It was not until the very end of his phenomenal one-man show They Call Me Cuban Pete: The Music and Genius of Desi Arnaz that dynamic actor/singer Danny Bolero shared why he was inspired to create a musical tribute to the man who was born Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III on March 2, 1917. Bolero revealed that as a child, the multi-hyphenate star (musician-actor-producer-entrepreneur) was “the only Latin I had to aspire to”. It goes without say that, like Bolero, many of the attendees at New York City’s Don’t Tell Mama that night were also fans of I Love Lucy since childhood. After all, who wasn’t? We remember the comedy as well as Desi Arnaz’ musical numbers. Indeed, Bolero brought much of the I Love Lucy lore as well as the music from the show to the stage that night. Performed live, the singer’s passionate vocals and the talents of the four-person band breathed new life into songs like the upbeat In Santiago, Chile (‘Tain’t Chilly At All) and the mirthful Straw Hat Song. These crowd-pleasers were just to be begging to be heard again. That said, framing Desi Arnaz’ life through I Love Lucy alone would be just scratching the surface. Bolero lovingly shines the spotlight on a star who was far, far more than just Ricky Ricardo; in fact, it is a good 40 minutes into They Call Me Cuban Pete before America’s favorite redhead even comes into the picture. But more about Lucy later…
They Call Me Cuban Pete opens with Bolero in the persona of Arnaz in, shall we say, the “evening” of his life. Now elderly and frail, he proclaims, “When I close my eyes, I can still hear the music!” Before Bolero-as-Arnaz can ask the audience, “What are you all doing in my dream?”, the music progresses from a few haunting, sparse notes to the lively, robust, and fiery soundtrack of Arnaz’ home country. Bolero’s drab trench coat was soon shed to reveal Arnaz’ signature white tuxedo as he broke into the frenetic El Cubanchero. Like Bolero’s Arnaz, the audience was also transported back into time, thanks to the transcendent power of music. And what music it was! Desi Arnaz’ appeal was largely based on the performer’s ability to balance (1) the authenticity of Cuban music with (2) appealing to the so-called “mainstream” American tastes of the time. But of course, audiences both in the ’40’s and 50’s, as well as in 2022, loved the novelty songs like the delightful She Could Shake The Maracas from the Broadway musical Too Many Girls. Who could resist lyrics like:
“And I’ll tell to you the story,
Of Pepito and Pepita;
She could shake the maracas,
He could play the guitar!”
In between the music, the audience was moved by the true rags-to-riches tale of a young survivor and showbiz outsider who taught himself guitar, sang for fellow Cuban musician Xavier Cugat (“Cugi”) for $25 a week, and would be credited with introducing the Conga to the United States. Bolero tells these stories with a generous dose of humor and with Arnaz’ trademark “bravado” throughout. (“I figured out that I was 40% Cuban and 60% ham!”)
Too Many Girls would eventually be made into a film, and it was during the making of that film that one of the most famous love stories in history would be born. Enter… Lucille Ball! The universal feeling of love at first sight (Although it was technically at SECOND sight) could not be expressed with more feverish romanticism than with Bolero-as-Arnaz’ delivery of, appropriately enough, The Lady in Red. In a bit of delicious musical “meta”, Bolero even segues into Chris de Burgh’s scorching Lady in Red from 1986. We all know what happened next between Ball and Arnaz, but it wasn’t without the notorious challenges which seem even more absurd when looked at through a 2022 lens: Because of prejudice against Latin-Americans at the time, studio executives did not believe that audiences would accept Desi and Lucy as husband and wife, even though they were already married for 10 years. Fast forward, and in addition to giving audiences six seasons of laughter, I Love Lucy made TV history: The audience learned that Arnaz, among other achievements, revolutionized the way the American sitcom was produced and fought for residuals for actors.
For millions of people worldwide, Desi Arnaz was first and foremost an entertainer: They Call Me Cuban Pete: The Music and Genius of Desi Arnaz is indeed fiercely entertaining from start to finish. But in addition, the audience at Don’t Tell Mama on Monday, June 20th also learned that Desi Arnaz was a true pioneer of American pop culture history: a talented performer who at first tried to fit into Hollywood’s very rigid idea about what a celebrity should be. Instead, he did it “his way”– and in the process, he fully realized the traditional (and increasingly elusive) American dream. In 2022, his story is still an inspiration.
With both his impressive vocal talents and his personal charisma, Danny Bolero is a superb performer. At times, Bolero’s resemblance to Desi Arnaz is truly astonishing. It’s not only the actor’s physical appearance and voice. Bolero also channels Arnaz’ mannerisms, body language, and unique style of eye contact with the audience; intentionally or not, the actor has expertly mastered Arnaz’ captivating gaze. His joy in performing, matched by the energy of his band, was reciprocated by the audience’s enthusiasm. The crowd was clapping their hands and singing along for Quizás, quizás, quizás (Trivia: Arnaz was the first artist to record the song in English, as Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.) and for Bolero’s lush rendition of the eternal fave Cuban Cabby. It was a truly priceless reaction. And yes, there was indeed an encore. I won’t give it away, except to say that it was the perfect cumulation of Danny Bolero’s talent, joy of performing, and affinity for Desi Arnaz’ legacy, both culturally and personally. If the audience was enthusiastic before, they went truly wild for this show’s finale.
They Call Me Cuban Pete: The Music and Genius of Desi Arnaz was Directed by Madeline McCray, with Musical Direction by Drew Wutke. The next and last show of They Call Me Cuban Pete will be Monday, July 11th at Don’t Tell Mama, 343 W 46th St, New York, NY 10036. Visit www.DannyBolero.net for more information!
(Special thanks to Joe Sanchez for additional information.)