First New York Season and the Havana- Madrid
After six years of professional work in Spanish Dance primarily on the West Coast and South West I embarked on a venture to the “Big City”. I felt reasonably ready, although still lacking in confidence personally. Many friends urged me to test my ability in New York. It was still the hub of show business both popular and classical. In a basic sense, they could not have been more right.
The timing, which I did not realize at that moment, was exquisite. This was 1945, towards the end of World War II.
I set out by train for the East Coast with my costumes and music and fear in my heart. The first time alone really, although I elected to stay with my aunt for a feeling of security. Armed with recommendations to various contacts, I made a call to an agent whom I met in Los Angeles, one Kenneth Later. He had been affiliated with MCA in Los Angeles, but now I was told he was newly employed at the prestigious Theatrical Agency, The William Morris Office.
Later welcomed me and asked for my press book which already contained a respectable amount of publicity representing my concert work on the West Coast. Some weeks later I was notified that I was to open at the Havana Madrid night club on Broadway as featured Spanish Dancer. I recall being slightly disappointed that it was only a night club and not a possible appearance in a musical or some theater work.
I was very wrong.
I prepared for the engagement with my music and went to the Club. The cast consisted of the headliner, Diosa Costello, a Puerto Rican dancer and singer with a tremendous personality and flamboyant style of singing and dancing. The next performer on the roster was Jerry Lewis: at that time a single and brash comedian of only 19 years who was to become one of the most successful comics of that era. He became fascinated with my performance and wrote a note to me and sent an autographed picture as well.
The atmosphere at the Havana Madrid was an odd combination of artistic professionalism and the underbelly of brash show business. Apart from the serious performances of my own dance and others, the show featured a line of typical chorus girls similar to the ones I had known in San Francisco years earlier. Among them were some tough minded women who often boasted about how much they expected in return for their sexual favors. I recall one of the “girls” commenting that money was the only thing that made her passionate, and another remarked that only a four carat diamond would be acceptable. The old adage “diamonds are a girl’s best friend” seemed true in this company. I took it all in as usual and left them to their pursuits.
In keeping with this situation, I met a young Mexican-American girl through some mutual friends who attached herself to me with eagerness. In retrospect, I now understand her motives as she was in all probability an experienced woman of thirty and out to capture the attentions of a wealthy man. I and some of the acquaintances at the Club surmised she was accustomed to being “a kept” woman. In the end she accomplished her goal. Sylvia Pedroza was the daughter of a Mexican actor and well informed in the machinations of the business. She had no ambitions whatsoever to make a film career although she certainly was attractive enough; but perhaps lacked any real talent. She met her “rich man” at the Havana who set her up in the Salisbury Hotel and she became in effect his mistress. When he gave her money, she spent it right away. “I know my men” she said. I suppose this strategy worked and instead of continuing in this way, her boyfriend married her. He was a business man and he was keenly aware that if he didn’t take her she would look elsewhere. I believe she had a child with him and who knows what the end of the story is. But these threads and anecdotes serve to color the background of my own experience. None of the middle- aged men who were buddies of Sylvia’s husband were in any sense attractive to me. I could not imagine being close to any of them.
I opened the engagement at the Havana Madrid doing my Gitanerias dance with the castanets and fan plus a duo appearance with a lovely dancer named Nitza who was not really a flamenco artist but a versatile performer of different styles. We became friends. After about three weeks another dance team who had been engaged for the show dropped out for some reason and I was asked to do another number. I quickly complied with my Polo of Albeniz, dancing in male costume, and it was a hit with the audience. Thus I remained for ten weeks at a salary of $125.00.
I gladly paid 10% to the agent, a younger employee from the William Morris Office. He showed up regularly to collect his money.
I was seen by many people and numerous dancers during this run. Just at the opening of the engagement, we all heard of the death of La Argentinita, who succumbed suddenly in New York from cancer. It was like an omen. Nitza herself predicted that I would be her successor. At the time I regarded this as a very big order. Nitza admired me greatly. Somehow, I didn’t absorb the significance. Apart from this, one night the great dancer, Antonio of Antonio and Rosario fame came to the club. Antonio sat ringside exactly in front of me and watched intently as I danced Polo of Albeniz. It was a wonderful composition of rhythmic patterns based on Bulerias that I had learned from another dancer. She had been a friend of a Spanish dancer by the name of Mariquita Flores. Much material passes from one to another and in my interpretation I had found something special. I performed this dance many times in concert and made it my own.
After living in Los Angeles, although a native New Yorker, I found the harsh environment of the metropolis over whelming. As my stint at the Madrid ended, winter set in and I experienced a sort of malaise. There were many reasons for this. I may have been tired both physically and psychologically from the events of previous years. I had married at 21 and with much conflict I finally divorced my husband. I had poor judgment. I was called by the Agency to accept a ten day date in Boston, Mass. I never returned the call. I did not want to go.
Other opportunities presented themselves and I rejected everything due to my state of mind. Following ten months in New York I returned to Los Angeles.
Gradually I resumed my career on the West Coast. Some of it was gratifying; the continuation of my association with Edward Perkins and his concert tours, some club dates and film work. The technology of television began and I made several appearances on the new medium. I was more comfortable but it was leading nowhere in particular. During that time, I was contacted by Marcel Ventura, the manager for Antonio and I was offered an engagement with them to go on a concert tour to South America. I received a call and a letter, but ultimately rejected this as I thought I would be diminished by this. This was a mistake. I did not consult anyone or seek advice concerning this opportunity. My judgment remained cloudy.
Throughout I nevertheless remained active.
In 1948 the situation changed. My mother became ill with cancer and suffered until her death in 1949. A year earlier I had met a man who was involved in his own intellectual pursuit as a producer of radio interviews with outstanding authors. He produced, wrote, and presented the programs himself. Along the way, he became interested in my work and after a year he proposed marriage.
My early marriage was a passionate one, but the relationship faltered due to many factors and dissension between my mother and my husband. The resulting conflict tore me in different directions and I decided to leave him.
Bernard, my new acquaintance, was smitten from the first meeting. At first, I was unsure of my feelings as he was more than ten years older. However, he seemed to have a steadying influence on me and I once again considered marriage.
Although we came from different backgrounds, we shared an interest in the arts and literature and eventually we seemed compatible. He was to be an enormous help in many ways. In short, he gave me direction.
An update to the early experience of my engagement at the Havana-Madrid in 1945. The news of the death of Jerry Lewis at 91 came in today, August 21, 2017.
I related how I had a personal contact with Lewis during the run. Looking back over that distant past and my encounter with him and his obvious interest in my work and subsequent note and autographed photo to me is nostalgic in a way. Although I stated at the time I did not particularly admire his brand of comedy, his great talent and artistry was unmistakably present and I am proud that I knew him however briefly.
Sadly, one by one, they leave.. So many of my show business colleagues have passed on……………..