In 1933, Batista’s Cuban Revolution forced Desi Arnaz and his dad to flee to Miami, where the penniless 16-year-old arrived without the ability to speak, read, or understand English. He cleaned canary cages, laid tile, and struggled to save money by sleeping in a warehouse.
At St. Patrick Catholic School, Desi learned English, practiced guitar, and picked up the conga drum and after graduation played gigs at the Roney Plaza Hotel. In 1937 he was booked to open the 200-seat Park Avenue nightclub where it was quickly apparent Desi’s pick-up musicians couldn’t play the Latin rhythms Arnaz had promised. Afraid of being fired on his first night, Arnaz recalled a hypnotic rhythm played at Cuban parties and quickly taught the musicians to play a cadence of ‘One-two-three-KICK!’ Beating his conga drum in time, Desi shouted to the audience to follow him out of the Park Avenue and around Collins Park. The mania that followed what he called his ‘Dance of Desperation’ launched Arnaz into stardom and started ‘The Conga Craze’ in America.
What followed were roles on Broadway, motion pictures, the formation of his own orchestra, the production and ownership of ‘I Love Lucy’, the creation of modern television, and his purchase of RKO Studios. And it all started right here in Miami Beach.
About the Speaker
Gary McKechnie is a member of the Florida Humanities Speakers Bureau, with presentations including this talk as well as ‘Sunshine State Soundtrack’ (a round-up of famous Florida-born musicians). McKechnie is a former stand-up comedian improv actor, and author of the nation’s best-selling motorcycle guidebook, Great American Motorcycle Tours, and a two-time National Geographic author (USA 101 and Ten Best of Everything: National Parks).
McKechnie has written for Walt Disney World, Fodor’s travel guides, Rand McNally, AOL, People, National Geographic Traveler, the Washington Post, Harley-Davidson, Orlando magazine, Florida magazine, Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Constitution, Orlando Sentinel, Miami Herald, and United Airlines’ Hemispheres.
Additionally, he is a two-time winner of the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award, a member of the Society of America Travel Writers, and covered back road destinations throughout the state as Visit Florida’s ‘Off the Beaten Path’ Insider. In 2014 he was selected by the Motorcycle Industry Council to appear as on-camera talent and chronicle the Cannon Ball Centennial Ride, a 3,450-mile cross-country motorcycle expedition.
Together with his wife, Nancy Howell, he owned and operated Mount Dora’s Coconut Cottage Inn from 2000-2018 and also teamed up to write ‘A Brief History of Mount Dora’ for the History Press. At sea, he lectures on American travel, culture, and music aboard the Queen Mary 2, Queen Victoria, Queen Elizabeth, and the ships of Seabourn and Silversea. As a community activist, he initiated the drive to renovate the Mount Dora Community Building and created a 501(c)3 non-profit Mount Dora Community Building Foundation to aid in its operation. He also formed the non-profit Mabel Norris Reese Tribute Fund, Inc. which was successful in crowd-sourcing the funds to create a monument to the courageous editor of the Mount Dora Topic who faced repeated death threats for her defense of civil rights during the 1950s.
In 2018 he ran as the Democratic candidate for Florida State Senate, District 12. Most recently, he initiated the successful drive to honor Desi Arnaz with a Florida Historic Marker which is scheduled to be unveiled in Spring 2024.