06 July 2007

Cantina Nights (Part One)

fiesta 2
Fifty Fabulous Nights at The Pop Culture Cantina
by Donny Jacobs
Hola, amigos! Stuffed Animal speaking. Let me tell you all about my Cantina. It's a kinda sleazy bordertown bar, known mainly for serving great fish tacos and a diabolical drink called the Cactus Daiquiri. Most of the time, it's an ordinary watering hole, but sometimes, it's extraordinary! On designated nights we present elaborate floor shows. Periodically, we host concerts with famous headliners; we also host book parties on occasion. If you've got un momento to spare, I'll regale you with the checkered history of this wild and crazy establishment, and describe for you all the espectáculos that've been mounted here thus far.

This building originally housed a Gay bar called Chorizo Con Huevos (escandaloso! I dare not translate). Our founder, Doña Laura Pinto, took over the lease, gave the place a tacky faux Mexican makeover, and cultivated a clientele of mixed sexual orientation. The Cantina officially opened for business in late January 2006. She launched it with a big fiesta featuring entertainment from the dance troupe Trío Trotacalles and Mariachi José Cuervo. (Unfortunately, she couldn’t come to salary terms with either group, and they returned to México. I hear the mariachis gave up performing and opened a meth house just outside Tijuana! The Trío still performs, and continues to appear at the Cantina on occasion.) Special guest for that historic event was producer and singer/songwriter extraordinaire, Jeff Barry.

I wasn’t there on opening day, but by the time we mounted our first production, I'd come on board as barkeep and kitchen supervisor. Our first headliners, Clayton Naluai and The Surfers, were real crowd pleasers! The patrons just went loquitos when Clayton’s sarong fell off during a spirited rendition of the “Hawaiian War Chant”. Doña Laura and I worked our nalgas off turning the Cantina into a replica of Don The Beachcomber’s nightclub for that show.

Our revue of early hits by Dusty Springfield brought in customers from as far away as England and Australia. Doña Laura slipped into a gold lamé sheath and a blonde wig, and through the magic of lip-synching, she brought Miss Beehive to life again on our stage. (You can see from her sidebar portrait what a striking resemblance La Doña bears to Dusty.) Santitos Pocho and his Cuarteto Cantina joined us for the first time on that show. Despite the fact that he and his musicians were all drunker than México City skunks, they did a fine job evoking the sound of Dusty’s original backing band, The Echoes.

My friendship with performance artist Bobby López enabled us to book his fabulous alter-ego, The Mexican Elvis, for our next show. The guys from his band, The Memphis Mariachis, got into a Tequila-fueled backstage brawl with Cuarteto Cantina, but tempers cooled before showtime and everything went off without a hitch. El Vez’s nalga-licious female vocal group, The El-Vettes, gave Doña Laura the idea of having our own in-house Girl Group. We hired the Zoot Suit Muchachas shortly afterward; like the El-Vettes, they sing as well as dance. Unlike the El-Vettes, they double as waitresses!

Ann-Margret treated Cantina patrons to an exciting mix of Jazz, Rock and Country stylings when we booked her in early 2006. The only problem was, our patrons were so mesmerized by her sultry stage presence (especially the men), they focused all their attention on her; no eating, no drinking, no nada! They didn’t spend nearly as much diñero as we would’ve liked. Miss Ann-Meow’s revue is an expensive one to mount, so we ended up losing money on that show. Her sensational singing and dancing was worth it, though! Doña Laura swears that Elvis was in the audience that night, but I didn’t see him.

Dusty Springfield had a return engagement with us in February 2006; I coaxed Doña Laura to adopt her British diva persona for one more gig. This time, her emphasis was on “Son-Of-A-Preacher Man” and other hits from Dusty's tenure on Atlantic Records. Consequently, there were a lot of Southern Soul fans in the audience. We served them a chicken-and-waffles buffet, and I think the food was as big a hit as the music! How I wish Chef Don Heriberto had been working for us then; cooking up 500 waffles from scratch is no fiesta! To say nothing of the hundreds of pollitos we cleaned, plucked and fried.

Our next show featured Josie and The Pussycats, reunited for the first time in 35 years! We billed them as “Sanctified Pussy”. This led some folks to get the wrong idea about what kind of establishment we ran! Fortunately, the Zoot Suit Muchachas are karate experts; they managed to rid the place of cochinos before the ladies took the stage. (We had to pay them extra for that!) This was one our most successful productions; Kathleen Dougherty, Cheryl Ladd and Patrice Holloway had the audience rockin' all night with their Gospel and Country-tinged vocals.

We kept the Girl Group theme for our next show. Ellie Greenwich brought a new group of Raindrops down from New York City for a nostalgia-filled revue of her early ‘60s hits. Miss Ellie built her reputation on songwriting and studio work, but on our stage, she proved to be a dynamite live performer. Her funky renditions of “Hanky Panky” and “Doo Wah Diddy Diddy” had the patrons up on their feet dancing the Frug and the Watusi! We ending up having to push the tables against the wall.

At Doña Laura’s request, Ron Dante and Donna Marie reunited as The Archies and staged a show for us. It sold out within hours of our announcing it! Of course, Cuarteto Cantina was the backing band, and I must say, they did themselves proud playing “Sugar, Sugar”, "Jingle Jangle" and “Who’s Your Baby?” Even when they’re nursing wicked hangovers, Latin musicians are lo ultimo!

The lovely and talented Annette Funicello paid her first visit to the Cantina in February 2006. Even though multiple sclerosis forced her to sing sitting in a wheelchair, she was a stone smash! Walt Disney would’ve been so proud. Patrons were lined up around the block to hear her perform hits from her albums Annette, Italiannette, Bikini Beach, Pajama Party and Something Borrowed, Something Blue. We knew right away we wanted her back soon for a return engagement. She was kind enough to oblige us.

Chubby Checker is a natural ball of fire! He had ‘em twistin' all night at his sold-out show, not to mention hucklebuckin', pony ridin', flyin', hitch –hikin', messin’ around and doin' the how-low-can-you-go Limbo! The Zoot Suit Muchachas had a ball dancing with Chubby on stage; María Chalupa sang the female part when he performed “Slow Twistin’”. She’d have sounded just like Dee Dee Sharp if it weren’t for her heavy Mexican accent. I can’t say Chubby minded much! He had his ojitos fixed on her big chichis all during the song.

Our tribute to Tico Records was one of the two most expensive shows we’ve ever mounted here. We brought Ricky Martin, Jennifer López and dozens of young Latin music stars together over three consecutive nights; they performed songs made famous by Tito Puente, Tito Rodríguez, Celia Cruz, Machito and Graciela, Ray Barretto, Joe Cuba and La Lupe. It had to have been the finest series of salsa concerts ever staged! Because of the great expense, we didn’t make any money; however, the boost to our business profile was invaluable! From that point on, the Cantina became known as a source of quality entertainment.

Land Of A Thousand Dances was our two-concert tribute to the wild dance crazes of the 1960s. Sadly, it was also the last show Doña Laura supervised. She needed to devote more attention to her other enterprises, and so she left management of the Cantina in my grubby little patas. At times, it’s been tough running the place without her, but my staff helps me out a lot. Whenever I see the Zoot Suit Muchachas rehearsing their dance routines, I always remember how La Doña looked on that last night, leading a drunken conga line out the front door.

fiesta 3

Annette Funicello’s return engagement was just the moneymaker we needed after our budget-breaking salsa event. Maybe she doesn't work a stage like she used to, but audiences can't resist the Disneyland Diva’s natural charm and warmth. This time, she performed numbers from her Hawaiiannette, Dance Annette, Beach Party, Muscle Beach Party, Golden Surfin’ Hits and Country albums. The crowd couldn’t get enough; they called her back for three encores! Sadly, Annette's illness has progressed to a stage where future bookings are out of the question.

The Archies returned with a tribute to singer/songwriter Neil Brian Goldberg. A protégé of the great Jeff Barry, Neil wrote and produced soundtrack music for the group's TV series during its 1970-71 season. While his Archies songs were never released commercially, they’re familiar to millions of people who originally heard them as kids. It was a real treat for everybody to finally see Ron Dante and Donna Marie perform them live-in-concert! Neil was also on stage for that show, contributing rhythm guitar and background vocals, and clearly enjoying the long-overdue recognition.

Our first Cantina book party was for Ken Emerson’s excellent history of Brill Building Rock ‘n’ Roll, Always Music In The Air. Cuarteto Cantina serenaded our guests with songs by Sedaka and Greenfield, Goffin and King, Mann and Weil and Barry and Greenwich, I provided cactus daiquiris on the house, and our new chef, Heriberto de Garbanzo, whipped up a muy sabroso chicken salad appetizer. We ran out of chicken, and had to use carne de ratón (rat meat) instead, but hardly anybody noticed . . . Don Heriberto is a genius when it comes to substituting ingredients at the last minute!

Our first show of March 2006 was a tribute to Cine Mexicano, those great Mexican movies from the 1940s and ‘50s. Cuarteto Cantina was in excellent form that night (Don Heriberto locked away their Tequila supply until after the show), and Trío Trotacalles flew in from México City to make a special guest appearance. Recreating a dance number originally performed on film by the famous cabaretera Ninón Sevilla, the girls wore skimpy two-piece rhumba costumes, and their hot mambo moves had our male customers howling like hombre-lobos! We all wore costumes that night. I mixed drinks for the customers sporting an authentic charro costume with a big sombrero! Santitos told me I looked just like El Frito Bandito.

Our tribute to Habanera Rock was spread out over three nights. People are still talking about that show! There were guest appearances by Ben E. King, Tony Orlando, Billy Joe Royal, Steve Alaimo, Johnny Nash and several other male Pop stars from the ‘60s. We tried to book Elvis, too, but that man is so hard to track down . . . the Mexican Elvis was kind enough to appear in his place. He knocked the socks off the crowd with his huapango rendition of “Viva Las Vegas!” This was my favorite show of all the ones we’ve done so far. I spotted Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who popularized the fusion of Latin rhythms with Rock 'n' Roll, in the audience on the last night.

We staged another Land Of A Thousand Dances revue in March, this time focusing on Soul/R & B dance classics. The Zoot Suit Muchachas loved that show; they invited all their chingón lowrider friends to attend! I got a little nervous when I saw all the leather and tattoos, but aside from some vatos trading Spanish insults with Samson and Delilah Papagallo, our foul-mouthed parrot mascots, nothing bad went down. Don Heriberto served his chit’lin-flavored chicharrónes for the first time during that show. They’ve since become one of our most popular menu items.

Our book party for the reprint of Song Of The Loon, a classic homoerotic novel, was our first Gay-themed event. I was criticized for hosting that event here, but I couldn't have cared less! Everybody’s welcome at The Cantina, regardless of sexual orientation. Didn't this place used to be a Gay bar, after all? A lot of the original clientele still shows up, and as long as they buy my Cactus Daiquiris, I'm happy to see them.
Fiesta 1

"Celebremos!" continues with Part Two.

Cantina Nights (Part Two)

fiesta 4
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.
fiesta 5

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!

fiesta 6

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.