(Re)Imagining Mexican Music and Theatre in Southern California from 1850 to 1930 with John Koegel

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This afternoon, even with a cool and drizzly day limiting attendance to around fifty people (though there were over 100 reservations and waiting list spots taken), Cal State Fullerton professor of musicology John Koegel gave a fascinating visual and aural presentation about Mexican music and theatre in greater Los Angeles from 1850 to 1930.

John began by briefly discussing the growth of Los Angeles from a small town to a bustling metropolis, noting that the first documented theatrical performances include community presentations of the Christmas religious play La Pastorela, alternatively Los Pastores, concerning the visitation of the Archangel Michael to shepherds heralding the birth of Christ, while the devil seems to dissuade them from paying homage to Jesus.

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Cal State Professor musicology professor John Koegel gave an absorbing account this afternoon of Mexican theatre and music this afternoon to about fifty guests at the Homestead.

As for secular theatrical presentations, the earliest documented example dates back to 1852.  A silk announcement in the collection of the Huntington Library announced the performance of the play El Zapatero y El Rey by José Zorrilla in a building on the Calle de los Negros, later realigned into Los Angeles Street just southeast of the Plaza.

Seven years later, Jonathan Temple completed the brick two-story Market House, modeled after Boston’s Fanueil Hall, and which had stores on the street level, while the Temple Theatre, the first such space in the city, was on the second floor.  The theater did not last long, though the first known opera performance, of Giuseppe Verdi’s Attila, took place there, as the building could not succeed commercially during an economic downturn and it was leased to the city and county, with a courtroom replacing the theater.

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John began by reviewing the history of the city from about 1850 onward.

By 1870, the region’s first sustained growth period was underway and attempts to the develop the area around the Plaza included the building of the Pico House hotel and, next door to the south, the Merced Theater, both structures designed by the city’s first professional architect, Ezra F. Kysor, also attributed with the remodeling of the Workman House at that time.

The Merced, named for the wife of the building’s owner, William Abbott, lasted about a decade, but there were many performances of music and theater there, including ones in Spanish from performers and troupes from the American Southwest and Mexico.  That first boom, however, went bust a few years later with the collapse of the Temple and Workman bank being a central component of the economic depression that lasted about a decade.

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He discussed the important conservation work by Antonio Franco Coronel, who was, among other things, state treasurer in the 1870s, in preserving, during the late 19th century, musical and theatrical materials from the Mexican era.

With the much larger Boom of the 1880s came a wave of migration of Americans from the rest of the country that fundamentally changed the demographics and appearance of the region.  While Spanish-language theater and music did not vanish, there was less of it performed at public venues, though John noted a fascinating fact: the American premiere in 1897 of Giacomo Puccini’s La Boheme, one of the most famous operas of all, did not take place in New York, as would be expected, but happened in the City of Angels, courtesy of a Mexican opera company.  He also highlighted the vital importance of Antonio Franco Coronel, a migrant to Los Angeles from Mexico in the late 1830s, and his preservation of musical and theatrical material from the Mexican era.

With the rapid growth of greater Los Angeles, including its agricultural and industrial sectors, and the decade-long Mexican Revolution in the 1910s, a large influx of migrants from the south to this region meant a growing demand and market for Spanish-language entertainment, including live vaudeville and music, as well as films.  John shared a lengthy list of theaters that catered to this expanding audience, with many of the venues, almost all short-lived, operating near the Plaza and the adjacent Sonoratown to the north.

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An interesting cross-cultural example was the early 1880s performance of the Los Pastores religious Christmas pageant at the German-owned Turnverein Hall in Los Angeles.

He added that there were Italians, Chinese and other patrons besides Spanish speakers and shared some newspaper articles and images that employed racial stereotypes for both the theater staff and patrons, including the Chinese.  Despite this, the burgeoning presence of entertainment by Spanish-speaking ensembles and individual performers peaked by the late 1920s.  There were even examples of celebrity cross-promotion, such as when boxer Bert Colima, the best known Latino pugilist of the Twenties and of whom there is a souvenir photo card in the Homestead’s holdings, appeared on stage in one of the theaters and given a chance to sing.

Included in John’s visuals were a trio of posters and lobby cards from the Homestead’s collection for theaters like the Principal and Hidalgo, both operating on North Main Street near the Plaza, and he indicated that these are extraordinarily rare artifacts, based on his years of study of Mexican theaters and performers.  In fact, a post from a year ago on this blog focusing on these artifacts led John to contact us, which brought us to his talk today.

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The blind Basque musician and singer Rosendo Uruchurtu shown recording music on wax cylinders in the outdoor yard of Charles F. Lummis’ Highland Park home, El Alisal, in 1904.  This important project preserved Mexican-era songs and forms the basis for much of John’s work, including a forthcoming book.

John talked about a range of musicians, actors, writers and dancers of note who performed in the many Spanish-language theaters proliferating in Los Angeles during the first three decades of the 20th century.  He also spent some time going over a core component of his work: the vital documentation of Mexican music through wax cylinder recordings made by Charles F. Lummis in the first years of the century.

Lummis, who came to Los Angeles from the east in the 1880s, became an avid student and collector of indigenous artifacts, forming the core of his Southwest Museum of the American Indian, which opened in the Highland Park neighborhood in 1914.  He also was an earnest admirer of aspects of Spanish and Mexican cultural practices of the region, establishing many friendships with longstanding Latino families, such as the del Valles of Rancho Camulos, located north of today’s Santa Clarita.

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The Huntington Library has this silk program documenting the earliest known professional theatrical performance in Los Angeles, dating to 1852.

In his wax cylinder recordings, Lummis captured performances from a number of locals, including Rosendo Uruchurtu, a blind Basque performer, and Manuela García, whose father Ignacio was the manager of Jonathan Temple’s store, the first such enterprise in Los Angeles.

John shared some audio examples of outdoor recordings at Lummis’ house, El Alisal, which is a City of Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Landmark, from Uruchurtu and García and, even with the primitive sound quality, the plaintive melodies and singing evoke appreciation for this important project to preserve music that was increasingly falling out of favor and style.

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The Teatro Hidalgo, was one of many Spanish-language theaters in Los Angeles, operating near the Plaza during the early 1900s.

García proved to be a particular favorite of Lummis, who was highly impressed by her recollection by heart of some 150 songs, so he recorded her singing nearly two-thirds of those on the cylinders, which could each hold about two minutes worth of recording (sometimes two or three cylinders were used to record a complete song).

The vibrancy and diversity of Mexican music, vaudeville, theater and film during the Roaring Twenties, however, was undercut by the end of the decade by the onset of the Great Depression and the mass deportations of Mexicans and many American citizens of Mexican descent.

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Here john highlights two of three very rare posters and lobby cards from the Homestead’s collection and from the Teatro Principal, dating to January 1929.

Despite these difficult times, the Spanish-speaking community persisted in maintaining the entertainments that sustained it during problematic periods and, after World War II, as the population of Latinos rose, so did the prevalence of theaters offering the variety of performances demanded by audiences.

Some of the venues included movie palaces from earlier decades, such as the Million Dollar Theatre on Broadway and, until recently, that thoroughfare and its host of theaters included many presentations of live and then filmed entertainment for Mexicans and other Latinos who continued to flock to the region, which now has the largest colony of Mexicans outside of Mexico City.

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Among the best-known women performers in local Mexican theater during the Twenties era were Celia Montalván and María Conesa, including some risque dances for appreciative male audiences.

Gentrification in downtown and surrounding neighborhoods has proved to be a very thorny issue in recent years, but modern Latinx live theater and music performances, along with films, are still being produced in various areas of the city, including Boyle Heights, which has had a Latino-majority population for decades.

John’s evocation of the long and fascinating history of Mexican theater and music, culminating in a soon-to-be-published book, is a reminder of how, despite the many turns and twists found in community transformation, the fundamental needs of people in these neighborhoods, whether for Asians, Blacks, Latinos or other populations, include entertainment, a major aspect of leisure, which is a core interpretive element for the Homestead’s interpretation.

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