Los Angeles Remembers Jorge Negrete
The last days of Mexican film star, who unexpectedly passed away before his debut at the Million Dollar Theater
Alejandra Espasande Bouza
On Saturday, December 5 of 1953, the city of Los Angeles became the epicenter of a major tragedy for the world of Spanish-speaking entertainment when Mexican film star Jorge Negrete unexpectedly passed away during what should've been his debut at the Million Dollar Theater.
Published on LatinoLA: November 25, 2012
Why this event was marked with such grief has to do with, among other things, the talent of the artist, along with the dignity he brought to his every performance. This in turn presented a positive representation of a Mexican male that Spanish-speaking audiences could look up to.
He was also a man of honor, a union leader who believed in the rights of Mexican actors, and whose looks, but most importantly, his voice, earned him the admiration of female and male audiences.
Jorge Alberto Negrete Moreno was born a century ago, on November 30, 1911, in the city of Guanajuato, Mexico. The young Negrete was raised under the discipline of a military school, a lifestyle he paired with his slow incursion into the world of entertainment. On June 6, 1948, a reporter for Spain's ABC newspaper, asked Negrete about his early days. Negrete who was staying at a Madrid hotel in the company of his mother, stated that his years at a military school came to an end in 1935 when a scholarship he had won to further his military education in Spain had been arbitrarily taken away from him and given instead to someone who had not even applied for it.
After a failed effort to join the emerging Mexican film industry, the demoralized Negrete -- whose voice had been nurtured by coach José Eduardo Pierso -- took off to New York City where he worked in radio. During this time he landed a part in a Warner Bros. short film titled "Cuban Nights" (1937), a film set to the music of Cuban composer Eliseo Grenet, with whom Negrete worked at New York's El Yumuri nightclub. It is during this time, in the words of Negrete, that "a Cuban filmmaker that was going to make a film in Mexico contacted me to see if I wanted to be the protagonist." The Cuban filmmaker was Ramon Peon, and the film was "The Devil's Godmother /La Madrina del Diablo" (1937), a film based on a novel by Peon that featured Negrete with actress María Fernanda Ibáñez, the daughter of actress Sara Garcia.
More film opportunities trickled in, including a part in "Juntos, Pero no Revueltos / Together But Not Mixed" (1939), where he worked with his future wife, actress Elisa Christy. The couple married on March 28,1938, in Miami, and moved to New York where Negrete continued working on radio and nightclubs, while Elisa worked as a dancer. The couple had a girl named Diana and remained in New York, occasionally making a film in Mexico, until Grenet offered him the opportunity to make perform his compositions in Cuba.
Journalist Gonzalo del Palacio wrote at the time: "In Havana, Grenet immediately landed a contract but they were unsure about Negrete. They were afraid he would not be liked. We had to show the reel of 'Perjura' (1938), where he sings the musical number, for them to agree and sign the contract with both artists." Negrete introduced himself to Cuban audiences with the performance of Grenet's musical "La Virgen Morena," which was a smashing success, as remembered by Del Palacio.
The marriage with Christy did not last and Negrete went on to ensue a relationship with actress Gloria Marin, with whom he went on to star in over ten films. One of the most representative films was Julio Bracho's "Historia de un Gran Amor / History of A Great Love" (1942). Though they never married, their romance was documented in their published love letters.
Working with Marin was a priority he strongly manifested when he was unable to have her land female lead for "El Peñón de las Lagrimas / The Rock of Souls" (1944). His attitude caused tensions on the set with the actress that landed the part; a newcomer by the name of Maria Felix. Little did they know that destiny would bring them together in marriage. if there ever was a more perfect marriage for fans of Mexican cinema, it was the union of Jorge and Maria. The wedding took place on October 18, 1952.
If he was remembered for a specific role, it was his impersonation of the "Charro". There was no other performer that could topple his impersonation of bravura, manliness and charm, not to mention his looks and the beauty of his operatic voice. In due time, Negrete would go beyond becoming a familiar face; he would turn into an icon of Mexican cinema. This was manifested in such film as "Ay, Jalisco No te Rajes" (1941), "Alla en el Rancho Grande" (1949), and "Dos Tipos de Cuidado" (1953), where he was paired with Pedro Infante, another heavyweight of Mexican cinema.
In due time, Negrete would reach the heights of his career by having worked in major films in Mexico, and breaking ground in the coveted markets of Argentina, Cuba and Spain. His military demeanor served him in the performance of strong characterizations, and it came handy when he led the negotiations that gained rights for Mexican actors through his involvement with the S.T.P.C. (Union of Mexican Film Workers), and the ANDA (National Association of Actors).
Negrete in Los Angeles
The city of Los Angeles was host to a large number of Spanish speakers that intensely followed the films and artists brought by Frank Fouce to perform at his local theater chain. Such was the demand for Mexican cinema that the lobby of one of his venues, the Mason Theater, was adorned with images of film stars, including that of Negrete. Another measure of Negrete's draw was represented in 1946, when film journalist Armando del Moral chose a photo of him to grace the cover of the first issue of his L.A. based magazine, La Revista Cine Grafica, a Spanish language publication geared to promoting Mexican cinema in the US.
In Los Angeles, Negrete had made at least two presentations at theaters, one at Teatro Mexico and another at the Mayan Theater. In 1953, Fouce hired him to make his debut presentation at the Million Dollar Theater. When Negrete arrived at Los Angeles airport on Saturday, November 21, he was met by Al de la Rosa, manager of the Million Dollar, agent Joe Herrera, Luis Shalhov Burch, Berta Razo and the music of mariachi Las Aguilillas, a trio that had accompany him during his performance at the Mayan Theater, in 1951. Dave Saldaña, a freelance photographer that worked for Armando Del Moral's Orbe News service, was far from knowing that the photos he was snap would the last ones taken of Negrete alive.
From the Los Angeles airport, Negrete checked into Hollywood's Roosevelt Hotel where he was to stay until the morning of Monday, November 23, when he was to start a week-long engagement at the Million Dollar. Hours later, when the actor became seriously ill, Anita Fouce arranged for Negrete to be transported to Cedars Sinai Hospital. Both, her husband Frank Fouce, and her son Fouce Louis, were absent from Los Angeles.
On Monday, a letter written by Negrete explaining his condition was placed at the entry of the Million Dollar Theater, for all fans to read. Frank Fouce returned from Mexico to accompany the actor. When Negrete's condition worsened, others began arriving including his mother and wife Maria Felix, who flew all the way from France. In spite of all efforts, the actor passed away on December the 5th.
The audience that eagerly expected his debut at the famed Million Dollar Theater, was now left with the prospect of paying their last respects to his body at the wake that the family organized for his L.A. fans. From 8 pm to 12 Midnight, more than ten thousand fans paid their last respects at Los Angeles's Cunningham and O'Connor Mortuary. Journalist Elena de la Torre pointed out that L.A. Spanish-speaking audiences had not endured such pain since the suicide of Mexican actress Lupe Velez in 1944.
De La Torre was present to document the conclusion of the wake: "The widow Maria Felix; the mother Mrs. Emilia Moreno; the brothers Consuelo and David, [and] the doctor Jose Kaim remained at the mortuary in the company of Spanish actor Antonio Moreno, impresario Francisco Fouce; Hector Espinola, David Saldaña, Nanette Noriega, wife of Tito Guizar; Leticia Cardenas, Al de la Rosa, Esperanza Baur, ex-wife of John Wayne and three Hispanic journalists: Armando del Moral, Miguel de Zarraga Jr., and myself."
Maria Felix and Frank Fouce flew to Mexico with the body of Negrete, where a nation waited in mourning.
In Los Angeles, Negrete is being remembered remembered and celebrated with an exhibition of photographs that will be on exhibit at the Mexican Cultural Institute until December 8.
The exhibition is curated by the Cervantes Center of Arts & Letters. For more information visit http://latinola.com/event.php?event=20646 or www.cervantescenter.org or call (424) 832-9617.
Alejandra Espasande Bouza:
Alejandra Espasande Bouza is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.
Email the author