GUADALAJARA: Big Time Little Theater

 

(Photos: South Pacific, 1984; Music Man, 1985; The Odd Couple, 1986)

Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, 1971-1986. In May, 1971, we discovered an English-language community theater group called Tapateatro, (natives of Guadalajara are known as Tapatios; theater is teatro in Spanish) when friends invited us to see a production of Oklahoma! Guadalajara, Chapala, and Ajijic had a large community of native English speakers, most of them from the United States, a few from Canada, England, and more exotic English-speaking countries like Australia and New Zealand. Among them were a number of talented amateurs and a few retired professionals from all the lively arts. Together with the bilingual community and those who were learning English or who just enjoyed a live spectacle, there were enough people to put on some very well-done musicals. We were impressed and entertained by Oklahoma!

A year later, my husband Andres auditioned for the chorus of  Fiddler on the Roof, which starred Joseph Leon in the role of Tevya. Leon was a working actor who had played a visible role in the movie Shaft. Carol Mayedo Stokes, my talented colleague from the American School of Guadalajara, who taught instrumental and vocal music, was cast as Tzietl. Nan Susac played Golda. She was the gifted wife of a wildly unconventional author-turned-history teacher, Andrew Susac, whose ancient car had broken down near the American School, inspiring him to go in and see what the prospects for employment might be. They were good, and he, Nan, and their children livened up the school for a couple of years. Nan was a beautiful woman with striking green eyes, who wore long calico hippie dresses most of the time. Offstage she didn’t need or use much makeup. Andrew, who wrote and llustrated biographies of historical characters aimed at middle-school readers, was also a gifted artist. At a dinner party in the Susacs’ house, for which we are instructed to, “Bring a fork,” we sat on cushions around a low table for a tasty curry-laced meal, presided over by a barefoot Nan. “Would you like to see a picture of my guru?” Andrew asked when we had finished, leading us to another sparsely furnished room featuring a gigantic photo of his bearded guru.

I didn’t take part in Fiddler on the Roof, but I visited a lot of rehearsals, supported Andres in costume and prop searches, was an enthusiastic member of the audience, and didn’t miss any planned or impromptu parties, including the big cast party after the last performance. The perormances took place at the Seguro Social Hospital near downtown Guadalajara, which had a revolving stage. The final scene featured the entire cast leaving Anatevka with their mops, brooms, battered suitcases, sewing machines, and children; it was staged on that revolving platform. Joseph Leon suffered a severe bronchitis during the critical days, but he made it through with generous doses of antibiotics and cortisone.

In the fall of 1972, Andres landed a part in the chorus of another Tapateatro production, Hello, Dolly! The star was the attractive gringa wife of a Mexican doctor, and she was outstanding. Another member of the chorus was an aspiring songwriter, Ernesto Macias. Ernesto, his sister Martha, and their mother Emilia (Millo) became family friends. We spent a weekend at a cabin in Juchipila, where you could hear donkeys braying at night and roosters crowing in the morning. We packed ourselves and our three small children into the red Renault and drove to Puerto Vallarta. We found a nightclub in downtown Guadalajara with live music but almost no patrons. It became our almost-private club, and they were always glad to have some business.

We were sad to leave Tapateatro and our new friends behind in the summer of 1973, when Andres accepted a residency in New York. We didn’t know then that our Tapateatro days were far from over. At a cast party for HelloDolly, Patty Bellinger, the director, told Andres how sorry she was that he was leaving because she had her eye on him to play Emile DeBecq in a future production of South Pacific. Too bad. We thought it would never happen.

We believed it would be impossible to settle in Guadalajara, so coming back was not in our original plan, but in April, 1974, we returned to stay. Tapateatro, however, had dropped out of sight. It would be ten years, 1984, before Patty Bellinger rekindled her dream of putting on South Pacific. She called Andres to audition for the lead role, and there was little deliberation. A friend who saw the performance said, “He doesn’t PLAY Emile DeBecq. He IS Emile DeBecq!” I tried out for the chorus and was cast as one of the HoneybunGirls. My son Ruben, 17, also got a part in the chorus, wearing dark makeup and a sarong as a native boy. Larry Grecov was a talented actor and set designer. He and Andres became good friends for the rest of Larry’s life. His Honeybun song and dance was memorable, and so were his set designs. Jeanne Chausse, who played Bloody Mary, also became a lifelong friend.

As soon as the curtain fell on the final performance of South Pacific, Patty Bellinger and Larry Grecov were making plans for Music Man. Larry himself played Harold Hill, and Jeanne Chausse was cast as Mayor Shinn’s comical wife. Andrés was in the Barbershop Quartet, my sons Ruben and Adrian were boys in the band, doubling as traveling salesmen in the opening scenes. I was a Pick-a-Little Lady. Adrian gave everyone quite a surprise when one of the featured dancers didn’t show up for an important dress rehearsal that was to serve as a sneak preview for the Tapateatro Board of Directors. In one of the opening scenes, three traveling salesmen break away from the others and dance. Two of the traveling salesmen were dance teachers and choreographers of the show. As they fretted about what to do, Adrian, who was already quite tall and mature-looking at 14, stepped up and said, “I know all the steps. I can fill in.” The choreographers were surprised but doubtful that he could do it, so they did a mini-audition right there. It was true; he knew the steps and executed them to near-perfection. The board members never knew the difference.

After Music Man, an interesting space became available at San Jose del Tajo, where many retirees, including Larry, had put down trailers or RVs and made a place to call home. The space had been a large chicken house, but San Jose del Tajo had not been a working ranch for many, many years. With a few decorative touches, a little carpentry, and a lot of ingenuity, the former chicken house was turned into a theater-in-the-round, and plays were staged while dinner was catered. I had a speaking part as Mrs. Chauvenet in Harvey, and Andres co-starred in Harvey and The Odd Couple. The Colony Reporter drama critic called my performance “adequate.” I was thrilled just to be mentioned, but I knew I shouldn’t quit my day job! After The Odd Couple, Andres, Larry Grecov, and Jeanne Chausse staged a highly entertaining Noel Coward Review at a club in Ajijic.

I left for Texas with the children in August, 1986. Andres continued to act and sing in productions. After we left, he did an encore performance as Emile DeBecq with a new Nelly Forbush in a South Pacific revival and had a significant part in The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

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