Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Douglas Messerli | "Mariachi to Merman" (on Dan Guerrero)

mariachi to merman
by Douglas Messerli
Dan Guerrero (writer and performer) ¡Gaytino! / East Los Angeles, East Los Angeles College, October 4, 2012

On my companion Howard’s 66th birthday, we attended a performance of ¡Gaytino! performer and producer Dan Guerrero. The performance, which recounts much of Guerrero’s life was presented in conjunction with a show at the East Los Angeles College museum of the Chicano artist, Carlos Almaraz, who, as a close childhood friend of Guerrero’s, played a large role in Guerrero’s memories.

      The two grew up together in East Los Angeles and moved, temporarily in Almaraz’s case, to New York together, sharing for a while a small flat. Guerrero was gay and Almaraz, at least later in his life, was bisexual.

     Guerrero’s entertaining and somewhat self-satirizing show is subtitled “Mariachi to Merman, Sondheim to Cesar Chavez,” and the rage of those extremes are, in part, his defining life experiences. To a mostly student audience of primarily Chicano students, Guerrero explained that he grew up without defining himself as anything but a second generation American; although his parents were of Mexican background, he did not define himself in the 1940s and 1950s as either Chicano or Latino. Yet, without him quite realizing it, he grew up at the very center of the Mexican-American culture in that his father, Lalo Guerrero, was the famed mariachi composer-singer. In a recent interview, Guerrero recounted what he also reveals on stage:

I was just a kid when Mom took me to see Dad
perform at the Million Dollar Theatre in downtown
Los Angeles, one of the great movie palaces built
back in 1918. By the early 1950’s, changing demo-
graphics kicked in and it became the cultural
center for LA’s Spanish-language community.
You got a great black and white film from the
Golden Age of Mexican cinema and a live variety
show with the biggest names from Mexico and the
biggest Mexican names from this side of the border.
Dad walked out on that stage and, when applause
broke out, I knew he was special and not just a “regular”
Dad like my friends’ dads. He belonged to a bigger
audience than just Mom and me. I knew it at that

Late in his life, Lalo, who has been described as the “Father of Chicano Music,” was awarded a

NEA National Heritage Fellowship in 1991, and was named a National Folk Treasure by the Smithsonian Institution in 1980. President Clinton presented him with the National Medal of Arts, the first Chicano to receive that award.

     Yet, for much of his life, his son tried to dissociate himself from that music and the world with which it was associated. At one of his very first Broadway performances, Ethel Merman, singing “Some People” in the music Gypsy spoke what felt was directed at him. He sings a few stanzas in his performance with great Mermanian gusto.

     In New York he took acting and dancing lessons, and tried out for dozens of roles, but as he jokes, there weren’t many roles for Latinos. Of course there was West Side Story, but, he admits he wasn’t the gang type. During these years he had to control what now describes as an “expansive” nature, resist being, what was then described as being “light in your loafers.” When Almaraz returned to Los Angeles and art school, Guerrero admits feeling utterly lonely, alone in the city he loved.

     Although he did get several acting roles in summer stock companies—groups, he jokes, so sexually charged that he even had sex with a woman—he gradually realized that his dreams of being on the Broadway stage grew fainter. Almost by accident, learning on the job, Guerrero began an actor’s agent, becoming very successful, casting numerous figures in works as different as A Chorus Line and Cats. Among his several well-known clients was a very young girl, who, however, was extremely wise as she sat in his office suggesting roles: Sarah Jessica Parker. Involved with the casting of the musical Zoot Suit, a musical about the 1940s Chicano community in Los Angeles, Guerrero’s life suddenly came full circle as he reencountered not only the music his father had created by actor friends such as Lupe Ontiveros and others he had known previously.

     That event changed reinvigorated him, encouraging him to return to Los Angeles, where he suddenly began to embrace all of the culture he had previously shunned. Working with everyone from Sondheim to Tommy Tune, Guerrero now cast mostly Chicano and Latino actors, and forged friendships with people who had known and respected his father, including the labor agitator Cesar Chavez, at whose funeral he organized the Chicano actors’ contingent. Years before Chavez had suggested to his father where to perform, based on places at which he planned to rally.

     Of course he also reforged his friendship the boy who as a child he’d know as “Charles,” the now renowned artist Carlos Almaraz, who tragically died of AIDS in 1989.

     By turns campy, vaudevillian, and historian, Guerrero tells a fantastic tale in ¡Gaytino! that results in laughter and tears.

Los Angeles, October 8, 2012






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