March 19 2003 12:00 AM

Special FOR THE RECORD: The Mambo King of Del Mar; Trivial pursuits...


    Although best known for his role as the beloved, thickly accented entertainer Ricky Ricardo on I Love Lucy ("Luuuuucccyyy!"), it's easy to forget that longtime Del Mar resident Desi Arnaz really was a world famous Cuban bandleader. And he really did have a hit record called "Babalu."

    Arnaz was born in Santiago, Cuba on March 12, 1917, and eventually took up music in 1935, singing with his mentors in The Xavier Cugat Orchestra. By 1939, his suave style led him to Broadway where he starred in the Rodgers and Hammerstein production of Too Many Girls.

    When TMG was made into a film, Arnaz reprised his role and was on his way to Hollywood when he made a career pit stop on a radio show with his new bride, Lucille Ball.

    Throughout this time he continued to record music, now as a highly acclaimed leader of his own orchestra. Arnaz racked up numerous hits from 1946 to 1949 for the Victor label, including "Babalu" and "Cuban Pete."

    Not long after marrying Ball, Arnaz became a fixture at the Del Mar Racetrack, and soon bought a home for the couple nearby. Even after the two split and Arnaz remarried, he and his new wife, Edith, stayed in Del Mar. North County natives still speak with reverence of the star-studded parties at the Arnaz home, and vignettes abound of customers casually bumping into Lucille Ball and Arnaz at local grocery stores or gas stations.

    San Diego also served as a geographical catalyst for I Love Lucy. It was at a 1951 La Jolla Playhouse production of The Voices of a Turtle that the pair discovered Vivienne Vance, who would go on to TV immortality as Ethel Mertz, Lucy's best friend.

    There's even an episode of The Lucy-Desi Show (a spinoff of I Love Lucy) that takes place in San Diego. Episode No. 6 (airdate Oct. 6, 1958) is titled "Lucy Goes to Mexico," and the show's plot sees Ricky heading to San Diego to rehearse for a USO performance on an aircraft carrier with Maurice "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" Chevalier. Lucy and Ethel decide to go shopping in Tijuana with Fred as a chaperone. Needless to say, much confusion ensues, and Lucy ends up dressed as a matador fighting a bull at a local bullring. And let's not forget the pair's wonderful 1954 film, The Long, Long Trailer, part of which was shot at the Anza Borrego State Park-at the infamous Banner grade, specifically.

    Even in terms of television, Desi Arnaz was much more than the frustrated-yet-loving spouse of an accident-prone housewife. With Ball he founded Desilu Productions, responsible for such hit programs as The Untouchables, The Dick Van Dyke Show and Star Trek. He also hosted his own series called Desi Arnaz Theatre and was appointed Ambassador to Latin America by then-president Richard Nixon.

    On a local level, he served as professor of TV production at San Diego State University where his son, Desi Arnaz Jr., of the '60s group Dino, Desi & Billy (remember the 1965 Top 20 hit "I'm A Fool"?) met his wife, a member of the San Diego Ballet.

    Arnaz Sr. passed away from lung cancer at his Del Mar home on Dec. 12, 1986. It's safe to say that Arnaz introduced Latin music to mainstream America, and opened many whitewashed minds to interracial couples. For both, America owes him a great deal of gratitude.

    There are many compilations of his wonderful tunes: 2000's Cocktail Hour and 1996's Desi Arnaz: The Mambo King are recommended. The next time you catch an episode of the classic, black and white sitcom, remember how much the Latin mambo king loved Del Mar. It'll make a great show even better.


    Viewers who tuned in to watch local crooner Frankie Laine perform his smash ballad "I Believe" on The Ed Sullivan Show on Dec. 13, 1953 were treated to a different sort of cameo. For dramatic effect, the singer emerged onstage pulled by a horse and buggy and dressed in a preacher's habit. Laine stood in the buggy and began to perform the song to a rapt audience. About a verse in, the horse proceeded to let Laine know how it felt about his religious grandstanding by relieving itself live on national television. Naturally, the audience went wild and the show's other performers were in hysterics. To his credit, Laine kept his cool, finishing the song as if nothing had happened and rode the suddenly lighter equine off stage.


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