La Fiesta Club in San Francisco
During the early 1940’s, when I was just beginning to perform, I had a booking at a Latin American night club in San Francisco, La Fiesta, a popular dinner dance restaurant during World War II. It featured floor shows with a Spanish and Mexican flavor including Afro-Cuban dance and song and other ethnic varieties of performances. With an exotic flavor and a semi-authentic element, the show was appealing to the public at the time. La Fiesta could very well have been regarded as a “joint” or “dive” but it was an attractive venue which brought in an enthusiastic clientele.
The contract came about from my extended engagement at Grace Hayes Lodge the preceding year and as it happened, several opportunities developed because I appeared there. It proved to be a showcase. A dancer named Carlos Valadez, who did a sort of Afro-Cuban number with a bowl of fire balanced on his head, was the star attraction and with his spectacular physique and smoldering looks he was a very sensual performer. He was promoted by Sergio Orta, a Cuban dancer- choreographer who made some very sexy dances for a line of chorus girls. The dances ranged from Cuban, Panamanian, to Mexican and something in between serving to show off the charms of these young women with beautiful figures, legs and faces and bosoms. The costuming was revealing to say the least and enticing to the audience. The dressing rooms were adequate and just off the stage area. The women of the chorus dressed in their scanty attire and I suppose it did not occur to any of them that this was immodest. On one occasion, Billie, a lovely blond happened to be discovered stark naked in the dressing room when the male dancer came inside at the wrong moment and she snatched a flower from the dressing table, stuck it in a strategic place and did an elaborate bump to much hilarity of the others. Actually, I was in another dressing at the time and did not witness this scene. It was related to me by one of the dancers.
There was one singer from Mexico, Consuelo Melendez. She added a more serious tone to the show with her fine voice in authentic Mexican songs. Into this mix I was presented doing my Spanish dances appearing if from another world entirely.
I shared a room at a hotel with a young Mexican-American girl, who was quite beautiful of face and figure. She claimed to be 18 years, but in thinking back about this experience I think she was about two years older. She was a nice person, very sophisticated but unfortunately she drank too much. She had asked to room with me and I found her otherwise very compatible. The rest of the line of dancers was a diverse group wise in the ways of the world, but enormously friendly and fun to know. In later years I kept in touch with my roommate. She admired my dancing and remained a friend. True to her particular background in the Hollywood environment (her father had been a film actor), she eventually married a wealthy man and had a daughter with him. Her story parallels one which I also witnessed several years later in New York. Sadly, I recently found out on the Web that she died at age 51.
Truly they could be termed “loose women” who were not adverse to offer their favors to the men who frequented the Fiesta Club. Among this group were two Cuban sisters, who were as eager as any of them to attract men. I took it all in with a bit of amusement as they seemed so casual about it. This bawdy narrative was a direct opposite to some of the serious work I was involved in all through the early period of my career. it afforded me an interesting background in view of my desire to perform as a Spanish dancer. The contrast between the sublime and the ridiculous added color and variation and I do not regret it.
We spent several weeks rehearsing for the show and everyone respected my work and realized I was “different” from the general run of performers. I think they were all curious about me as I did not conduct myself as anything but a performing artist and my private life was mysterious to them.
I went out with a gentleman by the name of Frank de Bellis, an American of Italian or Sicilian background. He squired me numerous times. I enjoyed his company especially as he treated me with the utmost respect. I regarded him as “too old” for a swain but I doubt now that he was much older than late “30’s or 40’s. Aside from my meetings with De Bellis, the rest of the girls and I were invited out to places such as the Press Club in San Francisco and it lent a rather glamorous aspect to the experience.
Above all, I was received well by the public. My work stood out. As it happened, I did derive two contracts during the time, the most important of which was the introduction to Edward Perkins who became interested in my dancing. What evidently caught his enthusiasm above all was my rendition of a flamenco style dance in trousers. I seemed to have a sparkle in this number which excited him. He contacted me in Los Angeles later on and this resulted in a sort of collaboration with him over a period of five years. These were the concert tours I experienced all along the California coast and throughout the southwest.
Even though some of my friends and family told me I was being “exploited” by Perkins, he undoubtedly “put me on the map” publicity wise and gave a certain polish to my reputation as an artist.
The other contact I made was a modest one, an engagement with Ramon Ros, a Latin- American dancer/ choreographer who arranged the Las Vegas gig done in late 1942. It was there I danced for the first time on a table and this as I have written before created a ripple which continues to this day.
The show at the La Fiesta lasted three months and I was pleased I had made many fans in the process.