The History of Latinos in Arizona

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Julian Reveles, film historian talks about the history of Latino films and theaters in Arizona.

José Cárdenas: As Arizona's centennial approaches, "Horizonte" is looking back at how Latinos have contributed to our state's history and culture. Tonight we talk about Latino films and theaters. With me is Julian Reveles, local Arizona historian. Julian was also a radio personality in the 1970s and 1980s on KTAR radio. You truly are a bicultural, bilingual and that's reflected in the theaters we'll talk about. But let's start with the history of Spanish language theaters in Arizona. The first was the -- one of the first was the Azteca theater?

Julian Reveles: The first one was the plaza theater. Known by the population at that time and we're talking 1913 when it opened up. As LA CITA. And was across the street from the fox theater. It was the city hall at that time.

José Cárdenas: Phoenix city hall.

Julian Reveles: Yes, Phoenix city hall and it was 1913 and there was quite a bit of Hispanic population that had come in.

José Cárdenas: 1913, we're not talking about Spanish language or English language, we're talking about silent films?

Julian Reveles: Yes, silent films at the time. It wasn't until 1927 and 1928 that here and Mexico, that sound, talkies came in. And it was about that time that some of these theaters sprang up. And so many of us were born and raised here. My uncle Joe told me about the theater and it showed Mexican and American silent films.

José Cárdenas: Because of segregation?

Julian Reveles: He never talked about that problem but I know they had that problem, they had that problem at the fox theater which is not a theater we're going to be talking about here today. Because it -- it did not have Mexican films but they certainly had the segregated balcony. But my uncle didn't talk about problems there but they used to go there primarily for the Mexican movies so maybe by inference, we can gather that he couldn't go to -- he couldn't go to see Carroll Lombard or -- when the Fox theater was built in 1931, and they knocked down the original city hall, the LA CITA pretty much went out of business, because it couldn't compete with this monumental beautiful theatre from the art deco era.

José Cárdenas: We have pictures of the following theaters. The Ramona.

Julian Reveles: The Ramona Theater.

José Cárdenas: We have a picture on the screen of that theater.

Julian Reveles: It was one of my favorite theaters and it was built by -- by the grandfather, Frank, a good friend of mine and familiar to you folks on "Horizonte." He was a Yugoslavian that came here early on. He was an entrepreneur. And he started buying up properties in what was then known as Gold Alley. The area between Third, Fourth, Fifth Street. Washington, Jefferson and even into Madison. It originally had been Phoenix's Chinatown not '30s and Mr. Gold, actually he had not name but he made it Mr. Gold because he figured the streets were paved with gold here in America and he took advantage of that. He was a good businessman and picked up a hotel called the Lemon Hotel, for some reason, and when he saw movies were starting to come in the 1920s, he opened up the Ramona theater.

José Cárdenas: The images we showed, talked about home of the westerns and so forth. It showed both Spanish and English.

Julian Reveles: Like the LA CITA and the Azteca -- and we'll talk about that later. But they had that format. A smart thing economically. You get all sorts of audiences in there and the Ramona Theater had that format also. Up until 1942 and then two years later, and for some reason, we don't know why they stopped, two years later, when the Azteca came in, understanding then it took over the format of doing English and Spanish films and -- but the Ramona theater, I remember, of course, I may inject a personal note. My two sisters who live in Phoenix, long time, they both worked at the Ramona, so guess who got to go in there for free? That's how I became a big movie buff. I got to go see these free movies and free popcorn and all that. They weren't showing Spanish movies at that time, but I watched a lot of John Wayne and Charlie Chan and all of these wonderful B movie entertainment. Which is what kids like. We don't have the ability to enjoy Errol Flinn or others. But the Ramona filled that void and the area it was in was instrumental. The fact it was on Third Street between Third and Fourth Street because believe it or not. A lot of the mainstream, the Anglo Americans, would not go much further east than the Fox Theater, they would not go to the Rex Theater or the Azteca. Those were our theaters, it was the Hispanic part of town and that was where people were going. They even had a Ramona Theater, the Ramona Theater and restaurant, and they had the Ramona Drugstore. So it was all -- all in that area.

José Cárdenas: Let's talk about the Azteca Theater. We have a picture of that one. Is that the one - you and I talked about being a kid and seeing Spanish language movies one part of the week and then English language, mostly westerns another part of the week. Was that at the Azteca?

Julian Reveles: True, that was a real epiphany for me, if you will. I would go to watch the cliffhangers or the chapters, as we called them. Superman and Captain Marvel and I went with my buddy, only seven blocks from where we lived. We didn't even have to take a bus. We just walked. And I was 11, 12 years old, whatever. And then my dad, he loved movies, he would take me to the Azteca during the week and we would watch -- like the Charlie Chaplain of Mexico. And one of the Mexican cowboys. And I loved those movies and I remember it was an epiphany and I was sitting with my dad and I said, "This is wonderful." The fact that I can enjoy Roy Rogers and Gene Autry and also… and understands it, and even though I was very young at the time, I must have been somewhat perceptive, but it was wonderful to have this bicultural experience and it became a big part of my life.

José Cárdenas: Let's talk the Orpheum. There was a period of time when it was Palace West?

Julian Reveles: It became Palace West and became the Paramount Picture, it was part of the chain but the Orpheum was one of these beautiful art deco theaters that is just about every community had in the 1920s, '30s and '40s, beautiful--almost obscenely lavish. And we had one that opened in 1928 and it began showing Mexican movies in 1978 when Felix Corona, a businessman in South Phoenix, lease it had from James Nederlander, he was a stage impresario, he did staged shows and he came and changed the name from Orpheum Theater, they weren't showing movies anymore. And he opened it up as an adjunct to his eastern staged theatrical shows and called it the Palace West. And they started showing Spanish language in '78. When it didn't pan out, Corona leased it for nine years and showed wonderful Mexican movies and I remember doing a piece for a Phoenix publication of the part of "Arizona Republic" on enjoying the movies. And it was quite a venue, watching Mexican movies and that also closed down and then the Orpheum went back to being the theater and refurbished it and we enjoy it as a beautiful stage theater.

José Cárdenas: There was a drive-in as well.

Julian Reveles: It had two scenes back to back and they shared one box office. You took one particular route and if you were going the other one, you took another route. One showed English and one showed Mexican films and it was on 27th and Van Buren, near the big Reynolds aluminum plant on Van Buren and it was a first Mexican drive-in. That was wonderful.

José Cárdenas: It's a wonderful story. And I'm afraid we're out of time. But thank you so much for joining us.

Julian Reveles: I enjoyed it.

José Cárdenas: That's it for us tonight. For all of us here at "Horizonte," I'm José Cárdenas, good night.

Julian Reveles: Film Historian;

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