Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Beverly Hilton Memories of Ricardo Montalban

A Bygone Era of LatinoWood

Watching the Golden Globe Awards on Sunday night was a bit boring for me until I noticed that it was taking place at the Beverly Hilton Hotel’s International Ballroom and a flood of memories poured in.

The Beverly Hilton was the venue where many of Ricardo Montalban’s Golden Eagle Awards took place. Nosotros, the non-profit organization that Montalban founded in 1970 hosted this annual event up until a few years ago. 

Ricardo Montalban
We lost Ricardo on January 14, 2009, and the memories of the Golden Eagle Awards are bittersweet because I had the honor and pleasure of working with him not only with the awards gala but also in 1999 during the acquisition of the historic Doolittle Theatre in Hollywood, which later became the Ricardo Montalban Theatre. I was the project manager during the acquisition period for which we can thank NCLR for helping to bring this tremendous project to fruition. Ricardo was deeply touched and humbled.

When I first started working at Univision/Univisa in mid-80’s, I was invited to attend a Nosotros meeting and there I met other Latinos working in Hollywood. Today, many of these professionals remain close friends. At Nosotros it wasn’t long before I got involved in helping with the Golden Eagle Awards. This show was different from the others because at the time, it was the only televised event that recognized and honored Latinos working in Hollywood.  I volunteered to help Loyda Ramos with the awards dinner/gala. Loyda is an actress and a couple of years later, she turned the reins of the gala over to me. I had the honor of working the craziness that comes with organizing a major sit-down televised awards dinner event.

As I watched the Golden Globes, I couldn’t help to check out the tables, floral arrangements, show theme, stage design and where celebrities were seated, one of the most important responsibilities of the event preparations and it is no easy feat. In fact, the seating arrangements are a big deal full of politics, emotions and if you get it wrong, the caca hits the fan and you had better duck! I mean you had divorced couples, now attending with new loves, aging beauties competing with younger glamorous starlets, suffice to say there is never a shortage of drama.

During my years as dinner coordinator, The Beverly Hilton was then owned by entertainer/businessman Merv Griffin and he always made the rounds during our set-up day and evening. Because of Merv, the Gabor sisters (Zsa Zsa and Eva) were almost always present, as were other legends like Cesar Romero, Eddie Albert, Robert Goulet, Casey Kasem (American Top 40 fame), Arlene Dahl (Lorenzo Lamas’ mom) among many others. Also, Ricardo’s closest friends were always on hand: Rita Moreno, Hector Elizondo, Luis Avalos, Vikki Carr, Edward James Olmos, Liz Torres, Andy Garcia, Robert Beltran and a whole bunch of others.  This is pre-Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Eva Longoria era.

(L-R) Ruben Soto, Elia Esparza and friend
To really understand Latinos working in Hollywood is to know, respect and honor the hurdles that were overcome by legends like Ricardo Montalban. No matter the controversy and politics of organizations, it was worth all the sweat and tears required to produce The Golden Eagle Awards. Later in more recent years, the National Council of La Raza produced The Alma Awards, which was also hosted and co-produced by Eva Longoria. Hopefully, this show will make the rounds again soon. Still, the original was Ricardo Montalban’s Golden Eagle Awards, and watching the Golden Globe Awards I couldn’t help recalling little things like me tapping on Ricardo’s shoulder to whisper that he was up soon. Or to review a speech or comments I had drafted for him. He never failed with his appreciation and gratitude of everyone who contributed to his organization and show.

Raquela Mejia
There was one year (sometime in the 90’s) when I wasn’t working the Golden Eagle Awards and I attended as a guest with my dear friends, Raquela and Wayne Mejia. Raquela prior to her marriage had been a professional back-up singer who traveled with Julio Iglesias and sang with many international performers. Wayne was and is a business manager to many Hollywood A-listers. Sitting at our table was a young Eva Longoria who at the time was still trying to break into the industry. Raquela was really excited because her good friend Jose Feliciano was being presented an award and performing. When the show ended, I accompanied her to the backstage area.

Nosotros had reorganized and working the gig was a bunch of really young interns who didn’t know who we were. It didn’t matter how much we pleaded nor name-dropped, the kids had strict orders that no one had backstage access. Raquela wasn’t about to let some greenhorn kids keep her out. She pulled me along as we made our way to the opposite side of the stage. The curtains had come down but not all the way to the floor. There was a one-foot gap. Raquela noticed no security blocking this stage entrance and because the lights were still lit on stage, she convinced me to get on all fours and the two of us crawled, inching our way across the very long stage.   

Meanwhile, Wayne was wondering where the heck we were until he saw movement under the stage curtain and was mortified when he realized that those hands, knees and feet belonged to his wife and that crazy friend of hers (me). Lucy and Ethel, we were, we are! I still can’t believe I let Raquela talk me into this caper.

When we finally reached our destination, we quickly sprung up, composed ourselves and made a beeline toward Jose Feliciano. He recognized Raquela immediately. 

Jose Feliciano
“¡Raquelita! ¿Eres tu?” 
Yes, we know, Jose is blind but Raquela always smelled like her signature perfume, “Paris,” and because Mr. Feliciano’s smell sense was in top form, he knew instantly she was standing right next to him! We had such a great time.

There are so many memories of our journey with Ricardo Montalban, The Golden Eagle Awards, and the acquisition of the historic theatre. I’ll write more about it at another time. Join me in celebrating his life, career and legacy. 

So now you know what I was thinking about as I halfheartedly watched the Golden Globe Awards at the fabulous Beverly Hilton Hotel!

Que Dios te bendiga, Ricardo. Siempre en nuestros corazones.