Boulder City, Nev. — In an old movie theater, up a creaky staircase, Desi Arnaz Jr. gestures to freshly painted cotton candy walls and a tiny room stuffed with ballerina tutus.
"Kooky, huh?" he says, surveying the mass of costumes.
It's not exactly the makings of a major Hollywood production, but fixing up the old Boulder City theater for his wife's ballet students is what excites him these days.
Fifteen years ago, the son of two of television's most famous stars Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz left Hollywood and found a spiritual awakening in this small Nevada town near Hoover Dam.
He met his wife, Amy, here, and together they bought the theater and settled in for a life Arnaz wasn't sure he would ever have.
"I'm happier now than I've ever been," says the 49-year-old Arnaz, whose graying hair and chocolate eyes still hint at the young man girls swooned over in the 1960s.
He's restless and uptight, wary of questions because, he says, "I don't KNOW you." But he soon relaxes over a Reuben sandwich at the Boulder Dam Cafe, with his wife sitting by his side.
"I'm not a person who wanted to be in it," he says of show business. "I was born in it."
"I Love Lucy," starring Ball and her husband, debuted on Oct. 15, 1951, and ran until 1957. Arnaz's birth by Caesarean section in 1953 happened the same night that Ball's character, Lucy Ricardo, gave birth to Little Ricky on the TV sitcom.
The birth made headlines, and Ball estimated that 1 million people sent gifts and messages of congratulations. "I was a well-planned accident. I've told the story a million times before," Arnaz says with exasperation.
The real son and the fictional one, played by Keith Thibodeaux, became best friends, and Arnaz was often mistaken for the Little Ricky character.
Making sense of life
He acknowledges an unusual childhood growing up with older sister, Lucie, his mother and Cuban-born father. His relationships with his family, he says, were emotional and powerful.
It was strange, he says, to watch Lucy and Ricky Ricardo solve a problem in a half-hour television sitcom, then look over and see Ball and Arnaz as his real-life parents.
"This was all make-believe," he says.
When he was 12, he formed a band with friends Dino Martin, son of singer Dean Martin, and Billy Hinsche, who went on to play with the Beach Boys. Dino, Desi & Billy had a few hits.
Arnaz starred with his sister and mother in "Here's Lucy" from 1968-1971 and also appeared in several feature films and stage productions.
But by 16, he had turned to drugs and alcohol to escape the pressures of growing up with celebrity parents.
"I wanted to know who I was," he says. "No one knew who I was."
That changed at 27, when he met Vernon Howard, a spiritual teacher who wrote books such as "The Mystic Path to Cosmic Power" and "The Power of Your Supermind."
Arnaz embraced Howard's lessons of resisting the temptation of power and finding meaning in life. He became a national spokesman for Howard's nonprofit literary foundation, and credits Howard, who died in 1992, with helping him get sober.
"There's some real reason to understanding life because life doesn't make a whole lot of sense growing up," he says. "You gotta work hard to see what isn't real."
Arnaz first visited Boulder City in 1978 for one of Howard's classes. After a brief marriage to actress Linda Purl and more visits to Boulder City for Howard's lectures, he began dating Amy.
"I liked Desi because he was very interested in the spiritual side of life," his wife says. "He liked my dance studio. He was so down-to-earth, plus I thought he was very handsome."
They were married in 1987, making their home in this quiet town of about 15,500, about 25 miles southeast of Las Vegas. Arnaz who has a 32-year-old daughter from a previous relationship adopted Amy's daughter from her first marriage.
Band and theater
Boulder City, with no gambling and an ordinance that limits the number of residents, turned out to be exactly what Arnaz needed.
In 1998, he re-formed his band, replacing Dino Martin, who was killed in a 1987 plane crash, with his brother, Ricci Martin. Now, Ricci, Desi & Billy have a CD and have performed in Las Vegas and in California.
On a recent night, the band took the stage inside the historic Boulder Theatre that Arnaz and his wife bought in 1999. The sold-out crowd of 390 people cheered and sang along as Arnaz beat the drums and belted out tunes with his buddies.
Weeks later, almost the entire theater had been gutted. New plumbing, electrical wiring and carpeting are being installed. Next year, the 71-year-old theater will get new seats.
Arnaz bounces up the theater's staircase to show the progress. It reminds him of being backstage on his parents' TV show, especially when he works the lights and sound for ballet recitals.
"I get to relive what it was like when I was young, living in Southern California. I'd run around the studio, the catwalk," Arnaz says.
He and his sister are on the board for the Lucy-Desi Museum in Jamestown, N.Y., and they manage Desilu Too, which licenses products and images of their parents, who divorced in 1960. His father died in 1986; his mother in 1989.
He hasn't ruled out acting again, but for now, he's content to make new memories with the theater and his band.
"I feel better now," he says. "I'm not all better. ... But this is the life I chose for myself."