I shared a memory on Facebook, and the post quickly hit 500+ likes and requests for more details.
I was working for Norman Lear’s Tandem Productions when I earned my Directors Guild union card (DGA). About the same time, John Maxwell Anderson, producer of Mary Hartman Mary Hartman, Diff’rent Strokes, and The Jeffersons, introduced me to Donald Havens.
Working on the marketing program to bring Sanford & Son to TV syndication, I was looking for a vendor to duplicate audio promos and radio spots promoting the series. Don had just opened an audio production company.
Don was smart and hungry for business, and no studio could touch his low rates—I hired him. He was also cute. A few months later, we became life partners. A few years later, we also became business partners, and Havens Audio Services became Signature Productions, Inc. Our new firm expanded into print and video production.
Out of the blue, we received a call from a record producer named Bill Lazarus. He said, “I’m working on a new project. You guys were recommended, and I’d like to talk to you about it.” He was a little vague; I asked for more details. He said, “All I can tell you on the phone is you’ll be working with Desi Arnaz.”
We met with Lazarus the next day.
Don and I—and our assistant Peter Witt—signed non-disclosure and non-compete agreements. Our contract arrived a few days later, and I took Don to Musso & Frank to celebrate. We were about to produce the marketing campaign for a record album, Musical Moments From I Love Lucy. And we had Desi’s home phone number—and Desi had ours.
The project, preproduction.
I wrote the TV and radio spots and created the storyboards, and was the primary production contact for Desi. On videotape day, I would direct him.
Don—a former producer at CBS TV—created our master schedule and ran the above- and below-the-line budget. He also worked with Lazarus on the overall album concept.
Peter proofread copy sheets and the other documents we couriered to Lazarus and Desi daily. (Our Xerox machine nearly burst into flames tracking revisions and rewrites.)
We’d hired a black-tie car service to drive Desi from his home in Del Mar to Los Angeles, be on call to shuttle him around town, and return him home a few days later. Stage time and a top-tier crew were booked at Trans-American Video (TAV Celebrity Theater)—owned by Merv Griffin—and we secured Merv’s personal dressing room for Desi to use. A teleprompter service was put on standby, and a corner suite at L’Ermitage in Beverly Hills was prepped for our star’s arrival.
Friday, midmorning, we were on pins and needles waiting for the phone to ring. When it did, the three of us jumped a little. The limo driver said, “I have Mr. Arnaz, and we’re en route. Hotel ETA is noon.”
An extraordinary weekend had just begun.
Peter headed to L’Ermitage for a final quality check of the suite and to greet Desi. Don and I went over the inventory of items we’d take to the final read-through and pre-production meeting after dinner that evening.
All the work we could do had been done—and we knew it was good work—so, after Peter returned, the three of us went to a movie. And then to dinner.
An evening with a legend.
Desi opened the door of his suite, grinned, and said, “AMIGOS!”
We gathered around a table near the windows and got to work. He’d ordered some very nice wine for the three of us; he sipped coffee.
Peter noted comments and changes on the script; Don pulled out our storyboard and a stopwatch and checked timing, and I worked with Desi on the script. We went through the copy shot by shot several times, and his reads, of course, were spot on, but he was consistently long. I asked him how he thought we could fix the timing issue. He bristled, looked me directly in the eyes, and said, “Never tell me to speak faster, my friend.” I suspected he was both challenging me as a director and pulling rank—I was feeling the pressure when his room phone rang. It was a reminder call from the front desk.
“We’re gonna take a break, amigos. Do you remember when my son was on Saturday Night Live? It’s on again—let’s watch it.” In less than ten seconds, his mood had changed from testy, cool, and challenging to charming, proud, and kind. (I took note of that.)
We all sat on Desi’s bed—he brought us bottles of sparkling water, turned on the TV, and was telling us about his son when the announcer said, “Stay tuned to NBC…after these brief messages, it’s Saturday Night Live.”
Although we knew it, Desi hadn’t mentioned that he’d hosted that episode of SNL, and Desi Jr was the musical guest. (I took note of that, too.)
By listening, I’d learned a lot about who Desi Arnaz was.
“You can turn that prompter off. I don’t need it,” he said firmly. (We’d just taken our places on the stage, and that was Desi’s first comment. A few minutes earlier, he’d been joking with the makeup artist in his dressing room.)
I took a deep breath, got everyone settled, and said, “…and…ACTION.”
Desi looked great, the initial takes were solid—sincere, warm, friendly, engaging—but, as they were the night before—long. I felt my scrotum shrink to the size of a raisin as I called, “take ten, everyone,” walked toward Desi and said, “You approved the scripts last night. Let’s talk about…”
He didn’t let me finish the sentence; his eyes were challenging as he said, “I told you never, never tell me… talk faster.”
I suggested he grab his cigar and take a walk down the hall with me.
Back on the stage, Desi was flawless. If a segment had been written for 10 seconds, Desi gave a perfect 9.5-second read.
I called it a day. “That’s a wrap! Thanks, everyone. Thanks. Great work, Desi!”
I told him we’d see him in his dressing room, and I headed for the control room to thank Danny White and the rest of the tech crew.
The door to his dressing room was open, and he was joking with the makeup gal who was wiping his face, “Don’t take off too much. I looked pretty good today…”
We walked in. Desi grinned and said, “Amigos! I’m taking you to dinner tonight.”
Fin del dia.
And what a grand, celebratory dinner it was! Desi suggested what we have for each course, and he’d preordered wine for the table.
Late that night—after the plates and empty wine glasses had been removed, the white tablecloth dusted off, and we were all mellow and winding down—Desi reached into an inner pocket of his jacket and produced four very special cigars—one for each of us—and said, pointing his cigar toward me, “You’re going be one hell of a director.”
Four snifters of brandy arrived. Desi winked at me and said, “It was a good day. I’m giving myself a treat.” It was the first and only drink he’d had since he arrived in town. I smoked my cigar as he smoked his—Don and Peter didn’t smoke and kept theirs as souvenirs. And yes, even though there had been one hard bump in the road that morning, it had been a very good day.
I can’t tell you what happened in the hall that morning. I told Desi the conversation would always remain between him and me—as it has for the past 40-some years. I can share that there was more than a bit of cursing involved.