by Paul R. Spitzzeri
When it comes to finding material on live theater in Los Angeles that catered to white English-language speakers during the early part of the 20th century, sources are abundant. Programs, broadsides, and other material are not uncommon and newspaper resources are easy to find. This is one of the many reflections of the dominance of the majority population.
It’s entirely another matter, though, when looking at theatrical performances for minority populations, such as blacks, Asians and Spanish-speakers, even though the latter was by far the largest in numbers. This is why the three artifacts from the Homestead’s collection are so notable, even though trying to locate information about the venues and the performers is very difficult.
The trio of handbills are for performances on 9-10 January 1929 at the Hidalgo and Principal theaters, situated on Main Street very near the Plaza, the historic core of Spanish and Mexican era Los Angeles. By the late 1920s, a more recent wave of migrants from Mexico were living and working in the area, many of whom fled political upheavals in that nation during the 1910s, a century after the first revolution that led to independence from Spain.
The area, including sections north of the Plaza up to the Elysian Hills, was sometimes still referred to by a name, Sonoratown, that dated back to the Gold Rush era when among the first to reach the mining regions after the rush began in 1849 were experienced miners from Sonora and other northern Mexico states. Another common reference was to “the Mexican quarter.” For many, the historic Plaza Church, built in 1822, was a home parish and the existence of the Plaza, the church and other elements were somewhat familiar reminders of home for those who’d left for the City of the Angels.
So, too, were the programs at the theaters a welcoming and familiar environment, offering music, drama, comedy and other offerings that were common for many in their hometowns in Mexico. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to find information about the Teatro Principal, though its name and the fact that some advertising for a pharmacy at 427 North Main Street, where a parking lot is just north of the 101 Freeway indicate that it was located there close to the Plaza. For some reason, the poster for that theater doesn’t provide its address—perhaps it was assumed that those being reached by the publicity would know because there weren’t many performance spaces catering to Spanish speakers in the city.
On 9 January, the theater offered the Dionisio Acosta Company, which performed a range of variety, comedy and other offerings over a 43-day season and highlighting the starring role of Don Chema, while the company was directed by Hilario Altamirano and with music conducted by Jorge de Leon Paniagua.
Also promoted was “El Cabaret del Amor,” touted as “the event of the season” and featuring the debuts of actors Carlos H. Altamirano, likely a brother of the director, and Delfina Rivas, both of whose photos are displayed prominently. Other performers named were Gilberto Soria, Josefina Rivas (likely a sister of Delfina), Hilda Espinosa, Hugo Ivanoff (a mixture of Russian and Mexican, perhaps), and Natalia Rubio. Finally, there was reference to a performance called “Wedding Agency,” said to be a local writer and that was a great success coming soon.
As for Don Chema, whose photo showing a comical expression is also very notable, he was accompanied by a Doña Chema and patrons were promised plenty of laughter and much enjoyment while they were implored, “don’t forget that Teatro Principal is the preferred” in town.
The same theater was promoted in another broadside, dated 10 January, and repeated much of the same information about the Acosta ensemble, Don Chema, the upcoming “Wedding Agency” and that there would be films and live performances from Noon to 6:30 p.m.
New, however, was a gala in honor and to the benefit of company member Gilberto Soria, said to be a renowned baritone and “who has the honor to dedicate it [the performance] to the distinguished Mexican ladies and the beautiful young women, to the Los Angeles press, to the Main Street businesses, and to his numerous friends and the general public.”
Also in the special program were several “distinguished artists,” including Eloisa Valdealde, Consuelo Melendez, Rafael Trova (a tenor), Pedro Valdez (a dancer), the Tapatios Singers and Yucatecos Singers, Don and Doña Chema, Josefina Rivas, Hida and Hugo, Natalia Rubio, and the director and actor Hilario Altamirano.
Another company offering featuring performers mentioned above was “The Bathhouse,” said to be a comedy producing uproarious laughter as well as premiering the dancing of tangos with music by conductor Paniagua. A variety contest, evidently opened to all comers, was mentioned along with prices for the benefit performance of 15 and 35 cents.
The third poster is for the Teatro Hidalgo, of which more is known than its competitor. Built in 1912 and situated at 373 N. Main, which is where the 101 Freeway cuts through the area now, the theater was in a two-story building that occupied a site formerly a harness shop. The theater looks to have operated for close to a quarter century and was given prominent mention in a 1918 Los Angeles Times article by T.B. Handy titled “Mexican Dramatics Somewhat Different.”
Written in a loose style and betraying paternal and patronizing attitudes about the types of performances alien to “the uninitiated gringo,” the piece begins with the statement that:
Among many other cosmopolitanisims, Los Angeles now harbors a real Mexican theater. Located in the heart of Sonoratown, it is housed in the Teatro Hidalgo . . . The company is composed of representative Mexican Thespians, the majority of whom are so much so that, like the gaiety girls, they are quite unable to understand this damned furrin tongue. The only thing un-Mexican about them is their perfect Castilian accent, and the sound of the soft c’s and z’s is a source of considerable wonderment and comment to their spellbound fellow-countrymen, most of whom are here, like themselves, to escape [Pancho] Villa and his kindred saints.
The piece refers to “the 3×5 stage of the exalted playhouse,” the author defining Hidalgo literally as “exalted” while not seeming to be aware or ignoring the fact that it is the name of the famed priest who was crucial to the 1810-1821 Mexican Revolution, adding that the cramped space provided quite a spectacle with nine characters on the stage at once.
It also observed that “the house itself is one of the stand-bys of lower Los Angeles, and has seen every variety of service, from burlesque and motion pictures to an animal show and high-class foreign theatricals.” While “lower” could mean “south,” the location was in the north part of the town, so the intimation, along with the listing of various “low-brow” entertainment, seemed a pointed judgment on the types of entertainment found at the Hidalgo.
The article noted that “the tickets are dispensed by drawing lots from a board on which is drawn the seat plan of the theater.” When a patron paid admission, they went up to the board and selected seats, either in boxes or the gallery at the back of the house.
As for the offerings, “Mexican theatricals are a thing somewhat apart from our own,” with the element of risque particularly pointed out, as were the gestures made by actors in their performance. Here it was claimed that “they are the same for both high comedy and low tragedy, the only difference being a minor repression of the exercises in the latter.”
Comedians, it was stated, utilized “grotesque makeup, usually consisting of a weird rig, false nose or raggedy raiment, interspersed with considerable verbal speed and a full exhibition of slapsticks” At the end of it all, “one wonders if there is no limit to human endurance, or if there is any degree of speed that it is impossible for the Spanish tongue to attain.”
Then, attention was turned to the comment that “the Mexican audience is in a class by itself. It comes early and consists of the entire family,” with children brought on insistence of parents whether the producers would encourage them or not because “the ordinary Spaniard seems reluctant to appear in public” without them. There was talk about how the youngsters “howled with mirth” while adults “vented their enthusiasm in a series of whoops and hurrahs, the usual custom.”
At the end, Handy mentioned the company, its director and performers, and did allow that “the repertoire is really extensive, and will undoubtedly prove a treat to lovers of Spanish drama, certain phases of which are interesting by comparison with our American ideals.” He wrote of the tendency of recent playwrights to focus on political and social issues of a radical nature, while critiques of religion were also noted. Handy also stated that, while most works were from Spanish sources, the work of Alexandre Dumas and Shakespeare was also to be represented at the Hidalgo.
In 1924, in a Times article about Good Friday observances at the Plaza, a brief note was made about “a religious picture” at the Hidalgo rather than the usual “motion picture drama of love or adventure.” Six years later, after Olvera Street opened as a tourist attraction north of the Plaza, there was a piece about Oscar Quero, a street poet of some popularity who was evidently to have plays produced at the Hidalgo and the Teatro Mexico.
As for the 10 January 1929 broadside, the headline event was a benefit starring the Areu Brothers, who were soon to leave for Mexico City and wanted to say goodbye to the sympathetic public of Los Angeles. Listed also were eight singers, dancers and musicians to perform along with the brothers, caricatures of whom are on the poster.
There were ten elements to the program including an overture by the Gama Orchestra, touted as the best and most organized of local ensembles; a slapstick comedic piece by one of the Areus called “The Effect of Influenza;” a comedy called “The Bootleggers,” dealing, naturally, with Prohibition; and pieces focusing on music and dance. A photo is also present of a woman, probably Elisa Areu, likely a sister of the aforementioned brothers, and a featured singer and dancer. Prices were given as 20 and 30 cents and the following day’s highlighted program element was the “notable Mexican band” Cuauhtemoc “composed of pure Mexican men.” The Hidalgo existed until about 1936 and perhaps fell victim to the Great Depression.
These remarkable and rare posters are a glimpse into a world of entertainment not easily found or commonly discussed, but they help shed some light into the important cultural elements of Latino Los Angeles in the late 1920s.