The story of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball and the success of their sitcom is now a big part of our broadcast TV history. At a time when some Hollywood actors were snobs about working on TV, Desi and Lucy got their project on CBS and become bigger stars on the small screen in the 1950s than they were individually on the big screen in the 1940s. I Love Lucy was their idea, their production, their gamble. And their gamble hit the jackpot. They became Hollywood's top TV stars and, with their Desilu Productions, a Hollywood power couple.
When we viewers spent time with The Ricardos in their New York City apartment, they opened a window and let air the fresh air of diversity. It's been noted that network executives were nervous about the show because they saw Lucy & Ricky's longtime union as an interracial marriage. Well, that's what Lucy & Desi's marriage was. He wasn't an Anglo leading man. He was an ethnic leading man. Desi went to Hollywood after being a cast member in a hit Broadway musical comedy. Baby, Desi could spank those drums! He was the hot conga player in a band and his popularity got him a featured spot in a hit Broadway musical comedy called Too Many Girls. He met Lucy when we went to Hollywood to do the film version. She got the female lead role -- and she got him. He assembled his own full-Latin orchestra in the mid 1940s. You can find Desi Arnaz music on CDs.
In my boyhood, I came home from gradeschool and loved to park myself in front of that big box called a TV set for two things -- cartoons and reruns of I Love Lucy on KTTV/Channel 11. I grew up on a cul-de-sac block in South Central Los Angeles. On that block, our family's friends and neighbors were black, Mexican, Filipino and white. There were two homes with interracial marriages. People were young, middle-aged and older. I loved growing up on that block. I know the I Love Lucy plots were mostly wacky, but I Love Lucy connected to me and not just because it had me doubled over with laughter. As I got older, I came to see and appreciate the cultural diversity of that show -- and the brilliance of actor/executive producer Desi Arnaz.
There was a time when I Love Lucy was airing just about every hour of the day somewhere in the world. That's changed. My two nephews, both in the middle school age category, watch reruns of Friends everyday the way I watched reruns of I Love Lucy when I was their age. The irony? There was more racial diversity in the 1950s sitcom cast of regulars than there was in the 1990s sitcom. And both sitcoms were set in New York City.
Desi Arnaz came to America a poor young man from Cuba. His family fled political oppression in Cuba. He encountered prejudice in his new country. But look what he did. He became a Broadway performer, and a film actor. He was a musician. He formed a band. He became a major TV star, a groundbreaking TV producer and a brilliant businessman. That's quite an American story. What makes your jaw drop in disbelief is the fact that Lucy, Vivian Vance and William Frawley -- the actors who played Lucy Ricardo, Ethel Mertz and Fred Mertz -- all got Emmy nominations. Lucy and Vivian won Emmys. Desi was never ever nominated for an Emmy. NEVER. Nor did he ever receive a Lifetime Achievement Emmy for giving us I Love Lucy, which made TV history, and for being the executive producer of Desilu Productions, a company that gave a green light to successful TV shows that made a definite mark on our pop culture. I am stunned at that Emmy oversight.
Desi Arnaz deserved an Emmy nomination, a Lifetime Achievement Emmy Award -- and a Kennedy Center Honor. Don't you agree? Lucy got a Kennedy Center Honor but he didn't. The word "icon" is tossed around much too much nowadays. But I feel it truly applies to Desi Arnaz. Look at his story and the cultural riches he brought to American television. And he's still one of my favorite sitcom dads. Happy Father's Day.