Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Beginning: Familia Corporation—Univision/Televisa

Welcome to LatinoWood!
After 26 years living in Los Angeles and working in Hollywood, I have accumulated memories and experiences that at times I find hard to believe. Some are fascinating, some a bit bizarre, some painful, but most are glorious. At Latinowood you will read about my personal journey into the Hollywood odyssey, the people who have impacted my life along the way, Latino writers, filmmakers, actors, and executives. I will also venture into niche and Latino PR and marketing in Hollywood providing my own expertise and interviewing leading experts in this field. 

For this first post, I share with you my initiation into Latinowood. The following is an excerpt from a book I’m writing…think Lauren Weisberger’s “The Devil Wears Prada,” loosely based on actual occurrences.

The Beginning:  Familia Corporation—Univision/Televisa
Back in 1984, Emilio Azcarraga Milmo was the lion king of the Spanish TV jungle. Names like Fernando Diez Barroso, Jaime Davila, Larry Dam and Rosita Peru, were at the forefront working with Mr. Azcarraga, out-maneuvering the competition every step of the way.

When I first started working, my immediate supervisor was a beautiful and sophisticated woman who was the personal assistant and confidante to the Azcarraga’s. I was her assistant for about one year when she left the company and I was promoted to her position. This was a big deal, not just anyone got to work closely with the family. I became the Executive Assistant to the second in command, an Azcarraga nephew, and heir to the dynasty. Prior to the company moving to the Century City high-rise, we were on West Sunset Boulevard. Our move was delayed in the late 80's because the movie “Die Hard” with Bruce Willis was being filmed, on our very floor! Each time I see the film, I recall the elegant surroundings with mixed feelings. However, my best building stories come from the Sunset Blvd. building, where I remember riding the elevator with Mickey Rooney about once a week, he was probably visiting his agent. He and I shared some lovely elevator conversations, and on several occasions, he’d miss his floor to ride up to the top suite with me. When we finally moved to Century City, we were on the top floor, the penthouse being occupied by former president Ronald Reagan. I do recall seeing Mrs. Reagan, again the elevator, on several occasions. The former Ambassador to Mexico and Hollywood movie star, John Gavin, had an office right next to mine. The film classic, “Imitation of Life,” starring Lana Turner and John Gavin is one of my favorite movies. There were days I had to pinch myself trying hard not to stare like a lovesick puppy.

My bosses, the Azcarraga family was Mexico’s richest family and the third richest (at that time) in the world. Most of the heirs were individuals with the burden of having inherited way too much money. I admit, I was in awe of some of them. Working at Univision during this time exposed me to a world I only knew existed on film or TV. The TV hit Dynasty, was as close as I ever got to this type of monumental wealth. I credit this job for so many personal improvements: I learned to throw a hell of an impressive party! I learned to speak Italian! And, I will never forget that for a few years, I had my own personal shopper at Saks 5th Avenue, a beautiful woman named Margarita. It was a time when I fit in single digit sizes! It was not uncommon for me to accompany the wives of Mexican dignitaries or VIPs to Cartier or Harry Winston where they would select pieces they liked and later the store would suggest to the husband which trinkets to purchase. Beautiful, dazzling diamonds, pearls, rubies, emeralds, and stones I’d never even heard of before. Most of the time these jewels rarely left the vault. I always thought it was silly to spend so much money only to have the item safely stored away.

Tales of Another Time
There were so many memorable characters working during this era. There was the little man who was paid a lot of money who spent his time checking video property making sure that each tape had the appropriate copyright symbol and disclaimer. Later I found out that this strange gentleman was a person who practiced brujeria and rumor was his true function in the company was to protect one particular family member from bad spirits. The rumor was later confirmed when I received a call in the middle of night from the butler and cook, husband and wife, who worked and lived at the mansion owned by this “particular family member.” They were leaving immediately because of their devout Catholic beliefs. They insisted the little man was performing brujeria. The bosses were gone so I had to rush over to try and soothe things out. The couple showed me a tiny room under the garage area that they claimed was where the owners and brujo did their witchcraft. There was noting gory but lots of dark candles with emblems I didn’t recognize and other items that were clearly not religious. The woman kept giving herself the sign of the cross and chanting a prayer. I called the couple a taxi and they were gone.

The supposed brujo lived with his lover, a very nice young man who befriended me wanting my assistance in getting him enrolled at Santa Monica JC so that he could learn English. Well, the brujo found out about it and claimed that I was trying to steal away his lover. He made a huge brouhaha and tried to get me fired. He threatened me, and then proceeded to call my mother and threatened that he was putting a spell on me, well that was about as much as I was going to take from him. I had no choice but to go to my boss and he immediately straightened out the mess. I laugh at this now but at the time I was married and getting accused of trying to steal someone’s lover was no laughing matter. My mother fought back during one of the brujo’s phone call tirades when she threatened the brujo back by telling him she was casting a major curse on him if he dare hurt me. My mother was joking, but the brujo took the threat seriously. In the end, I had to promise to have my mother remove whatever spell she had cast on him. Ay, Diosito, this was a most interesting period during my employ.  Officially, however, he was the colorful and eccentric Copyright Verifier.

The staff that worked at the private residence and in the office was a group of hard working individuals, mostly Mexicano or Central American. The maids, cooks, butlers, drivers, and gardeners were wonderful people who performed beyond the call to duty. They bent backwards to please the jefes. At times I recall thinking that this reality was just as it is portrayed in the telenovelas. The rich stood high on the level of society while the working poor rarely ventured out of their lower level standing. I have nothing but fond memories of the domestic staff. They had more class and dignity than many of their rich bosses.

Another memory I have is being summoned to the mansion in Beverly Hills, and then was sent to Thrifty’s drug store (in a limousine) to purchase aspirin. It had to be me. It couldn’t be the butler or any other employee. I was an executive administrative assistant to the main muckety mucks with several of my own assistants, but when someone in the higher up, the wife, for instance was a little ticked off at me for some minor infraction, I would be sent on these meager errands, as sort of punishment. To remind me that I was nothing more than just another servant, a disposable hired hand. 

I remember ordering Avon for one wife…she couldn’t bring herself to ordering it herself because it was beneath her to be purchasing such a cheap product (her description not mine). But there was this one particular cream she wanted. She had sampled it during a vacation stay at the Betty Ford Center. I ordered about a dozen bottles with my next personal order.

Then there was the time when the same wife wanted to take golf lessons and she wanted me to locate a place that sold designer golf wear. Well, the only golf clothes available were whatever was sold at the sports stores. Valentino or Carolina Herrera or any other high profile designer did not have a line of golf clothes. I know because I had to call every top designer I could get a hold of. More than once I was laughed at. But it was my job even when they asked the ridiculous.

While I’m sharing the ridiculous, I remember this one time when the Avon-Designer Golf-wife was furious because there were no blooming flowers in her garden. She wanted to wake up every morning, open her elegant French doors that exposed the entire garden, and see flowers all the time. It was the dead of winter and the only flowers that bloom just about year round is a delicate plant called Impatiens. They are popular for ground coverage because they tend to bloom from summer to frost. Sometimes. The poor gardener didn’t know what to do, he couldn’t control and guarantee blooms all the time. After exhausting all possible remedies, I recall instructing the gardener that I wanted him to purchase baskets full of colorful artificial flowers and sticking them throughout the grounds, mixing them in with the delicate Impatiens. From the bedroom view, which was a distance, I was sure the wife would never notice the fake flowers. The gardener did not want to do this and it took some coaching from me to convince him. Say what you want, but when it comes to getting the job done, I am very resourceful! The wife was delighted every morning with the colorful blooms in her magnificent garden. I don’t think she ever found out.

I recall one time being told by my boss to accompany his wife during her lunch with the wife of a high profile actor. My instructions were clear: “Do not let them out of your sight.” The ladies had a tendency to wet their whistle a little too much in public and I was to basically babysit. I got in a shit load of trouble when the wife and her girlfriend ditched the limo driver and me. We spent most of the day looking for them. By the time we found them, I think both were being shipped to Betty Ford’s. I got a major scolding for losing the ladies…I had been outfoxed by a pair of rich, clever and tipsy Beverly Hills housewives!

A lot of drama, excitement and laughter happened before I left Univision but the final straw that broke the camel’s back came as a result of an incident I call, “The Day of the Flying Black Patent Leather Shoes.” It was at the end of a long day when instead of raining frogs, it was shoes being hurdled at me in rage. A very wealthy, very drunk, former movie star, wife of a VIP was upset with me for buying the wrong shoes for her butler. “Plastic!” she yelled. “You buy my butler plastic!”

“They cost $400!” I responded. “They are the best Italian leather from Italy!” But nothing I said would calm her. I had had enough. I chose to duck, run and never return.  My stay working for the family that owned Univision/Televisa had cost me a husband, had compromised my dignity and delayed my dream of becoming a writer.

The stories I’ve shared are form the personal side of my job. On the business side, I learned a lot about the business of television. I wasn’t just taking notes at important meetings, I was paying close attention and absorbing as much as I could. I recall one particular woman who made an impression on me, someone I admired and wanted to be like:  Rosita Peru, the highest-ranking woman in Spanish TV. And, as far as I’m concerned, the most talented and successful female TV executive I have ever met. I had a yearning to learn TV production and Rosita was always gracious in answering my questions. She wasn’t snobbish like so many rich Mexicans I encountered back then. I wanted to work for Rosita but it was an unspoken rule that once you worked directly with the family, transferring to another department was out of the question. Rosita eventually ventured out on her own, married another wonderful individual, Luis Nogales and through the years, I lost touch with her. But I’ve often read of the wonderful things she and Luis have done as philanthropists donating millions to worthy charities. For the record, Luis Nogales was president at Univision toward the end of my employment. I liked him very much. He was down to earth and very approachable. As was former Univision President, Jaime Davila.  Both Nogales and Davila are brilliant businessmen who went on to do very well on their own. Davila and I would often talk about his favorite singers and songs, like Bob Dylan’s “Blowin in the Wind” or Jimi Hendrix’s “Castles Made of Sand.” It was nice to converse with someone who knew American as much as Mexican.

My years at Univision, working when it was still a family-owned and operated company, taught me that money is not happiness, nor is it powerful enough to cure diseases even if you can afford the best doctors in the world. Mr. Emilio Azcarraga Milmo died before his time losing his brave battle with cancer. I read he died on his yacht off the coast of Miami in 1997.

During my tenure as crazy as it was, it was never dull and I am grateful to the many wonderful and interesting individuals I met and experiences this Mexican conglomerate brought me. It taught me a love of cultural art, languages, and I received invaluable exposure into the world of TV production of shows, newscasts, promotion and marketing. Univision was my introduction to Latinowood, USA in all its glory and complexity.

Welcome to Latinowood. After 26 years in Tinseltown, there is not much I haven’t seen, heard or experienced.