In 1941, I was contracted as a featured Spanish dancer in a production of Rio Rita, a Civic Light Operetta produced by Edwin Lester. This was essentially musical theater starring Joe E. Brown the famous star of films and Broadway.
I had been contacted by the Behymer Office through the initial friendship of Mrs. Rosenthal and when I auditioned for Mr. Lester, he immediately signed me for the two weeks engagement, one at the old Philharmonic Auditorium, and the other at the Curran Theater in San Francisco.
I performed two dances in one of the scenes and it was favorably received. I never actually met or spoke with Mr. Brown. But one day during rehearsal I saw him sitting on the sidelines while I rehearsed with the orchestra and he was beaming his famous smile as I danced.
The show also featured a young married couple who were actors and singers. They were Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy. Peter and Mary were absolutely charmed with my work and spoke glowingly of my performance. Peter was a comedian with a very dignified style which was marvelously entertaining and never offensive. Both of them autographed the programs to me with elaborate praise.
The upshot of this experience resulted in a gig at Peter’s mother’s night club named Grace Hayes Lodge. Grace Hayes was a veteran vaudevillian, a seasoned performer and charismatic singer/actress. She also was a tough lady and ruled her establishment with an iron fist. She had to be persuaded to hire me, but finally Peter convinced her and I opened without auditioning that summer. There was only one show. It served as a showcase and that was how it functioned for me. The club was attended nightly by film people, John Barrymore, Cesar Romero, Gene Lockhart, Anthony Quinn, and many others. I seemed to make an impression even though I was somewhat out of my element in an American night spot with a live band of mainly swing musicians who lacked the feeling of Spanish music. However I put it over, due more to my looks and youth, and the still developing talent I possessed.
Peter Lind Hayes was very entertaining in the show and his wife Mary Healy an appealing ballad singer as well as a striking beauty.
Out of this appearance, which continued for many months, I met other performers who later used me in their shows. I was contracted for two short movies during this time by Universal Studios at the request of Reginald LeBorg, an European director and actor who became interested in my dance. This gave me entrance to the Screen Actors Guild which eventually entitled me to work in the two films I did make that were distributed all over the world.
The next comedian I worked with was none other than Jerry Lewis. This came about when I traveled to New York to seek out a more expansive career for myself.
Through the kindness of friends I was introduced in Los Angeles to an agent, Ken Later, for whom I auditioned at the MCA Offices. He was impressed enough to suggest that when I come to New York I contact him and he would try to help me.
When I did go to New York in 1945, I went to see Later and found that he had left MCA and established himself as a prominent agent at William Morris Agency, the most outstanding theatrical Agency in the United States. I never realized at the time how important this organization was and even when Ken suggested I enter into a contract with them to represent me, I remained unimpressed. I regarded them as “just another agent” Over a period of some weeks I showed Later my press book which was already quite full with many cuttings from newspapers. These were reviews and articles out of the tours with Edward Perkins and they carried some weight.
Ken Later booked me into the Havana Madrid and I opened in September of 1945. The headliner of the show was Diosa Costello, who was billed as a Latin bombshell who sang and danced in a very flamboyant style wearing some scanty costumes which showed her very attractive figure and set off her blazing personality. The other performers on the bill were a dance team, another lovely dancer who did a type of theatrical Spanish dance, and Jerry Lewis who worked a single act lip-syncing operatic songs to a recording of Mario Lanza while playing with a yo-yo. He was undoubtedly hilarious and totally uninhibited. Strangely, despite his brashness he became fascinated with my dancing perhaps because he was unfamiliar with Spanish dance before and the exotic flavor of the rhythms and style seemed to catch his fancy. He and his friend or probably a relative took me out to have coffee with them one evening to get to know me.
He was only about 19 years old then but foretold that he was going to be a world class star. I tended to dislike his raw comedy, but still laughed a great deal at his antics. I received a short letter from him later in Baltimore where he was appearing which complimented me on my work and wished me “continued success” Also he presented me with a signed photo of himself with the dedication “To Inesita, a wonderful performer. Sincerely, Jerry.” I have kept it all this time.
A few years later, I had a two week engagement at a club in Los Angeles called Slapsie Maxie’s. It was mostly forgettable and only a stopgap to better things to come.
The show featured an obscure comic by the name of Shavo Sherman. It was always common to have a performer who would lend a light touch to the show. He was no Jerry Lewis. My own dances to the resident band amounted to little. A fill in to keep in the business.
The next star comedian I knew and was associated with was Bob Hope, who was the headliner of Here Come the Girls, the most important film I danced in. I never really knew him well, but was of course introduced to him and later had a minor contact with him on his television show and in a show for veterans at a Long Beach hospital. I found him somewhat arrogant, but I never really tried to ingratiate myself to him or to any of the funny men I crossed paths with. I did meet Jerry Cologna as he was the featured comic presence in Girl Crazy where I appeared in the Greek Theater presentation under the auspices of Gene Mann.
Once on an occasion I met Jimmy Durante, although I never worked along side of him. It was a casual encounter in some audition or interview. He was exceedingly warm and embraced me just because I was a fellow performer. I’d wished I had known him better.
In the early ‘forties I was booked into “The New Meet the People” a show in the style of a review or variety performance which ran about a year. I was the featured dancer. My Spanish dances did not seem to fit into this rollicking political based opus. It had first been shown as “Meet the People” several years before and was very successful. This new version was a sequel on the same format. It engaged some fresh faced talented young actors, singers, and dancers. However, several really experienced actors such as Al Eben, Jack Gilford, and others who were fairly well-known in theater gave the show substance and a more solid foundation.
Jack Gilford was a marvelous comedian and an excellent foil in many of the skits that the show presented. I was also featured in a few sketches and once had to substitute in a jazzy production number with tap dancing for one of the dancers who was ill. She was actually June Haver, a beautiful young actress who later had some success in films. Many of the performers in that show are no longer living. It was a memorable experience despite the times. (World War II)
The list of those funny men whom I knew as comedians in show business was a distinct episode which did not exist in the serious side of my Spanish Dance career.