Desi Arnaz rose to become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars thanks to I Love Lucy. But he started near the bottom as a broke Cuban refugee living in Miami. The Cuban-born musician, actor, and producer recalled his struggles to adapt to America after rebels forced his family to flee their homeland in 1933.
Arnaz was born in 1917 in Cuba. His father was a wealthy farmer who owned meat and dairy farms and sold commodities like pasta, rice, and fuel. His dad was also mayor of the town and a congressman. Arnaz remembers big parties and “big shots” always coming by their house.
“But in 48 hours, he lost everything,” Arnaz remembers.
In September of 1933, a revolution swept across the country. What started as a military coup grew into a full-blown revolution. Arnaz’s father was thrown in prison for six months along with all of the country’s leaders, he said. Arnaz knew he had to leave the country, but he had no money.
“That’s the time you find out who your friends are,” he said. “Of All those people used to come to the house for dinner and our big parties. My dad was a big shot. None of them big shots. My father’s secretary finally loaned me the money. That’s when you find who your friends are.”
But once the I Love Lucy icon made it to America, he spoke no English. He was a busboy to make money to pay for his school tuition. And would spend his nights going to restaurants looking for anywhere that spoke his native language. He found one, a refuge.
He joked that he returned several years later and toured that area. “I think I saw one place that was English speaking,” he laughed. “It completely (flipped).”
How Did He Meet His Real-Life ‘I Love Lucy’ Wife?
He met Lucille Ball on the set of Too Many Girls. Ball was 28, Arnaz was only 23. They instantly fell in love and were married within a year of meeting.
Her co-stars took bets on how long the relationship would last.
“You could tell the sparks were flying with Lucy,” Eddie Bracken, a co-star on Too Many Girls, told People. “It happened so fast it seemed it wouldn’t last. Everybody on the set made bets about how long it would last.”
It was a rocky marriage. They divorced for a short period of time in 1944, but they reconciled. That reconciliation was the beginning of I Love Lucy. Desi was always on the road, and Lucille Ball wanted to work on something that would keep him close at home. She pitched the idea for I Love Lucy off of the success of her popular radio show “My Favorite Husband.”
No studio was interested in the show idea. So, Lucy went on the road with Desi, and they would perform a Vaudeville routine before the band’s shows. It was a hit. And CBS eventually relented and gave I Love Lucy a chance.