He helped make TV Guide Magazine a hit right out of the box. And we, in turn, helped make his life utterly confusing! On April 3, 1953, a chubby-cheeked newborn named Desiderio Alberto Arnaz IV — eventually known as Desi Arnaz Jr. — graced the cover of our very first issue with a cover line touting him as "Lucy's $50,000,000 Baby." Lucy, of course, was Lucille Ball, the madcap, flame-tressed star of America's most adored sitcom at the time, I Love Lucy, while Dad was Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz — and both of them knew the value of publicity.
Lucy and Desi purposely scheduled little Desi's Cesarean birth for January 19, 1953, because, on that same night, Lucy Ricardo was going to deliver Little Ricky on I Love Lucy. The double baby blast caused a frenzy (a record 68.8 percent of all sets were tuned to CBS for the episode), and it shoved another major news event — the inauguration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower on the following day — out of the public consciousness. Life only got crazier from there.
"Because that cover was so widely seen, everyone thought I played Little Ricky, and that's stuck with me throughout my life," says Arnaz, who now runs the Boulder City Ballet Company in Boulder City, Nevada, with his wife, Amy. "Of course, my parents only added to the misunderstanding by casting a series of infants — there were six in all — who matched the TV Guide photo."
More head-scratching followed when Arnaz became BFFs with Keith Thibodeaux, who played Little Ricky as a tyke. The two were frequently photographed together and would even team on the drums to warm up the I Love Lucy studio audience. Eventually, fiction became fact when Arnaz played Lucy's son on her 1968-74 series, Here's Lucy.
"I wouldn't trade any of it — not even the confusion — because it's all been a blessing," Arnaz says. "How lucky I am that I can turn on the TV any day of the week and see my parents! I Love Lucy seems to be stuck in a weird time warp. The humor and situations are still as fresh as the first time they aired. And the thing that's most wonderful about it — even beyond the laughs — is the love factor. No matter what crazy stunt Lucy pulled or how many times the Ricardos battled with their friends Fred and Ethel Mertz, everyone's jealousy and idiosyncrasies and dumb mistakes were forgiven in the end. There's a reason it was called I Love Lucy. Love was what it was all about."
That held true even when Lucy shocked the nation by filing for divorce in 1960, while the duo was still starring in a series of I Love Lucy spin-off specials on CBS called The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour. "My parents' problems started long before that, but you'd never know it by watching them transform into Lucy and Ricky," Arnaz says. "The show was very healing for them because, in a way, they were playing the best parts of themselves. On screen, they were the perfect team. And, sadly, you couldn't help but wonder, 'Why can't they do that in real life?' because their love for each other was so big, so extraordinary. Even after the divorce, they remained best friends and made the split as easy as possible for me and my sister, Lucie. So even the bad stuff turned out good."
Still, one thing bothers Arnaz when he looks back: that cover line. "A $50 million baby? Really? Not only does that sound like some kind of sci-fi show, I can't imagine anyone thought I was worth that much," he says with a laugh. "It's a lot of money, especially in 1953!"
Were we guilty of overhype? Perhaps, but there's no denying the power of Lucy and Desi back then. Up to that point, no character was allowed to be pregnant on TV — even the word pregnant was banned — so interest in Lucy's groundbreaking mommyhood was huge. It triggered an avalanche of merchandise that included dolls, games, books and nursery sets, as well as Lucy maternity wear and Desi smoking jackets (though, oddly, no cigars). Replicas of the Ricardos' bedroom and living-room furniture also hit stores just as Dad's recording of "There's a Brand New Baby in Our House" was zooming up the charts. We even suggested Little Desi's worth might actually be closer to $100 million.
But that photo on our cover? Priceless. And it came with quite a backstory. In a TV Guide Magazine piece that ran on our 20th anniversary, then-Hollywood bureau chief Dwight Whitney revealed that the coveted pics of baby Desi had instead been promised to those juggernaut publications Life and Look. How did we, the new kid in town, score the coup? The elder Desi took a meeting with a TV Guide Magazine rep, during which he had the photos stacked on his desk. At one point, wrote Whitney, Desi "excused himself to go to the men's room, making it clear that if several pictures were missing when he got back, he would not notice." Yes, it was that simple.
"I was the innocent victim in a massive publicity stunt, and I embrace it," says Arnaz. "I can truthfully say that when I was born, everyone was laughing. And you know what? I sincerely hope that's the way I go out."