by Paul R. Spitzzeri
For the continuation of Hispanic Heritage Month (and, yes, we are fully aware at the Homestead that the term “Hispanic” is very contested, which is why we generally use Latino or Latinx), we highlight, from the Homestead’s collection, a September 1928 press photo of 18-year old Amapola del Vando, the queen of the Vendimia, or grape festival, held at San Gabriel at the end of that month. While the event was a commercial one, promoting California’s grape industry during Prohibition, it adopted the romanticized conception of “Spanish” history that extended to the life of the 18-year old queen, who had a long career, extending about a half century, in film and television.
With regards to the festival, it was part of National Grape Week, a concept created by the California Vineyardists Association, as explained by the Los Angeles Times of 3 September, “in an effort to market the peak load of grapes to save the growers from threatened losses this year.” Moreover, this piece continued, “it is hoped to increase the consumption of the fruit to a point where the growers will be able to market their entire crop.”
It is worth adding that, at the time, some 90% of all grapes grown in the nation were from the Golden State and, while wine grapes were a major part of the state’s economy before 1920, the onset of Prohibition led to a push from growers to table grapes to salvage what they could from their vineyards. It was not until the repeal of the constitutional amendment in 1933 that a return to raising wine grapes was realized.
It, of course, was not enough to simply have a week-long event promoting the fruit, so the Association in collaboration with the powerful Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce came up with the concept of fashioning a festival with broad and romantic historical overtones. The Times article observed that Vendemia (it is actually, vendimia in Spanish) “is the term given in Spain to the celebration of the grape harvest” and claimed that “according to California historians, frequently was applied to small festivals of a like nature held here 100 years ago.” The paper, however, did not identify which historians nor give any historical examples of such events.
Still, what better place to hold the Vendimia than at San Gabriel, where the venerable historic grapevine still is located next to the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse, which opened in 1927 (with a major financial gift from Walter P. Temple, whose business manager, Milton Kauffman, was on the venue’s board of directors) to host the long-running and popular passion play, John Steven McGroarty’s The Mission Play? The Times added “players of the Mission Play cast will appear in the festival ceremonies.”
Additionally, it was reported that during the festival week, presentations would be offered to business men’s clubs at their luncheons “to explain the conditions confronting the industry and the need to increase the consumption of the fruit.” The Southern Pacific and Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad companies, being, of course, major shippers of grapes were partners, as were regional hotels, “who have announced that they will feature grape menus during that week.”
Several days later, the paper followed up by reporting that “a bevy of the fairest daughters of Mexico and Spain will take part in the grape festival, the Vendemia” and that this specifically meant that “a parade and beauty contest of girls of Spanish and Mexican extraction is planned as one of the principal features of the festival, which will usher in national grape week.” It was added that McGroarty was to serve as the master of ceremonies, while thousands of pounds of the fruit were to be handed out and “fresh grape juice will be dispensed from one of the old mission winepresses.” Moreover, music and dancing were to be presented, including an Italian “Vendemia Dance.”
As more attention was given the damsels vying for the title of festival queen, the Times of the 19th reported:
The girl who wins the Spanish beauty parade at the Mission Playhouse in San Gabriel Sunday will be awarded a week’s contract to appear in the new “Bal Tabarin” reviue at the Pom Pom [Club], Hollywood . . .
Spanish and Mexican beauties from Los Angeles and Hollywood, as well as Long Beach, Santa Barbara, Pasadena, Ontario, Alhambra, Pomona, Riverside, and other near-by towns have entered the competition, the judges of which will be John Steven McGroarty, the author; Raquel Torres, youthful Mexican star of “White Shadows,” and Herbert Spencer, president of the Ontario Grape Growers’ Association.
Torres (1908-1987), born Guillermina Ostermann to a German father and Mexican mother, debuted in 1928’s MGM production of White Shadows in the South Sea, playing a Polynesian and was one of a bevy of actors during a period of elevated interest in Latin stars, even as there was growing resentment against Mexicans and other Hispanics. She was featured in advertising for the Vendimia as she was launching her own film career that ended, after a memorable appearance in the Marx Brothers’ 1933 classic Duck Soup, by the mid-Thirties as she settled into marriage.
On the eve of the festival, the Times repeated that it “was celebrated by the Spaniards of early California in accordance with Old World custom” and “will be revived in the historic little city of San Gabriel in one of the most colorful fiestas in its history.” As for the some thirty young women in the running for queen, it was noted that the winner would, beyond the week’s club appearance, also “receive a screen test, a silver cup . . . and a $75 merchandise order on the May Company,” while the runner-up also would win an order from May Company. Finally, the mission and the “Ramona cottage,” one of the many purported regional historic sites said to be connected to the titular character from the famous 1880s novel by Helen Hunt Jackson, were to be open.
On that first day, it was reported that some 15,000 persons descended on the mission town for the event, which was kicked off “with a gorgeous pageant in which thirty of Southern California’s most beautiful senoritas took part. Wearing their gay-hued shawls and mantillas they presented a striking picture and the task of selecting the most charming of the group was no easy one.” As to the judging, it turned out the McGroarty, “after one panoramic glimpse of the candidates” retreated, for some unexplained reason, to a spot behind some palm trees “and sent word to Miss Torres that she could be the sole judge.”
The attributes sought for the festival queen were “grace, personality and figure . . . as well as facial beauty, and first prize, a silver loving cup [and, presumably, the aforementioned items], was presented to Miss Appolomia Del Vando” with the misspelling of the first name perhaps far from surprising given the likelihood that the uncredited writer had little, if any, familiarity with Spanish-language names. It was added that “a typically Spanish entertainment program,” so common, it appears, that nothing was said about its components, was given in the Playhouse and there were 500 persons standing in addition to the 1,500 filling every seat, while “thousands of others tried in vain to gain admittance.”
Concerning the messaging behind the festival, the Times observed that, not only were almost all of the grapes grown in the country from California with some 24,000 carloads shipped out each year, but “it is the largest agricultural industry in Southern California . . . surpassing even the production of oranges in volume.” H. Jay Burns of the Italian Vineyard Company, situated on 5,000 acres owned by Secondo Guasti in what is now the area in and around Ontario International Airport, told the paper:
One thing the vineyardists hope to impress upon the people everywhere is that grapes are one of the most healthful articles of diet to be found anywhere. Our slogan is “eat grapes and stay well” and it is no mere idle phrase.
Guests arriving at the Playhouse were greeted with “a veritable tower of grapes” composed of several tons of the fruit “and at the close of the ceremonies visitors were invited to help themselves. No second invitation was required.” The paper added that “perhaps the most interesting feature of the festival was the parent vine in the patio whence every grape vine in Southern California has sprung, if historians are accurate.” It is highly unlikely that scholars made that claim, but there is no doubt that many such graftings occurred. The account continued that “despite its age, the vine still bears an abundant crop each year and thus far as shown no symptoms of retiring from the industry.”
A side benefit of the Vendimia was, naturally, the opening of the box office at the Playhouse for the 1929 season of The Mission Play and it was reported , on the 27th, that McGroarty and others associated with the production were “highly gratified at the surprising response.” Coupon books were offered at half price for a limited time and it was noted that the opening on 1 January would constitute the 2,829th performance of the play, though the Great Depression years would soon bring an end to a run that began in 1912. It was hoped that the festival would become an annual affair, but it looks as if the 1928 offering was the only one.
Whatever the purported historical accuracy of the Vendimia as a regular feature of pre-American California and its grape harvests, there is also the matter of sorting out where “Spanish” ends and “Mexican” begins when it comes to how the 1928 event was described, much less in other contexts from that era. The idea of the former tended to connote Europe, while the latter was looked upon less favorably, so, when press coverage talked about the “Spanish and Mexican beauties” competing for the title of queen of the festival, not only was any distinction unexplained, but it seems as if those terms may have been considered synonymous.
With respect to Amapola del Vando, the lines were definitely blurred as to her origins. Her IMDB biography, for example, states that she was born in Seville, Spain in 1910, yet other accounts recorded that her father, César, was a far left-wing newspaper editor in Sonora, the northwestern state of México bordering parts of Arizona and New Mexico. The latter was definitely true, he briefly operated El Hijo del Fantasma (Son of the Phantom), a weekly issued on Sundays in 1909 and which was opposed to the crumbling dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, and then the Río Mayo, which an Arizona sheet condemned as “Gringo hating.”
In fact, the broadsides against the aging strongman led to del Vando’s imprisonment at the southern Sonoran town of Alamos for a year, leading Francisco Madero, leader of the revolution against Díaz to write to the autocrat about the detention, while César’s wife, Concepción Escondon, to pen a letter to the editor of a Mexico City newspaper to protest her husband’s jailing. While César, who published a novel, Días del Amor, considered by some to be the first novel published in Sonora when it appeared in 1911, was freed and Díaz unseated (though Madero, who assumed the presidency, was soon ousted and assassinated), the marriage with Concepción soon collapsed.
César crossed into the United States with Amapola, then three years old, in July 1913, having left Hermosillo (a city in Sonora where Thomas W. Temple lived in the 1880s) for Tucson, Arizona. The following month, the Times reported that the “popular Spanish man of letters recently exiled from Sonora, is reported as on a lecture tour in Arizona and Texas where he issued broadsides against Mexican authorities. in August 1914, at El Paso, César filed for divorce against his wife and sought custody of Amapola. He did not succeed with the latter, though he soon married again, losing his second wife to cancer before marrying a third time—his whereabouts afterward could not be discovered.
In 1919, Concepción remarried, with her husband being cement contractor Charles W. Westfall (a native of Santa Cruz and resident of Los Angeles) and the nuptial taking place in the Angel City. In the following year’s federal census, the couple and Amapola, bearing Westfall’s surname, resided south of Phoenix, Arizona. Withi the next several years, the Westfalls returned to Los Angeles and, by 1927, Amapola was living in Alhambra and was listed in that city’s directory listed her as an actor.
It may be that she’d secured a role in The Mission Play as, at any rate, she was playing a Native American maiden in that production by late 1929, according to a Times article that reported she was hostess of a new Golden State Limited run of the Rock Island and Pacific Railway emanating from Chicago to Los Angeles and claimed that she was the “grand-daughter of the Counsellor of the King of Spain” as well as “a daughter of Don Cesar del Vando, Mexican writer.”
In subsequent years, Amapola, known as “Poppy,” the English translation of her name (some sources claim she was the namesake of a song popularized by Harry Dorsey in 1941, but which was written over twenty years earlier by a Columbia Records songwriter in New York who could hardly have met a ten-year old Amapola when she was living in Arizona), continued to perform. For Christmas 1930, for example, she was a contralto singer as part of the Casino Mexicano, a troupe that performed for the National Business and Professional Women’s Club and put on “a pageant with Spanish stage and radio artists in the role of the early conquistadores” traveling as minstrels on the El Camino Real in California. That year, she resided with the Westfalls in a house just west of Exposition Park and was listed under the del Vando name, though with no occupation stated.
She married Clement Dressel in 1931 and may have devoted herself to home life for some years as nothing could be found for her in terms of enterainment for another several years. After divorcing Dresel, she was listed as a casting director in her 1940 voter registration. The next year, she married attorney Milton Wichner, who had a property in Sylmar and later, because he represented artist and agent for other artists Galka Scheyer, became a collector of modern art (including such artists as Oskar Fischinger, Alexej Jawlensky and Wassily Kandinsky), with his collection of some 65 works donated to the Long Beach Museum of Art after his death in 1978. Their short-lived marriage brought a daughter Gloria Amapola, also known as Lolly, who became a musician and dancer like her mother, who, in her 1942 voter registration, stated she was a singer.
In 1945, she provided costumes for the Republic Pictures musical, Mexicana, and media accounts stated that she loaned them “from her prized collection which she maintained at her Verdugo Hills, California ranch.” After divorcing Wichner, Amapola married Calvin T. Scott, who performed with her at “A Night In Spain” in San Fernando, with her described as an “actress and authority on Spanish customs” who performed at the Santa Barbara County Fair the previous year.
In early 1952, it was reported throughout the nation that Amapola “was called to a Hollywood movie casting office recently and asked to play the part of a newspaperwoman who lived in the days of the Mexican revolution in 1910.” It was stated that the role was actually based on Amapola’s mother, Concepción, who was still living in San Fernando, though one wonders if this was a yarn spun by the production company. The following year, she presented Mexican folk songs at a Los Angeles County Museum program and was described as a “vocalist and director for Spanish American Music for MGM studios.”
Her final marriage was to William W. Gohl and Amapola continued to present at local events, including at a “Mantilla Banquet” in San Fernando in 1958 in which she “narrate[d] a Spanish fantasy with songs and dances from the various provinces of Spain and Latin America, in authentic costumes” and occasional film and television work, including an appearance in a 1956 episode of I Love Lucy as one of Ricky Ricardo’s relatives when he and Lucy visit his native Cuba (just three years before the revolution).
In 1963, she and her daughter were photographed for an article in the Times, which talked about Amapola’s half century since she fled Mexico for the United States and her life as a housewife, actor, drama teacher, guitarist, medical researcher and other interests and avocations, including as a collector of Spanish and Mexican materials. Her role in The Fighter was mentioned, specifically regarding Amapola’s parents and their journalistic endeavors including Concepción’s operating a paper while César was in jail which, of course, was portrayed by Amapola.
The article also mentione that her daughter, Lolly, had involvement in films by Marlon Brando and, soon, Amapola was hired to teach Spanish for the mercurial actor’s fist wife, Anna Kashfi. A notorious 1965 incident involved Amapola testifying in a bitter custody battle between Brando and Kashfi over their son Christian (who had a tragic life including the killing of his sister’s boyfriend, bringing years in prison, and an early death from pneumonia.)
While living near Victorville, Amapola continued putting on local shows like a “Spanish Fandango” along with acting jobs, such as a 1968 episode of World of Women called “Spanish Señora” in which the “gifted writer and student of music takes viewers on a tour of her native Spain,” a role in a 1969 George Cukor-directed film for 20th Century Fox, and a small part playing the mother of a Houston police detective in a special on NBC. Known as Amapola or Poppy Gohl, she died in early 1988 just after her 78th birthday, having had a notable, if unusual, career as an entertainer specializing in Spanish and Mexican music and dance for many years.