Striking a Chord with 1920s “Spanish” Music

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Striking a Chord emphasizes some of the great music-related artifacts in the Homestead Museum collection, starting with today’s timely entry.

There is a great deal of debate in today’s film industry about opportunities afforded to ethnic minorities and women.  90 years ago, the 1920s had a notable phenomenon involving the enormous popularity of Latino film stars at a time when anti-immigrant views and racism towards Latinos was rising.  Pointedly, though, the term “Spanish” was usually used, rather than, say, Mexican, because the European connotation of the former was more appealing to mainstream taste.

The exoticism noted in the last blog post about Chinese Americans seems to have applied to this instance, as well.  It was probably Italian actor Rudolph Valentino who became the first Latin film star of note when he appeared in 1921’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  For the next five years, until his untimely death in 1926, Valentino’s magnetism and sex appeal made him a huge sensation, particularly among women.

A couple of pieces of sheet music reflecting Latino themes are exhibited this summer on the piano in the Music Room of La Casa Nueva, including one showing the star of 1928’s smash film, Ramona, Dolores del Río.

By the mid-1920s, Latino men and women were being cast as leading characters in a wide range of films, sometimes portraying people of other ethnic groups.  Ramon Novarro, in the 1925 version of Ben Hur (a remake of which hits the theaters a week from tomorrow) played a Jew.  In 1927’s It, opposite another sensation, Clara Bow, Antonio Moreno played Cyrus T. Waltham, a character as “white” as could be.  Actresses like Dolores del Río and Lupe Vélez, however, definitely were cast for their Latin presence in films like Ramona (1928) and The Gaucho (1927).  In these films, however, the male leads were Anglos playing Latins–namely, Warner Baxter and Douglas Fairbanks, who often did this through characters like the Cisco Kid or Zorro.

In any case, music reflected not just film, but other elements of popular culture that resonated with Latin themes (this was, after all, the heyday of so-called Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, like the Homestead’s own La Casa Nueva, completed in 1927).  There was a veritable flood of popular songs on phonographs and sheet music that tapped into the Latin trend.

Because La Casa Nueva has that romanticized “Spanish” architecture and because its owners, the Temple family, clearly were inspired by their own ethnic identity (part Latino, part American/English) in building the house that way and in throwing elaborate fiestas during the Twenties, we annually display artifacts and decorate the house to refer to this concept.  “Spanish Fantasy Heritage” is one term that is used to describe this phenomenon.

This trio of sheet music pieces on the music stand show further examples of Latino-themed music.

In spring 1928, for example, the Temples hosted the Altar Society of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Puente (now La Puente) by throwing a fancy fiesta.  Participants dressed in Spanish and Mexican inspired costumes, ate a “old California-style” barbeque, and enjoyed entertainment throughout the ranch.

So, in the Music Room of La Casa Nueva, several examples of recordings and sheet music are exhibited that typify some of the Latin-themed music that was all the rage in the late 1920s.  Examples of sheet music are shown in the two photos, including songs from films starring Vélez and del Río (the Homestead has a phonograph recording of del Río singing the Ramona theme song, as well) and non-film popular songs like “In an Old Spanish Town” and the awfully punned “Marianette.”  Finally, there is a songbook simply called “Mexican and Spanish Songs.”  Sheet music covers can also be interesting for their colorful and artistic scenes and design and the examples here all have their notable design elements.

Altar Society
This spring 1928 shows Walter P. Temple, front left, and guests in Spanish and Mexican costume from a fiesta for the St. Joseph’s Catholic Church Altar Society in the rose garden adjacent to his newly completed home, La Casa Nueva.  The Tepee, in the background, still stands along with the home.  From the Homestead Museum collection.

By the 1930s, however, the Latin phenomenon was all but over.  As America entered the debilitating Great Depression and many Latinos, including some American citizens, were deported to Mexico, the films and songs that were based on ethnic themes largely vanished.

With an exception here and there (just as a couple of examples, musician and actor Desi Arnaz in the 1950s TV classic I Love Lucy or long-time film actor Ricardo Montalban in the Fantasy Island television series quarter century later), Latinos subsequently did not approach the fleeting popularity experienced in the Roaring Twenties.

As American’s Latino population continues to grow in the first part of the 21st century, however, there may be another period of change afoot in terms of how Latinos are represented in popular culture.

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