breeding horses.
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz had remained on amicable terms over the years. She called him two days before he died on what would have been their 46th wedding anniversary. She closed the call by telling Desi, “All right, honey. I'll talk to you later.”