What Desi Wrought

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Oscar Hammerstein I, the great theatrical impresario of the turn of the century, once famously said that “there is no limit to the number of people who will stay away from a bad play.” Hammerstein, who had his share of flops, knew what he was talking about, and his dictum remains every bit as true today.

Of course in Hammerstein’s time the opposite—that there are strict limits on the number of people who can come to a good play—was equally true. Only about eighteen hundred people can fit into even the largest Broadway theater, so a sellout show has to run well over a year before a million people can see it.

Today technology has changed that completely. A hit movie can be seen simultaneously in thousands of theaters, several times a day. Titanic has been out only about a year, but something on the order of half the human race has seen it already.

Television is even more of a mass medium. When Cinderella , the only television musical written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II (grandson of the impresario), had its one performance, on March 31, 1957, 107 million Americans watched it. That’s more people than had seen all the theatrical productions of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first musical, Oklahoma! , throughout the world since the original had opened on Broadway fourteen years earlier to the day.

Television’s unparalleled power to reach a mass audience is the reason that Titanic was not the biggest entertainment moneymaker of 1998. Titanic ’s worldwide box office is well over a billion dollars, and that, to be sure, is a long way from hay. But it’s easily trumped by the $1.7 billion that was paid for the syndication rights to “Seinfeld” in 1998, especially when you consider that a movie’s take at the box office is gross and the sale of television syndication rights is pure bottom-line profit.

Syndication is simply the sale of rights to broadcast old episodes of a television show. This is big business. Anyone with a couch and a clicker can, in the course of an evening, channel-surf through the whole history of television sitcoms, from “The Honeymooners” to “Bewitched” to “M.A.S.H.” to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” to “The Golden Girls” to “Cheers” to “Laverne and Shirley” to “Cosby” to “Seinfeld.”

One of the nicer aspects of syndication is that the major creative artists involved in the original production, not just the “suits” who finance it, are cut in on the action. Jerry Seinfeld, who was the co-creator as well as the star of his eponymous sitcom, will bank an altogether tidy $250 million from the sale of its syndication rights.

The reason for this is not any excess gratitude on the part of the suits, I assure you. Rather it is that the very idea of syndication was dreamed up by a very savvy businessman who happened to be the husband of—and straight man for—a very funny woman named Lucille Ball. Desi Arnaz’s gifts as a performer helped mightily to make “I Love Lucy” the first great television sitcom, but it was his gifts as a businessman that made the Arnaz family seriously rich.

Desi Arnaz was born in 1917 into Cuba’s small and vastly privileged upper class. When Desi was a teenager, a revolution against the utterly corrupt regime of President Gerardo Machado forced his family to flee to Miami, leaving their wealth behind. Desi got a job with a canary dealer that paid fifteen dollars a week.

That was not bad money for a teenager in the middle of the Depression. But when he was offered a job with a Latin dance band, at a seemingly princely thirty-nine dollars a week, he jumped at it. His family had wanted him to become a lawyer, and he had never even thought of a career in show business, but Desi Arnaz had stumbled upon his destiny.

Xavier Cugat, then the king of Latin music in this country, caught Arnaz’s act one night and hired him, but for only twenty-five dollars a week. Arnaz took the job despite the salary cut and soon proved so popular that Cugat raised him to thirty-five dollars. Before long Arnaz decided he could do better on his own and told Cugat he intended to return to Miami and form his own band. Cugat offered to let him bill his new act as “Desi Arnaz and his Xavier Cugat Orchestra.”

Arnaz said he’d pay a royalty for the use of Cugat’s name, and Cugat asked how much. “The same as you paid me when I started, twenty-five dollars a week,” Arnaz—already a businessman—told him. “And like you told me then, if we do good, we’ll renegotiate.”

The opening, with scratch musicians, two of whom were not even Latin, was a disaster. But the next night, desperate for a Latin beat his orchestra could play, he came up with the conga, then unknown in the United States. It was a sensation. Before long Desi Arnaz was the headliner at a New York nightclub called La Conga. It was there that he was spotted by Richard Rodgers and his partner Lorenz Hart and offered a part in their new musical, Too Many Girls . When Too Many Girls was made into a movie, he was offered the same part in the film. One of the other principals in the film was Lucille Ball.