Saturday, June 14, 2014

On Ricky Ricardo

I said this on the local PBS TV station in New York City.  I said it on the PBS TV station in Sacramento.  I've written it in previous blog posts.  Desi Arnaz was one terrific and groundbreaking sitcom dad I Love Lucy.  Don't focus on the details of Ricky Ricardo constantly falling for Lucy's schemes and pranks.  Don't get caught up in how Cuban Ricky could sometimes mangle the English language.  Look at the big picture of this revolutionary 1950s show co-starring Desi Arnaz's real-life wife, Lucille Ball.

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.
The theme music to sitcoms such as Leave It To BeaverThe Donna Reed Show and My Three Sons was sweet, peppy and -- let's face it -- very Caucasian.  The I Love Lucy theme had that unmistakably lively Cuban flavor.  In my neighborhood, we could all dance to that.  The Ricardo home had a definite   ethnic vibe.
The Ricardos had an interracial marriage in a fun bi-lingual household.  I grew up around families like that.  Ricky Ricardo was a hardworking, disciplined nightclub entertainer and a loyal friend.  He was a devoted father and very loving husband.  His son, "Little Ricky," had respect for older people -- like his Aunt Ethel and Uncle Fred Mertz, the best friends to Lucy and Ricky.  That was exactly the way I was raised.  Arnaz gave us an upscale image of a working class Latino family man that made me, as a minority, proud.  We needed images like that as television matured.  Arnaz knew what he was doing too.  If you can ever find his autobiography, A Book, read it.  One of the best, most honest and wisest celebrity autobiographies I've ever read.  What he wrote in his memoirs about being a TV actor and a producer is still relevant today.

Keep in mind that Desilu Productions gave us The Untouchables, Star Trek and Mission: Impossible, TV shows that were adapted into big screen movies decades later that did extremely well at the box office.  Back to my youth one more time -- my parents and I loved watching Star Trek and Mission: Impossible because those TV shows had upscale images of black people.  Nichelle Nichols as Uhura on Star Trek and Greg Morris as electronics whiz Barney on Mission: Impossible made us proud.

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.

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