Samstag, 24. Juni 2023

Paris and New York and Fresedo - Chapter 8: Spanish performers in New York (1921-1923)

by José Manuel Araque 

Maria del Pilar Paulina Pubillones-Guallart was born in 1893 in Havana, Cuba. She came from a Spanish family of circus performers. In 1917 she married guitarist Guillermo Arcos, and adopted her artistic name, Pilar Arcos. The Arcos arrived in New York on June 16, 1917, and soon had two kids Guillermo and Marta. In 1919 Arcos was in the premiere of Amadeo Vives' famous zarzuela Maruxa. Between 1919 and 1933 Pilar Arcos recorded at least 451 tracks for Columbia and Brunswick. Her repertoire consisted mostly of Spanish couplets and tradicional songs like Cielito lindo. In 1923 she tried some foxtrots, and recorded La copa del olvido, the Tango by Enrique P. Delfino made famous by Carlos Gardel in 1921.
Little was happening in the way of Tango in New York in the Winter of 1921. Esteban Cortizas (Cortez) and Peggy Barther (Peggy) performed in the Winter Garden on Broadway at 51st Street. And the newly opened Club Maurice, in the basement of the Broadway Central Building, across the street from the Garden and the Capitol Theater, had seen some action but soon ran into issues with the law because of the ongoing Prohibition on alcohol. Club Maurice's business was seasonal, it closed for the Summer. It was named after Maurice Mouvet, though the famous dancer was not the owner and had not danced in town for almost two years, he was in Europe procuring a divorce from Florence Walton

On March 6, 1921 the movie The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse premiered in New York's Lyric Theater. Based on the homonymous best-seller by Spanish writer Vicente Blasco Ibánez, Four Horsemen was a huge hit, it was universally lauded, and turned its star, Rudolph Valentino, into a household name. It also revived interest in Tango across the globe, with an iconic dancing scene that became a model imitated ever since. Incidentally, the dancing scene was not in the novel, it was added by screenwriter and producer June Mathis, who learned about Valentino's early days as a taxi dancer. The movie would go on to become the sixth largest grossing silent film of all times, it played through the end of the year nationwide. It was directed by Rex Ingram and distributed by Metro Pictures.

It's hard to understate the impact that Four Horsemen had on Tango in the Northern Hemisphere and elsewhere. In the wake of its release impresarios became interested in staging productions showcasing Spanish themes and Tango, notably on the Vaudeville circuits of Keith-Albee in the East, and Pantages in the West. In August producers Anton F. Scibilia and Walter Brooks teamed up with Osvaldo Fresedo's friend, the Argentine Tango dancer Roberto Medrano, and with Spanish dancer Emilia Delirio (of the 1914 Follies Marigny) in the production "In Argentina". The Valentino movie and the career of Medrano highlight the fact that in the early 1920s Tango was still perceived as somewhat linked to Spain. Just as in Paris during the TangoMania before the Great War, American audiences were expecting some Spanish flavour in their Tango. Meanwhile, the 1920 recordings by Osvaldo Fresedo using a new beat were barely known in New York. 

Scibilia & Brooks had experience in the Vaudeville circuits, in particular with hiring artists in New York and taking them on the road. Working on the road was not quite a very profitable business, performers were expected to pay a registration fee to the National Vaudeville Association (NVA) to begin with. In Argentina opened at the Poli Theater in Scranton, PA, and toured the Keith circuit with a cast of 10 South American performers that included Peruvian dancer Caridad Davis. The only American member of the cast was a Harry Ormonde, playing the part of an American tourist with limited use of the Spanish language, and trying to pick up girls in Buenos Aires. The Cafe scene at the center of the revue was straight out of Four Horsemen. They also brought a "Company of Argentine Players" (four musicians), including one that played drums with his fingers. We speculate that the leader of the musicians was Osvaldo Fresedo's second violin in the Orquesta Típica Select's recordings from 1920, Luis Alberto Infantas Arancibia. From Scranton the revue moved to Buffalo, and then hit Montreal, Washington D.C., Pittsburgh, Dayton, Chicago and Boston.

The young tonadillera Conchita Piquer (b. 1908) came to New York in September 1921 as part of the company of maestro Manuel Penella. Penella's opera El Gato Montés (The Wild Cat) was very successful in Spain, and Piquer became an instant favorite with both English and Spanish audiences, she had "salero" (she was very lively). Soon Piquer was recording for Columbia, and signed a 5-year contract with the Shuberts.

José Moriche (b. 1890 in Badajoz, Spain), a tenor, came to New York in early 1922 after a tour that took him to Mexico and Havana. Moriche started singing in the incipient radio, and recording for Columbia and for the smaller label Okeh. Before 1933 Moriche went on to record more than 519 tracks, but not many Tangos.

The Spanish-speaking population in New York at the time was less than 40 thousand souls, the vast majority of which was not from South America. Instead, according to The New York Times, half of them came from Spain, and the rest from countries close to the Unites States (Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Dominicana), and concentrated in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Spanish immigrants established Social Clubs that held events for the community in New York and in near cities like Bayonne and Newark. The most notable were the Centro Andaluz on 59-61 Henry Street in Brooklyn, and the Unión Benéfica Española on 239 W 14th St in Manhattan (the current location of "La Nacional"). Arcos, Piquer and Moriche were part of a larger group of Spanish performers that dominated the Latin music scene in New York in the early 1920s. These artists were very active in theater, in particular in the Spanish zarzuela, and many traveled throughout Latinamerica. In the coming years they also appeared together in many shows for charities, and many of these so-called "beneficios" took place in the Social Clubs.


By 1921 Daniel Castellanos's store had become the place-to-go to get Columbia Grafonolas and records. It was located in Bowling Green on the southern tip of Manhattan, across the street from the Staten Island ferry landing, and close to several train stations. Over the years Castellanos' newspaper ads are a guide of what records were popular in town, and what new releases from Spain and Buenos Aires were making it to the shores of New York.
Maurice finally came to New York in October 1921, to appear with his new partner Leonora Hughes at Club Maurice, and on the musical Good Morning, Dearie. His name still attracted the crowd, he was reportedly payed more than 500 dollars a week in Club Maurice alone. Maurice's stay in New York was short and almost uneventful, he returned with Leonora to Europe in early 1922. Still, before he left, he found time to speak to the New York press about the new dancing craze in Paris, Jazz. He predicted that "with more settled times we will return to more dignified dancing". Perhaps his call was premature, this was a brave new world now. By Summer 1922 Club Maurice was shut, the business venture was a failure.
It is also tempting to overestimate the effect that Four Horsemen had on the dancing scene. Even as the movie was still playing on some theaters, and Valentino kept promoting Tango, the momentum seems to have been lost. To many, Tango was a craze that took place precisely before the Great War in Paris, and the movie itself enforced that idea, down to the choice of gaucho clothes for Valentino. Though there was some increased interest in the form, and the ads for teachers and contests spiked, there was no rush of Tango dancers to the dancing halls. Soon after Fours Horsemen, Valentino quit Metro Pictures and joined Famous Players Lasky (which would morph into Paramount Pictures later in the decade). With Famous Players he stared in The Sheik (with costar Agnes Ayres) and Beyond the Rocks (with Gloria Swanson), cementing his reputation as the greatest movie star of the era. Following these new movies Valentino produced two beautiful pictorials (sans gaucho clothes) for the magazine Screenland with Ayres and Swanson.

In December 1921 In Argentina was in Brooklyn briefly at the Shubert Crescent Theater (Werba), the local press barely noticed them. In Christmas they were in Philadelphia, and then in January 1922 they were back in Washington D.C. before wrapping up with shows in Atlantic City (New Jersey). It's unclear why the revue was cut short in February, a small clipping from Vaudeville News shows that Scibilia sued Medrano and Delirio for breach of contract. Presumably the suit was settled out of Court.

The Flamenco dancer María Montero arrived in New York in March 1922 after touring Mexico, the Caribbean and Colombia since 1919. Soon after arriving she appeared at a banquet organized by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America in the Hotel Astor in Times Square to introduce its first chairman William Hays. The event was attended by notables like Mayor John F. Hylan, media magnate William Randolph Hearst, Famous Players' Adolph Zukor, and actress Mae Murray. In June Montero appeared on Broadway and by October she was dancing at the Strand Theater on 47th Street. She also joined the production company Teatro Español and worked with Conchita Piquer. 

Medrano and Delirio moved to Club Maurice, and to the cabaret The Tent on West 52nd Street (one block from Club Maurice). In May, with Pilar Arcos and one Vincent Martínez, they performed at a beneficio for Joaquín Ortega, a Spaniard that taught Flamenco and Tango. And then, in August 1922, they were asked to join the highly acclaimed revue Scandals, staged in New York's Globe Theater (Lunt-Fontanne on 46th and Broadway) by the dancer George White. White was an alumni of the Ziegfeld Follies, and Scandals was his version of the venerable revue. It had played every year since 1919, and on its fourth year White moved the start date to coincide with the opening of the Fall season. The revue was lavish and large, it featured dozens of artists, including comedians W. C. Fields and Lester Allen.
George Gershwin wrote the music for Scandals, including the fox trot Argentina. The next month the Atlantic Dance Orchestra recorded it for Edison Records. Paul Whiteman, known as "The King of Jazz", conducted the Palais de Danse Orchestra. The show closed in mid November and ran for a modest 89 performances in New York, though it got excellent reviews. Medrano and Delirio part-timed at Club Maurice too, and then went on the road with Scandals in December. Scandals played through the Northeast and the Midwest before its last curtain call in Chicago on April 21, 1923.

In March 1923, in Hartford, Connecticut, Anton Scibilia launched his new revue Land of Tango. Scibilia was likely trying to piggyback on the popularity of Gloria Swanson's new movie My American Wife, which had an Argentine subplot. There were no Argentine performers in Land of Tango, the male lead was Peruvian dancer Alberto Kollman, aka Alberto de Lima. The musicians in the troupe included Colombian/Panamanian singer Alcides Briceño. Scibilia went back to his tried-and-true toolkit, reusing the plot of the comedian that lead the audience through a series of vignettes trying to get a Spanish-speaking señorita. The revue played in the Northeast, but it barely made it to Yonkers (Proctor's Theater), and never played in New York. That Summer Scibilia tried renaming the review to "Cabaret Argentino" and soon took off to the Pantages circuit in Canada and the Northwest.

The Fall 1922-Winter 1923 season for Tango in New York had been slow, there was nary a headliner other than Scandals. José Moriche and Conchita Piquer saw some action. Pilar Arcos worked on and off with Manuel Penella in the production company Teatro Lírico Español. And Montero taught dancing to some notable actors, and continued dancing at the Strand. In early May 1923 Medrano and Delirio returned to New York and appeared with Arcos and Piquer at a beneficio. Later that month they performed at a mega-show in Madison Square Garden organized by one Latin American Amusement Enterprises, which included Arcos and Montero. This show was pretentious, it was meant to be a huge Spanish "fiesta", including a parade of bullfighters in their flashy garments enacting some of the pomp of the bullfights in Spain (real bullfights were not allowed in New York). The result was a fiasco, people walked out of the show. Only the singers and dancers were spared by the reviewers, Pilar Arcos could do not wrong, she was a favorite. That Summer, Arcos and Montero traveled to Puerto Rico where they were acclaimed.

It made sense for Spanish artists to team up, there was tough competition, a lot of theaters were time-sharing their acts with silent movies. In 1923 Conchita Piquer appeared in Lee De Forest's production of "Far from Seville", one of the earliest spoken movies ever produced. While the shorts produced by De Forest were not widely distributed, it's clear that a revolution was in the making.

The Spaniards were soon to be joined in New York by a cast of musicians coming from Havana. In Spring 1923 Ernesto Lecuona, the legendary composer and pianist, arrived in New York, expressly to learn about the new American music scene. Lecuona is considered by some to be the greatest Latin American composer of the first half of the 20th Century, his influence is enormous and can be heard today in Salsa and others. He was friends with Ravel, who considered Lecuona's Malagueña superior to his own Bolero. In May Lecuona made a test recording (lost) for Victor, and in July he recorded for Brunswick Records with tenor Mariano Meléndez, including his own Tango Es un golfo. That Summer he played on radio, and at the Capitol Theater at a showing of the movie Daughters of the Rich. The Capitol was the largest movie house in New York, known for Roxy Rothafel's lavish productions that mixed live performances and movies. Up-and-coming dancer Doris Niles was part of this show. Lecuona returned to Cuba on August 5.

Yet another player that is indirectly connected to the history of Tango in the United States is the Argentine boxer Luis Ángel Firpo. Firpo arrived in the United States in early 1922, he aspired to nothing less than the World's Heavyweight title, at the time in the hands of Jack Dempsey. Firpo was bulky, and carried a very strong punch, he was nicknamed The Bull of The Pampas. For the next 18 months of his quest he fought some of the best boxers in the country, and beat them, he was called invincible. The Spanish newspaper in New York, La Prensa, had much to do with the rise of Firpo as a hero of "the Latin race" (la raza), it documented his every move. Firpo had a soft side too, he loved and danced Tango. And he was close friends with Roberto Medrano, they went to School together in Buenos Aires. As Medrano told the press, when Firpo was in New York in his apartment on West 94th Street (in the Upper West Side), Medrano would come over and "drink his tea" (mate).

In late 1922, Valentino starred in the very popular movie Blood and Sand, also based on a Blasco Ibáñez novel adapted to the screen by June Mathis. He was now living with his fiancée Winifred Hudnut, aka Natacha Rambova, a set and costume designer. Valentino then went on strike against Famous Players, he felt he was not getting a fair share of the huge profits his movies were generating. In early 1923 Valentino and Rambova embarked on the Mineralava Tour, and visited 88 cities across the United States presiding over beauty contests. The goal was to keep Valentino's name on the news and stay relevant. Valentino donned his gaucho clothes again and danced Tango in many of these presentations, yet again acting as Tango's great ambassador in the United States. He traveled around with a band said to be Argentine, though there's no evidence there were any Argentine musicians at all in it. They planned to wrap up the tour with a big show in New York. But since Summer was the slow season, in mid-August Valentino and Rambova traveled to Europe on holiday.

There were plenty of dancing studios and ballroom places in New York in 1923, a handful with Tango instruction and contests. Through Winter the Hotel Plaza had run "Tango nights" on Mondays. Ms Evelyn Hubbell ran the Castle School of Dancing where "American Tango" was taught on 58th Street near Lexington Avenue. And the Tango Gardens ballroom opened in April on 14th Street near Union Square. It advertised positions for "young ladies to act as dancing partners", earning an average of 30 dollars a week. 

What's remarkable about the Tango scene in New York from 1920 through 1923, is the almost complete absence of Argentine musicians, specially since the departure of Ferrer and Filipotto. This was soon going to change with the arrival of Juan Carlos Cobián.



1. The newspaper La Prensa estimated that the Spanish-speaking population in New York was close to 80 thousand in 1925, quite a jump from the 30 thousand reported by the Times in March 1924. These numbers should be used with caution.


1. Alicia Cruzado

2. for the pictures of Screenland

3. Idoia Blanco of La Nacional for that fabulous picture


1. The Tango in the United States: A History by
Carlos González Groppa

2. Michael Bernal:The Golden Age of the Spanish Dance, 2020


3. The website Flamencas por Derecho by Ángeles Cruzado Rodríguez



To my friends Edmundo and Pia