Desi Arnaz changed television and business history with I Love Lucy : Planet Money The television was invented by Philo Farnsworth in 1927. TV was invented by Desi Arnaz in 1951.
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How Desi Invented Television

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How Desi Invented Television

How Desi Invented Television

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

SONARI GLINTON, HOST:

I live in West Hollywood, just off the Sunset Strip. And one of the funny quirks of living in Hollywood is that people are always, always making outrageous claims that are hard to prove.

ROBERT SMITH, HOST:

It is so amazing to have you back on the show, Sonari Glinton. Bravo.

GLINTON: It's good to be back. Well, Robert, when I was looking for my current apartment a few years ago, every apartment that I looked at, the real estate agent would say something like, well, comes with parking, there's air conditioning. Oh, and by the way, Frank Sinatra lived here, or Marilyn Monroe lived there. Charlie Chaplin built the building. The claim, though, that sold me on my apartment was that Desi Arnaz designed and built my apartment building.

SMITH: Desi Arnaz. For those of you not up on the great sitcoms of the 1950s, Desi Arnaz created and starred in "I Love Lucy." He played Lucille Ball's husband, Ricky Ricardo.

GLINTON: And to be honest, I never thought a lot about Desi Arnaz. But moving into his building, I started to hear all kinds of stories. And, you know, to give you an example, a few years ago, I found myself at a classic Hollywood hip-hop barbershop. And we're all arguing about who the biggest mogul was. Names like Jay-Z and Dr. Dre were floated. And then this Cuban brother schools the entire barbershop. He goes, Dr. Dre makes headphones. I'll tell you what. Desi Arnaz invented television.

SMITH: Which is amazing - invented television.

GLINTON: I'm sitting there, thinking like, this is a really bold claim, which you can easily Google, which I did on the spot. And, of course, it says that Philo Farnsworth is the inventor of television. Now then the dude doubles down. He didn't care about my Philo Farnsworth. Desi Arnaz invented television, he said, and Hollywood, for that matter. The way people make money, the sitcom, "Mission: Impossible" movies, "Star Trek" conventions - we would have none of it without Desi and Lucy.

SMITH: When you first told me this story, Sonari, I was not buying it. "I Love Lucy" - sure, it was an amazing show. It is still hilarious to this day. Even my young daughters know the scene where Lucy is working at a chocolate factory on an assembly line, packing the chocolates, and it keeps getting faster and faster, and she's shoving them in her mouth and into the box.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "I LOVE LUCY")

LUCILLE BALL: (As Lucy Ricardo) Here she comes.

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: And Desi Arnaz was a master. Like, he played this Cuban bandleader, which he was in real life, and he would fight with his wife, Lucy, just like in real life.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "I LOVE LUCY")

DESI ARNAZ: (As Ricky Ricardo) And don't you make fun of my English.

BALL: (As Lucy Ricardo) That's English?

(LAUGHTER)

ARNAZ: (As Ricky Ricardo, speaking Spanish).

BALL: (As Lucy Ricardo) How dare you say that to me?

(LAUGHTER)

ARNAZ: (As Ricky Ricardo) What did I say?

BALL: (As Lucy Ricardo) I don't know. But how dare you?

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: See, it's still funny. But how do you argue that that changed everything?

GLINTON: Well, I know. But, Robert, I'm here to tell you and PLANET MONEY listeners that that comedy has changed things. I have done the research, read their biographies, called the experts. And that random dude in my barbershop, he was 100% correct. Desi came up with the business formula that took television from amateurville to the money-making machine that it still is today. So your Oprahs, Shonda Rhimes, Ellen, Tyler Perry - they're living in a world Lucy and Desi created.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE DESILU STUDIO ORCHESTRA'S "I LOVE LUCY THEME (INSTRUMENTAL)")

SMITH: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Robert Smith.

GLINTON: And I'm Sonari Glinton.

SMITH: Today on the show, the story of Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III, known as Desi Arnaz.

GLINTON: How an immigrant Cuban fleeing a revolution created a revolution of his own. It's called television.

SMITH: Coming up, we have some explaining to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE DESILU STUDIO ORCHESTRA'S "I LOVE LUCY THEME (INSTRUMENTAL)")

SMITH: Desi Arnaz was born in Santiago, Cuba - rich, powerful family. He loved to joke about it on old talk shows. Here he is on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON")

ARNAZ: My father was the mayor of my hometown. My uncle was the chief of police. We had that town pretty (unintelligible).

(LAUGHTER)

ARNAZ: And my great-grandfather was appointed mayor of my hometown by Queen Isabella. (Unintelligible).

JOHNNY CARSON: He sure is.

GLINTON: That always makes me laugh. But there was a revolution - not the Castro one, the one before that - and the Arnazes fled to Miami. Miami in the '30s is growing hugely. And a young Desi tries his hand at theater and music and movies. Eventually, he becomes a popular bandleader as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHORT, "DESI ARNAZ AND HIS ORCHESTRA")

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: This is the preview of a new band, and we're confident that in a very short time, you'll be hearing a lot more about Desi Arnaz and his orchestra.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: Not just hearing about them - dancing to them. Desi Arnaz started the craze of the Conga line. (Vocalizing Conga music).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GLINTON: And, Robert, this is a scene from the movie called "Too Many Girls" - in the ad for it, it literally goes, too many girls - filmed on the RKO sound lot in 1940. And in this scene, a young, gorgeous Desi Arnaz is leading a line of dancers to the Conga beat. Now, Robert, I do not want to overestimate how crazy nuts this scene is. It looks like - I don't know. Imagine a half-time Super Bowl dance number with Congas, fire jugglers, trapeze artists.

SMITH: It is stunning. There's no such thing as too many Conga lines.

GLINTON: Now, this is just the movie version. In Arnaz's memoir, he talks about how he would be playing a gig and how a Conga line would break out and go through eight or nine different clubs in South Beach with a line stretching for blocks and blocks.

SMITH: The movie "Too Many Girls" is notable for another fact. It costarred this up-and-coming redheaded comedian, Lucille Ball.

GLINTON: Desi, by the way, didn't get the girl in the picture. He's just the eye candy. Lucy ends up with somebody else. But on the set of the movie, the two of them hooked up, fell in love and would eventually marry.

SMITH: They set their sights on a way to spend more time together. That's what two people in love did. They wanted to do, and this was pretty new at the time, a television show.

GLINTON: Now, I want to take a moment to tell you what TV was like before "I Love Lucy." It was pretty close to people being in just a cardboard box with a cutout. They would do little plays, facing one camera. And at the time, most television shows were live and broadcast from New York. So TV was sort of like radio, but with pictures and just as ephemeral.

SMITH: They had this technology called kinescope, which was a way of sort of recording a video screen. And it looked terrible. It looked grainy. And most importantly, it didn't last. They used to record these shows live in New York and then replay them via kinescope three hours later in California. They could barely see it on a tiny TV set. And then it would disappear.

GLINTON: But Desi and Lucy really wanted to capture the magic from the movies they had done. They wanted to make TV shows as good as a Hollywood movie, and they didn't want to move to New York. But first they had to convince the TV executives.

SMITH: This is not going to surprise you, but there were no interracial couples on TV in the 1950s. Lucille Ball had a popular radio show with a white actor playing her husband. And as Desi tells it, the TV execs were like, wait a minute; why not do a TV show with Lucy and that guy?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARNAZ: Well, the husband in the radio show was Richard Denning. Well, he's a tall, blond, blue-eyed vice president of a bank or something (ph). I said, I'll never be able to get away with that part, you know?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

ARNAZ: And they said, who the hell is going to believe this "Babalu" fellow is going to be married to this...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

ARNAZ: ...Typical American girl?

GLINTON: He ain't no "Babalu" fellow, and she certainly is not a typical American girl. So Desi and Lucy decide, hey, let's go out and prove it. So they went on tour across the United States. Remember; Desi is a bandleader. And so at the end of the shows, Lucy would come out and do little skits.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CUBAN PETE")

BALL: (Singing) They call me Sally Sweet. I'm the queen of Delancy Street (ph). When I start to dance, everything goes chick-chicky boom, chick-chicky boom.

ARNAZ: Ay yai, yai, yai, yai (ph).

GLINTON: Now, in this famous scene, Lucy is dressed as a showgirl, and she's singing. So every time she goes, boom chicky boom, she swivels her hips. And every time she does, Desi's hat falls off.

SMITH: I laugh every single time.

GLINTON: And across the country, people love it. The real crazy chemistry between the two of them proves to the television executives and the network sponsors that, yes, they could have a success.

SMITH: And it worked. "I Love Lucy" premiered 70 years ago this fall.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "I LOVE LUCY")

BALL: (As Lucy Ricardo) Ricky hates nightclubs.

VIVIAN VANCE: (As Ethel Mertz) But he works in one. Your life should be just one gay round of nightclubs.

BALL: (As Lucy Ricardo) Yeah, that's what I thought when I married a bandleader. But ever since we said I do, there are so many things we don't.

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: So that is what audiences saw on CBS - knocked their socks off. But the real television innovations were happening behind the scenes.

GLINTON: OK, so the first brilliant idea that Lucy and Desi came up with involved the technology of television. They had learned on tour that comedy, if it's going to be done well, had to be captured live in the moment in front of an audience.

SMITH: Desi says, we want three cameras, which was unheard of at the time. We want three cameras to be rolling to capture all of the reactions and the ad libs and the hat flying off the top of my head, just like they had done on tour.

GLINTON: And those cameras with the three operators, they said, we don't want that grainy kinescope stuff. We want luxurious, beautiful 35 mm film like they use in motion pictures.

SMITH: The three-camera sitcom shot on film is a standard today. Think of it. In the early 1950s, in one big leap, "I Love Lucy" suddenly looked and felt modern.

GLINTON: But it was not cheap. Desi and the studio got into this huge fight over who was going to pay for those three cameras, three cameramen and all that rolling film. Eventually, Desi made an offer. He'll pay for the filming, but he and Lucy will own the film reel, the actual shows themselves.

SMITH: Boom chicky boom - that's the moment.

GLINTON: How often do you get to say this literally was a big deal? Well, television historians call it one of the single biggest deals in the history of entertainment.

SMITH: Desi and Lucy just wanted to make their show look good, but they ended up making this huge innovation because, finally, the artist, the person who made the thing, owned the thing, not some giant studio.

GLINTON: OK, the full implications wouldn't be felt for a while. Desi had no idea what he had started. The film just piled up in the warehouse as episode after episode went out to air.

SMITH: Until - until Lucille Ball, the star of the show, gets pregnant. Desi's the father. And Desi remembers telling the writer of the show at the time...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARNAZ: I said, Lucy is going to have a baby. She says, what are we going to do? I said, what do you mean, what are we going to do? She's going to have a baby. That's what we're going to do.

(LAUGHTER)

ARNAZ: You know, you couldn't even say that we're pregnant in those days.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Right.

ARNAZ: They say (ph) I had to say expecting.

(LAUGHTER)

GLINTON: I got to say, back then, it was much funnier. Fun fact - on the "I Love Lucy" show, the only character allowed to make fun of Ricky's or Desi's accent was Lucy.

SMITH: Desi sees the pregnancy as a business opportunity.

GLINTON: Of course, always looking for an angle, he writes the pregnancy into the show. And they have this scene in Ricky's nightclub where Lucy reveals to him in front of an audience that she is expecting. And I can tell you the emotions you hear are real.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "I LOVE LUCY")

ARNAZ: (As Ricky Ricardo) Honey, no.

BALL: (As Lucy Ricardo) Yes.

ARNAZ: (As Ricky Ricardo) Really?

BALL: (As Lucy Ricardo) Yes.

ARNAZ: (As Ricky Ricardo) Why didn't you tell me?

BALL: (As Lucy Ricardo) Why, you didn't give me a chance.

ARNAZ: (As Ricky Ricardo) Are you kidding? It's me (ph). I'm going to be a father.

GLINTON: The nation goes baby wild. It is the biggest thing to ever happen in television. They even time the episode so it airs - it's prerecorded, of course - on the same day as Lucy's cesarean section. So while the audience is watching Lucy Ricardo have a baby on television, Lucille Ball was having a baby in real life. Seventy percent of televisions were tuned in to this one show. And never failing to see money opportunities, Desi signed licensing deal after licensing deal, so you could outfit your nursery and your home with hundreds of "I Love Lucy" products.

SMITH: But after this huge professional success, "I Love Lucy" had a logistics problem. So Lucy needed time off to, you know, recover after having a baby. And Desi thinks, we have all these filmed episodes sitting around. What if we play a few of those episodes again? What if these episodes run again? What if we rerun the episodes?

GLINTON: Reruns - television history, ding, and business history. And if this alone was Desi's contribution to TV, filmed episodes shot on three cameras and reruns, he would be a legend. But eventually, he sees the bigger picture, the bigger play.

SMITH: If you can rerun one episode, why not rerun an entire year of episodes on another TV channel? Why not rerun TV forever and make money every time those old episodes get dusted off and run again?

GLINTON: It's called syndication.

SMITH: That's why I was watching "I Love Lucy" every day when I got home from school in the 1970s.

GLINTON: And how I could watch "I Love Lucy" in the '80s.

SMITH: And that's why somewhere in the world right now, some kid is getting home from school and watching "I Love Lucy" - maybe on Hulu, sure, but still watching "I Love Lucy." We called up NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans, who was super excited to talk about Desi Arnaz. You would not believe it. And Eric says this is the moment, the syndication moment when TV became a goldmine.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: The genius of owning something is that that's where the money is. You know, Oprah would not be a billionaire if she didn't own "The Oprah Winfrey Show," right? There's a ton of money in owning a show that becomes popular in syndication because that's really where the money gets made. And because Desi and Lucy traded ownership of the show for lowering their salaries, they were essentially betting on themselves. You know, they were able to reap the windfall from that.

SMITH: "I Love Lucy" lasts for six full regular seasons. To call it a hit would be an understatement. At the height of their success, Desi sold the films back to CBS for $4.3 million, which today would be worth $40 million.

GLINTON: That money - that is what allowed them to be moguls. With the proceeds from the sale, Desi bought RKO studios and renamed it Desilu, the movie studio where Lucy had been a contract player. Now, if you go down a list of classic TV shows, they were either produced by Desilu or filmed on one of their mini soundstages.

SMITH: Listen to this list - "The Danny Thomas Show," "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "The Andy Griffith Show," "Gomer Pyle," "My Three Sons." And more important was the franchises that they launched. Desilu did "The Untouchables," "Mission: Impossible" and "Star Trek."

GLINTON: Set phasers to cash. Robert, the thing that drew me into this story is, well, Desi did all of this as a Cuban man, a Latino man in Hollywood. Not only was he one of the first artist moguls, but let's not understate how racist things were for Desi Arnaz. In addition to being Hollywood pioneers, Lucy and Desi helped create modern-day Palm Springs, or the Coachella Valley. This is the kind of dude that Desi Arnaz was. When he wasn't allowed in resorts that restricted Jews and Latinos, Desi Arnaz built his own resort, the Indian Wells Resort Hotel, which stands today.

SMITH: Desi rarely talked about this discrimination in public, but it clearly pissed Lucy off. Years later, Lucille Ball would talk to Barbara Walters about her life and her marriage to Desi.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BALL: They would not believe that he was doing the building and he was doing this successful building of a very well-run empire. I was doing the acting and having the children. I was - I had no part of it. I took that on much later. But I knew what he had suffered, really, and how he did not deserve that. And just because he was Cuban and once a bongo player did not warrant calling him any of those names. And he worked very hard and got a lot of respect for what he did, and they forgot about that.

SMITH: When they should've been thanking Desi Arnaz. Think about this. Up until Desi, TV creators were employees, working at the TV factory, churning out episode after episode that was never aired again. Desi showed Hollywood that you could own your own work, make your own creative and technical decisions, make money forever. NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans says it was a revolution.

DEGGANS: And so that challenged the power of other people - the power of the executive producer, the power of the director, the power of the network executives, the power of, you know, the companies that owned the networks.

SMITH: And the networks and producers would eventually fight back.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABALU")

ARNAZ: (Singing) Babalu. Babalu. Babalu aye. Babalu aye.

GLINTON: And it wouldn't be a true Hollywood story if it didn't end in boozing and breakups. The end of Desi Arnaz and the new Hollywood order - that's after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABALU")

ARNAZ: (Singing) Pa ponerle en cruz (ph).

SMITH: By the 1970s, Desi Arnaz was more of a businessman than an actor. The show "I Love Lucy" was over. Lucille Ball went on to star in two very successful follow-up series. And Desi enjoyed the fruits of his labor, being a mogul.

GLINTON: But the strains started to show in their marriage. To quote Lucille Ball, the problem with Desi Arnaz was, "too many girls," too many cocktails, too many lost bets at the track.

SMITH: Lucy would talk later about how Desi was everywhere, but he wasn't there for her, how they had a dozen houses but no homes. The pressure of being the first and only drove a wedge between the two. Eventually, Desi sued Lucy for divorce.

GLINTON: I am struck that Desi and Lucy did all of this stuff, all of this work, they transformed Hollywood so that they could be together, and that's the one thing that they didn't manage to do. Now, by all accounts, Desi and Lucy eventually became friends. Lucy got remarried almost immediately and started another show initially produced by - guess who, Robert.

SMITH: Desi Arnaz?

GLINTON: Exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BALL: (As character) Turn it off. Turn off the water, man. Turn it off. We're leaking.

SMITH: After "I Love Lucy," everyone wanted to film things, everyone wanted the rights to syndication deals, everyone wanted to imitate Desi and Lucy. Lucy eventually took over Desilu, becoming the first female studio head. And there, she was responsible for starting "Star Trek" and "Mission: Impossible."

GLINTON: There was, though, one big question I had about the legacy of Desi Arnaz. Now, in my barbershop I was telling you about, the man who put me on to the Desi story, he told us that Desi was so successful. He joked that after Desi made all that money, Hollywood outlawed Cubans, which got a laugh. But in many ways, he was right. After Desi, there was a distinct lack of Latino or Hispanic executives and actors in Hollywood.

SMITH: Which we figured out firsthand when we were doing this episode. We wanted to talk to Cuban Americans producing or writing or directing sitcoms now.

GLINTON: And we could only find one, Gloria Calderon Kellett. She's a comedian and producer. She was the story editor and coproducer of "How I Met Your Mother" and "Rules Of Engagement." She wrote and directed, also, "One Day At A Time" for Netflix.

SMITH: She, like basically all Americans of a certain age, grew up watching "I Love Lucy."

GLINTON: Could you describe the moment that you realized or when you connected Cubanness with the birth of TV?

GLORIA CALDERON KELLETT: Of course, right? Like, of course. Of course, we invented television, right? Like, so when I heard it, there was a part of my Cuban brain that was like, well, that makes perfect sense.

SMITH: Gloria's parents had fled a different Cuban revolution than Desi did, the Castro revolution in 1962. And she believes "I Love Lucy" is not just partially responsible for her being in television, but in part, it's responsible for the fact that her family was accepted so readily into American life.

CALDERON KELLETT: And so 10 years later, when it's like, hey, these Cuban children need asylum, America's like, oh, my God, Ricky Ricardos. Awesome. Those guys are the best. Yeah. Oh, yes. Have them come in. Churches rally, people came together. Strangers are who were - who - the kindness of strangers is what we benefited from I think because Desi Arnaz was on TV. So there is very much a chance that I would not be sitting here talking to you right now had Desi Arnaz not been on a TV screen in 1952.

GLINTON: Gloria worked her way up under the mentorship of another television great, Norman Lear. But she was struck that "One Day At A Time," her revamp of the '80s Norman Lear classic, was the first time a Cuban American family had been depicted on mainstream TV since "I Love Lucy." For all that Desi did, though, and for all the ways in which he was imitated, television didn't take the lesson that a Latino immigrant could star in and produce his own television show.

CALDERON KELLETT: Oh, my gosh. Could you imagine if they had looked at it that way? We should do more stories about immigrants. Oh, my gosh. That would've been groundbreaking in the '50s. We could've had an Asian man on television not being a wild stereotype. I can't even imagine what would've happened had they actually taken what Desi and Lucy had done and thought about it in that way.

GLINTON: Desi Arnaz would eventually leave Hollywood and remarry - ironically, another redhead. He died in 1986.

SMITH: But to this day, you can turn on any sitcom and see what he invented. Pick any of them. Pick "Friends." You know, people love "Friends." The three cameras, the audience, the pristine images caught on film - all Desi. The ability of the creators and the performers to ask for millions of dollars an episode - that's Desi. And the fact that my daughters watched "Friends" over and over and over again - thank you, Desi Arnaz.

GLINTON: And you can name some people who might be modern-day Desis, who are masters of the art and business of Hollywood. I always think of Oprah or Tyler Perry or even Jay-Z in the music world. But Eric Deggans, NPR's TV critic, says they don't come close.

DEGGANS: A sign of the genius of Desi Arnaz is that it is very hard to find somebody in the modern age who has done everything he's done. There are performers and producers and creators who own - who have replicated pieces of it. But I can't think of anybody who's done it all the way he did it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LOVE LUCY")

ARNAZ: (Singing) I Love Lucy, and she loves me. We're as happy as two can be. We have our quarrels, but then, oh, how we love making up again. Lucy kisses like no one can. She's my missus, and I'm her man. And life is heaven, you see, 'cause I love Lucy, yes, I love Lucy, and Lucy loves me.

GLINTON: Desi taught us to put business first, so if you want to support PLANET MONEY, check out the T-shirts and tote bags at the NPR shop, shop.npr.org/planetmoney.

SMITH: We always love to hear from you about your favorite innovations. And if you finally finished listening to "The Great Gatsby," let us know - planetmoney@npr.org.

GLINTON: We're also on all the socials - Twitter, Insta, Facebook and TikTok - @PlanetMoney. And you can also find me on Twitter, @Sonari.

SMITH: Today's show was produced by James Sneed with help from Gilly Moon, fact-checked by Dan Girma. Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer. Bryant Urstadt is our editor. I'm Robert Smith.

GLINTON: I'm Sonari Glinton. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LOVE LUCY")

ARNAZ: (Singing) Lucy kisses like no one can. She's my missus, and I'm her man. And life is heaven, you see, 'cause I love Lucy, yes, I love Lucy, and Lucy loves me.

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