06 July 2007

Cantina Nights (Part Two)

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Fifty Fabulous Nights at The Pop Culture Cantina
by Donny Jacobs
We were shocked to learn of Gene Pitney's unexpected death in April 2006. Our memorial to him was very well-attended; he had many, many devoted fans. Neil Brian Goldberg stopped by to pay his respects. I feel sad when I remember how all the patrons crowded around the bar, crying in their beer while singing Gene's hit songs. I feel better, though, when I remember how much money we made on cerveza that night.

Once we started booking Connie Francis here, people started thinking of the Cantina as a respectable nightspot again. (That didn't last long.) She's graced our stage four times to date; the first time in April 2006, she performed an all-Country set that attracted urban cowboys and cowgirls from miles around. The place was packed to the rafters with folks singing along to "Everybody's Somebody's Fool", "Don't Break The Heart That Loves You" and "My Heart Has A Mind Of Its Own." Don Heriberto prepared delicious barbacoa appetizers for that show. I almost had heart failure when I opened his refrigerator that morning and found a big cabeza de vaca (cow's head) staring me in the face, eyeballs and all!

I'm told we took business away from local Jazz clubs when we booked Connie Francis' Swing Shift revue at the Cantina. As a rule, I stay on good terms with the competition, but I don't have any regrets about mounting that production. Connie swung as hard as Ella Fitzgerald in her prime, and the critics' reviews were positively glowing. Of course, Cuarteto Cantina provided her backing music; they relished the chance to flex their musical chops and play some combo Jazz. I think some of them may have even been sober that night! The guys transformed themselves into hipsters, trading in their pink mariachi suits for vintage pachuco outfits. Ay, but María Chimichanga was mad when she found out Santitos had borrowed her Zoot Suit pantalónes! He stretched them out so bad, they wouldn't fit her anymore. (Guess who ended up paying for new ones?)

Our May 2006 celebration of Toni Wine’s songs and recording career was an all-star event featuring performances by Tony Orlando and Dawn, The Chiffons, The Mindbenders, The Ikettes, Bobby Vee and Brenda Lee. Miss Toni’s hit song “Candida” became the Pop Culture Cantina’s official theme after that show. Caramba! My ears still ring when I recall a full house of patrons singing it at the top of their lungs. Ron Dante and Ellie Greenwich were on hand to heap praise on this woefully underrated and under-appreciated singer/songwriter.

Toni Wine's show was so popular, it made sense to keep the focus on Brill Building songwriters. Our follow-up production was a tribute to the music of Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich and Phil Spector. A retrospective like that was long overdue, and we did it the right way! We augmented Cuarteto Cantina with twelve pickup mariachi musicians and created our own Wall of Sound. The band sounded fantástico playing old favorites like “Be My Baby”, “Then He Kissed Me” and “River-Deep, Mountain-High.” However, what I recall most about that show was the screaming catfight between the Zoot Suit Muchachas and Trío Trotacalles, who made one of their special guest appearances. Both groups wanted to portray The Ronettes on stage! We compromised by dressing them all as Ronettes. María Chalupa of the Muchachas performed as Darlene Love, Malinchita from the Trío sang La La Brooks' songs, and . . . would you believe it? Our chef, Don Heriberto, appeared as Ronnie Spector! He was wonderful! ¿Quién sabía? Who knew he was hiding a beehive hairdo underneath that huge sombrero of his?

The show that came closest to being a total disaster was the tribute we did to classic Superman cartoons of the 1940s. We staged a comedic recreation of “Jungle Drums”, one of the most popular episodes from the cartoon series. Zoot Suit Muchacha María Quesadilla played Lois Lane, Don Heriberto was Perry White, Santitos Pocho from Cuarteto Cantina tackled the dual role of Clark Kent/Superman, and the rest of us were native warriors prancing around in loincloths and headdresses. None of us have any acting experience, so of course, we were terrible! We stunk worse than caca. Fortunately, the audience was stoked on Tequila by the time we took the stage; they were drunk enough to laugh at anything, and they did! Not only that, the babosos gave us a standing ovation!
What a feast we had at our Tex-Mex Cookbook party! The spread included chile con carne misterioso (mystery meat chili), menudo de chivo (goat stew), burritos de ratón (rat meat burritos . . . so tender, too!), lengua con mole (chocolate-flavored cow's tongue), nachos de escorpión (scorpions with cheese and tortilla chips) and our house specialty, Doña Laura’s famous fish tacos with Chupacabra sauce! All washed down with café de olla (unstrained coffee) and my Cactus Daiquiris. Sí, the local paper gave us a bad write-up in its food section, but what do those pinches gringos know about Tex-Mex cuisine? Our guests couldn’t get enough of it! If I’d ever harbored doubts that Don Heriberto was the finest cook this side of the Río Grande, they became a thing of the past once I’d nibbled on his delicious lengua.

Our popular series of Brill Building songwriter tributes continued with a July 2006 remembrance of Howard Greenfield and his treasure trove of hits. Ron Dante hosted that stellar evening, which also featured guest appearances by Connie Francis, Toni Tennille and Howie’s longtime song collaborator Neil Sedaka. Miss Connie's Disco version of "Where The Boy's Are" packed our dance floor, Miss Toni had everybody clapping hands to "Love Will Keep Us Together", and Neil brought the house down with his authentic Country performance of “Johnny Walker, Ol' Gran'dad, Jackie Daniels And You”. The crowd broke for the bar as soon as he finished that song. What a bunch of borrachos! I sold more vino that one night than I had in the previous six months.

I'll never forget our book party for Tropicana Nights, Rosa Lowinger's celebration of Havana night life in the 1950s. We went to considerable expense recreating the ambiance of the legendary Tropicana nightclub. The Zoot Suit Muchachas looked espléndidas in vintage '50s fashions, Cuarteto Cantina held forth in colorful rumbero outfits, and our staff drag diva, Don Heriberto, outdid himself impersonating Celia Cruz! He's a very convincing guarachera, and he looks good in a fishtail gown, too! The party would've been an unqualified success, except for those angry Cuban exiles picketing outside. Qué lástima . . . that was entirely my fault. I never should have impersonated Fidel Castro. Our physical resemblance is just too close!

It truly was the end of an era when Patrice Holloway died in October of 2006. Our memorial was held the following month. Whenever I listen to my old Josie and The Pussycats records, I just can't believe she's not around anymore. How could a voice so overflowing with passion and life be stilled forever? ¡Qué triste está! The memorial was hosted by Howard Earnshaw, editor of the British fanzine Soul Up North. He reminded us what a legend Patrice was in Northern Soul circles.

Our Christmas 2006 tribute to vintage Technicolor movies was certainly a visual treat! That night, the staff dressed in bold primary colors, and we all sported red footwear in honor of Judy Garland in the Wizard Of Oz and Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes. We did the Cantina's décor over in brilliant shades of red, blue and green (the three exposures used in color film), I served Jello shots with those same hues, and Don Heriberto baked a giant cake with rainbow icing. Everybody thought the color scheme was bonita except those crabby old parrots of mine. Samson and Delilah pitched a hissy fit about how it clashed with their plumage. They shut up in a hurry after I threatened to spray paint them black!

We were truly honored to host an Atlantic Records retrospective in February of 2007; we dedicated it to Ahmet Ertegun, the legendary writer, producer and record executive who founded the label in 1947. Sadly, he’d passed away barely two months before. Ahmet would surely have been proud to see Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton, Ben E. King and many more of the acts he personally shepharded to stardom celebrating his legacy on our stage. This was our most expensive production by far, but it was worth every penny.
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Our founder Doña Laura was directly involved with the retrospective we did on the Steed label, Jeff Barry’s hitmaking record company of the late 1960s. Not only is she a dear friend of Jeff’s, she’s also acquainted with his Steed artists, Andy Kim and Robin McNamara. They served up piping hot renditions of “Baby, I Love You” and “Lay A Little Lovin’ On Me” for our patrons, while Steed’s most popular Rock band, The Illusion, treated them to an extended, fifteen-minute version of “Did You See Her Eyes”. Never before has this tavern rocked as hard, and I doubt it ever will again! In keeping with the label's equestrian theme, Don Heriberto whipped up a tasty batch of nachos al caballo (horsemeat nachos).

Guitar aficionados from far and wide came to hear the great Duane Eddy when we booked him for two nights in April of 2007. To be sure, the King of Twang can still wield an axe with authority! I created a special drink in his honor called the Twangsville Twister. The first few I mixed sent patrons running for the restrooms, so I haven't officially added it to my specialty list yet. It still needs a little fine-tuning . . . maybe less prune juice? Or less Tabasco? Pero no . . . there's no such thing as too much Tabasco!

Our tribute to the Disco productions of Paul Sabu made for one of our most enjoyable shows. My Cantina staff loves Disco, and so do I, especially the Rock-tinged kind Sabu was known for. All three of his female stars appeared on the bill. Debbie Jacobs sizzled singing "Don't You Want My Love?", Gwen Jonae wowed the crowd with "Gimme Back My Love Affair," and Ann-Margret returned to deliver a devastating rendition of "Love Rush." Afterward, our parrot mascots Samson and Delilah cleared the dance floor zooming around on their miniature Disco skates!

In addition to being one of our most lucrative productions, Connie Francis's “Groovy Movie Queen” revue was also one of our most novel. For the two nights that show ran, we had the tavern redesigned to look like an old Hollywood movie set; there were cameras, booms, scaffolds and Kleig lights all over the place. The Zoot Suit Muchachas got dolled up like Wampus Babies from the 1930s, and Cuarteto Cantina damn near looked respectable in their Casablanca-era tuxedos. A small problem developed with our parrots, though. We gave 'em tiny Director's chairs to sit in, and, like, it totally went to their heads! Samson kept hollering "Cut! Cut!" like a featherbrained King Vidor. Even worse, Delilah started screaming "Where's the casting couch?" and "You'll never work in this town again!" at regular intervals. Those batty birds! Their hammy acting became such a distraction, I had to lock them in the kitchen.

At the Zoot Suit Muchachas’ urging, we mounted a tribute to the music of ‘40s superstar Ella Mae Morse. We have periodic Swing Dance nights at the Cantina, and this show was tailormade for the Lindy Hop crowd. The ladies were thrilled to perform Ella Mae’s classic hits: María Chalupa concentrated on up tempo numbers like “Jump Back, Honey”, María Quesadilla handled “House Of Blue Lights” and other boogie woogie items, and María Chimichanga showed herself to be quite the torch singer with “Buzz Me, Baby.” The crowd, which came dressed pachuco style, really ate them up! If las tres Marías keep dancing and singing as great as they do, I fear it won’t be long before Broadway comes calling for them.

You should've seen all the lowrider cars parked outside when we hosted our book party for Voices Of Latin Rock! Jim McCarthy and Ron Sansoe's fascinating history of Santana, Malo, El Chicano and other "Raza Rock" bands is mighty popular in these parts. To everyone's delight, Carlos Santana dropped by and played an impromptu set on his guitar. While he was performing an instrumental version of "Evil Ways," I was inspired to belt out a few bars of the song! I thought I sounded good until I saw the horrified look on Carlos's face . . . I guess I rock better as a bartender than as a lead vocalist!

For our fiftieth night of entertainment at The Pop Culture Cantina, we celebrated the long-running Josie and The Pussycats comic strip, and called for its return to regular publication. It was another showcase for the talents of our lovely waitresses; nobody who attended that show will ever forget how hot the Zoot Suit Muchachas looked in leopardskin catsuits, or how well they sang old Pussycat favorites like “Stop, Look And Listen,” “Clock On The Wall” and “Inside, Outside, Upside-Down.” It was the next best thing to having Kathleen Dougherty, Cheryl Ladd and the late Patrice Holloway there in the flesh. We all hope rumors about the comic strip’s impending demise aren’t true.

So there you have it, amigos: Fifty nights of the best that American popular culture has to offer. Music, movies and literature with retro appeal and a spicy south-of-the-border spin. Time for another fiesta! ¡Celebremos! ¡Música, danza, comida! ¡Sí señor! What will our next fifty nights be like? What surprises will they bring? Will I ever perfect my Twangsville Twister drink? Will I ever fire Cuarteto Cantina for disorderly conduct? Will I ever give the Zoot Suit Muchachas a raise? Will Don Heriberto make good his threat to pluck and fry Samson and Delilah Papagallo? What amazing culinary concoction will he dream up next? There’s only one way to find out: Keep patronizing the Cantina. The best is yet to come!

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Thanks to Rob Cotto, Ron Dante, Howard Earnshaw, Neil Brian Goldberg, 
Ellie Greenwich, Bobby López, Clayton Naluai, Mick Patrick, 
Allan Rinde, Gil Slavin, Toni Tennille and Bob Weiner.
Special thanks to Laura Pinto for making it all happen.

1 comment:

Jerry Maneker said...

A brilliant piece, and I found myself smiling throughout both parts. So many great lines! "I created a special drink in his honor called the Twangsville Twister. The first few I mixed sent patrons running for the restrooms, so I haven't officially added it to my specialty list yet. It still needs a little fine-tuning . . . maybe less prune juice? Or less Tabasco? Pero no . . . there's no such thing as too much Tabasco!" One of the best! Thanks so much for this terrific, upbeat, nostalgic walk through my surreal memory lane!