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Many people know Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo in I Love Lucy, where he starred opposite his then-wife, Lucille Ball. But who was Arnaz before he got to Hollywood? According to his daughter, Lucie Arnaz, he had a very different life back in Cuba, and his journey to get to Hollywood came with many twists and turns.

Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo in the I LOVE LUCY episode, "Lucy Becomes a Sculptress."
Desi Arnaz | CBS via Getty Images

Desi Arnaz’s life in Cuba

In an interview with the Television Academy Foundation, Lucie Arnaz spoke about her father’s childhood and upbringing in Santiago de Cuba.

“My dad was born in Santiago, Cuba in 1917,” she began. “And his father was the mayor of the town. His uncle was the chief of police. His mother’s family were the early founders of the Bacardi Rum Company. So he’d say, ‘They had that town pretty well wrapped up.'”

But everything changed when the Batista revolution occurred.

“The Batista revolution came in and overthrew the Machado administration, which his father was in,” she said. “They lost everything. They lost their homes, their livestock was killed, their pets were slaughtered, they crushed and burned the piano and all the family photos.”

As a result, young Desi and his family were forced to go into hiding or move away.

“My grandmother, his mother, hid with relatives,” said Lucie. “And my dad and his father escaped, with nothing, to Miami, where they had to start over again basically from scratch. And he lived in Miami in a warehouse with Grandpa. And he killed rats with a bat, he said. It was rough. And he cleaned canary cages there for a while for a living.”

After cleaning canary cages for a time, Desi’s father told him he should go try and make some money as a musician.

“Eventually, Grandpa said, ‘OK, OK, OK, I know you play the guitar… I wanted you to be a doctor, lawyer, somebody who could fend for himself, but I guess you’re going to have to go get a job as a musician.’ So Dad got a musician’s job in a local band.”

Desi Arnaz’s big break

That’s when things started looking up. After Desi joined a local band, he was discovered by Xavier Cugat.

“They flew him to New York, and then he left Cugat and got a small band of his own down in Miami and actually introduced the conga dance to the United States out of desperation one night,” said Lucie. “That really was his ticket. He became quite famous for that and playing the conga drum and doing this conga dance, the conga line.”

By the time Desi got back to New York, there was a club named after the dance he’d introduced.

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz | Archive Photos/Getty Images

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“They named a club, La Conga, after him. And he was playing at La Conga in New York when Rodgers and Hart discovered him, and George Abbott asked him to be in a Broadway show called Too Many Girls, which ended up being the story of his life I think later on,” Lucie said with a laugh. “And it opened at the Imperial Theatre in New York in 1939.”

After the Broadway rendition of Too Many Girls, the show went to Hollywood to be made into a film. That’s where Desi met Lucille Ball.

“It was in Hollywood where he met my mother who was cast to play the ingenue in the movie,” said Lucie.

And the rest, as they say, is history.