Bandleader Desi Arnaz gave up his seat on a charter bus to Akron. In doing so, he may have saved his life, maintained his career and preserved his place in television history.
The Cuban-born musician, billed as “Hollywood’s Tall, Dark and Torrid Troubadour,” booked a four-night engagement in July 1947 at the Palace Theater on South Main Street in downtown Akron, and reserved rooms at the elegant Mayflower Hotel for his 16-piece Latin orchestra.
Arnaz, 30, was the suave showman behind such popular songs as Babalu, Cuban Pete, Carnival in Rio, Tabu and Tico Tico, and had recently begun a national tour after completing a 39-week run on Bob Hope’s NBC radio program.
“Babalu Babalu Babalu aye!” he wailed from city to city while pounding a conga drum. “Babalu aye! Babalu!”
Arnaz was equally famous for being married to Hollywood actress Lucille Ball, 35, a glamorous redhead who toured the country on her own that summer in Elmer Rice’s play Dream Girl. Normally, she tried to appear at Arnaz’s club openings, but conflicting schedules often kept the two apart.
Desi Arnaz and His Orchestra performed on Sunday, July 6, in Milwaukee and Monday, July 7, in Madison, Wis., before hitting the road Tuesday for Akron concerts July 10-13.
At the last minute, Arnaz and his brother-in-law, Fred Ball, the band manager, decided to fly to Detroit to see Lucy’s play while the rest of the orchestra traveled to Akron. Musicians on the crowded bus were all too happy to move up to the vacated front-row seats.
Disaster struck overnight as the Checkerway Charter Coach Co. bus hurtled at 85 mph eastward on U.S. 20 near Rolling Prairie, Ind. Oncoming headlights flashed ominously in the dark. As musicians dozed off behind him, driver James O’Brien fell asleep at the wheel.
A westbound truck driver tried to swerve out of the way but couldn’t avoid the out-of-control bus. With a sickening crunch, Arnaz’s band mates were tossed around like dolls.
The charter bus skidded to a stop; the impact had mangled the exit. Panic spread among the dazed riders as the vehicle caught fire on the dark roadside. No one could get out!
The quick-thinking trucker, whose name wasn’t reported, grabbed an ax from his cab, chopped a hole in the bus and helped the occupants escape. Nearly everyone inside was hurt — some seriously.
Among those hospitalized in La Porte and Michigan City, Ind., were saxophonist Jack Baker, drummer and maraca player Ralph Angel Felices, trombonist Jose Garza Gutierrez, saxophonist Roger Haller, violinist Charles E. Harris, trumpeter Bobby Jones, saxophonist Joe Miller, trombonist Jack Frederick Pickering and pianist Marco Rizo. Vocalists Carole Richards and Dulcina escaped serious injury.
When Arnaz learned of the horrifying crash, he immediately left Detroit to visit his orchestra in the hospital.
“My brother Freddy was their band manager, and both he and Desi narrowly missed being killed, because they had decided to charter a plane to catch me in Dream Girl in Detroit that day,” Lucille Ball wrote in her memoir.
“Fate was certainly looking out for them, because only six men of the sixteen-piece orchestra were unhurt. The two who took over Desi’s and Freddy’s regular seats up front were hurt the worst.”
Violinist Harris lost an eye in the crash, broke several bones and was partially paralyzed, forcing him to retire from the band. If Arnaz had kept his usual seat, his career might have ended. Ultimately, a federal jury awarded Harris $80,000 in damages against the bus company in 1948.
The entire orchestra sued for $336,000, alleging that the driver was operating at “a dangerous and excessive rate of speed.” Checkerway settled a dozen cases out of court, doling out $500 to $9,500 to the injured musicians.
Following the crash, Arnaz called Palace Theater manager Sid Holland with the grim news. The Akron concerts were in jeopardy.
“I didn’t see how we could put on our show and play our arrangements halfway decently with some of our top guys missing,” Arnaz recalled in his autobiography. “I was just about to give up when I got a call from General Artists Corporation in New York, telling me that Tommy [Dorsey] had heard about the accident and was sending me two Dorsey trombone players, Duke Ellington was sending a couple of his saxophone players and [Xavier] Cugat was sending a maraca player.”
Arnaz called the Palace.
The show was a go!
As Ball recalled: “They had a date to keep that night in Akron, Ohio, and a cancellation would have cost them dearly. But news of the accident spread and half a dozen competing bands came to Desi’s rescue.
“They sent a pianist, a whole trumpet section, drummers and maraca players to Akron to replace the injured musicians. Desi never forgot that. ‘Helping the fellow who’s in a tough spot is the best thing about America,’ he always said.”
For a man who hadn’t slept in two days, Arnaz looked as suave as ever when he arrived Thursday in Akron. He still kept his publicity schedule, signing autographs at the second-floor record department at O’Neil’s and fielding questions from teen journalists in the Beacon Journal Hi-Press Club.
“Hurrying may be unusual for you, but it’s an everyday occurrence in the life of a bandleader,” he told the youths.
He offered career advice to entertainers: “Get started in your own hometown and work hard. It takes a lot of work, a lot of luck and a little talent.”
With that, he excused himself. He had to break in his new band with only a few hours to spare before the first concert.
A juggler and acrobatic trio opened the program. When the curtain rose on the headliner, the Akron crowd saw a colorful backdrop with a giant guitar, sombrero and palm trees.
Wearing a three-piece suit and bow tie, Arnaz put on quite a show with his patchwork band, treating the Palace to the rapturous rhythm of rumba.
“Babalu Babalu Babalu aye!” Arnaz wailed while pounding a conga drum. “Babalu aye! Babalu!”
Beacon Journal critic Betty French gave the performance a rave review: “The Desi Arnaz band is a little shaken from the bus wreck Tuesday … but you wouldn’t know it from the vigor it puts in its show on the Palace stage.
“Desi himself, who wasn’t in the wreck, would make up for the lack of energy in the others, if that were necessary.”
French noted that the “energetic peak” of the show was the finale, “when Desi plays the drums and his wonderful version of Bobbaloo.”
Bobbaloo? Yes, that’s how she spelled it. Aye!
Desi Arnaz survived that disastrous week with gusto. Akron gave him a lift when he needed it most.
In four years, he and his wife catapulted to superstars as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo on the TV series I Love Lucy, which premiered in October 1951. Many of the musicians who survived the 1947 crash performed its famous theme song and portrayed themselves in cameos at the Tropicana Club.
“Babalu Babalu Babalu aye!” Ricky Ricardo wailed on TV. “Babalu aye! Babalu!”
Beacon Journal copy editor Mark J. Price is the author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or firstname.lastname@example.org.