Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The story of the Azteca Theater

 The Azteca Theater was built by Gustavo Acosta and opened Nov. 30, 1948. Acosta had several theaters and worked out of  Los Angeles. It was the first Spanish-only theater in Fresno and served the whole San Joaquin valley.

The design was by Fresno firm  Johnson Engineers. They had also been involved in some of the facade work on the Warnor's Theater in Fresno and designed the Biola Theater which was similar in design to the Azteca.
Azteca Theater, December 1982
showing Ahi Esta El Detalle and
Juan Gallo for 99-cents.
Photo Courtesy American Classic Images
The iron roof trusses came from Sanger Iron. Add a lot of concrete and well-laid red bricks and  the theater has a long future ahead.

In 1956 Acosta  leased the Azteca Theater to friend Arturo Tirado.who had managed a theater in Bakersfield 1944-1953. The Azteca Theater received Spanish language  film distribution through Acosta in Los Angeles.

Arturo Tirado was born in 1912 to a family of entertainers originally from Spain  that moved to Los Angeles around 1918 and he acted in theaters and some cinema and even played violin in a music group.. His father Romualdo Tirado was quite famous in the theater as and actor and writer and the quintessential Cantinflas.

In addition to running the theater, Arturo organized tours in the US for many famous actors and musicians from Mexico. Many A-list performers passed through Fresno and the Azteca.

Mexican cinema had made great progress since the 1930s but was little known outside Latin America. The Spanish speaking community of Fresno strongly supported the Azteca Theater  and  several other Spanish language theaters that followed.

Tirado ran the Azteca until the mid-1980s. In its later years it became more of a social center for the Mexican-American community helping those in need, holding charitable food drives.  Tirado even wrote some Spanish language brochures on legal citizenship to help the many workers from Mexico who populated the San Joaquin valley.

The theater was the center for music, vaudeville, comedy and theatricals as well as cinema for the Mexican-American community. All the top stars from Mexico came to Fresno and filled the theater. When Cesar Chavez made his famous march with farm workers from Delano to Sacramento he stopped at the Azteca and rallied his followers. The mayor, Tirado and  somewhat notorius Fresno Police Chief  Morton escorted the march through the area to show respect and guarantee safe passage.

In 1961 Tirado held a meeting in San Francisco that resulted in the formation of  the Spanish Pictures Exhibitors Association. Elected President, Tirado represented almost 300 Spanish language movie houses nationwide in negotiations with distributors. It was the golden age for Mexican movies. Cantinflas, Pedro Infante, Maria Felix, Agustin Lara, Pedro Vargas, Miguel Aceves Mejia, Pedro Armendariz, Antonio Aguilar and Jose Alfredo Jimenez were among the luminaries seen at the Azteca Theater.

 In the early 1980s the theater ran budget films in English and Spanish. Karate films and Bruce Lee were also popular.  But the time had come for Tirado to retire and so did the theater. Single screen movie houses disappeared all over the country in favor of multi-screen theaters. (In the 1990s many multi-screen theaters closed in favor of 20-plus screen theaters.) Video tapes also appeared to lure customers away.

The theater fell into neglect in the late 1980s and by 1995 was in derelict condition with doors off, holes in the roof, and all seats and equipment removed.   The seats were hauled of to Levy's for recycling. The Fresno police patrol saw them being removed and when they understood they were being recycled a few offices bought a few. The only seats from the Azteca remaining are those in the homes of  a few police officers in Fresno!
 There used to be 10 large murals of  Mexican and Aztec life on the wall and many framed photos of stars of Mexico. Some were removed and only two few destroyed by water from the roof were left.

Several new owners got involved with ideas for a cotillion ballroom or other uses, but it did not materialize.
A roof repair job gone awry resulted in all rain water running into the building forming a pond.  Bums ransacked the interior  and occupied the place along with pigeons and cats. It had become a hazardous building by neglect.

Since 1999 it has been stabilized and has prospects for a good future with new owner David Owens. Fisk Construction  did the crucial roof repairs and it is looking much better. Especially after some paint and patch from Lance Fry's crew. The iPacific art gallery is open occasionally and a master locksmith, Archie Wood, occupied the left commercial wing until 2013.

Azteca Theater in 2014
Update!  On September 26, 2014, the Azteca Theater celebrated a grand reopening under the management of Laura Barboza!

Watch for more chapters from the Azteca Theater as the story continues!
Activities and events are now on Facebook.
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Manuel G. Gonzales wrote a great history of  the Azteca Theater and Latino culture in Central California in the  March 22, 2006 edition of California History Magazine titled, "Arturo Tirado and the Teatro Azteca: Mexican popular culture in the central San Joaquin Valley."
Find it in your library or it is available for purchase:
Arturo Tirado and the Teatro Azteca: Mexican popular culture in the central San Joaquin Valley.: An article from: California History

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A friend we'd like to see at the Azteca

American Voices and Gene Aitken: A dream concert

 Gene is an amazing teacher and musician and truly a great humane ambassador. He seems to be all over the planet of late and the chance of finding him nearby is slim to none. I was honored to participate in a Jazz program under Gene Aitken in Oregon. It would be a personal dream to see him at the Azteca Theater coaching a new batch of musicians.

He currently spends most of his time teaching jazz and music education in Asia and the Middle East, and has recently retired as Director of the Conservatory of Music at the National University of Singapore. His activities as a conductor, performer, composer, adventurer, clinician, adjudicator, and producer of educational events have led him to all corners of the globe.
His recent travels to Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq from June through August 2009 brought him to some of the most dangerous places in the world in which to teach music.

Since retiring from the University of Northern Colorado in 2002, he has worked extensively as a conductor and teacher in the Middle East and Asia. In addition to coordinating donations of music and musical instruments from the United States and Asia to musicians in the Middle East, he has conducted some of the top military bands and wind ensembles in Asia and the Middle East including the Peoples' Liberation Army Band of China (Beijing), the Pershmerga Army Band in Kurdistan (Erbil), the Lebanese Army Band (Beirut), the Sulaimaniyah Wind Ensemble (Iraq) and the Nepal Police Academy Band.

American Voices is engaged in cultural diplomacy through jazz, hip hop, country, Broadway, classical and other musical programs with over 80 countries around the world. They bring together out musicians with local traditional musicians and perform gala concerts, recordings from which are presented here. Please browse our videos of live performances in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kazakhstan and beyond!

Dr. Gene Aitken, 
DownBeat Jazz Educator Hall of Fame is just one of Gene's accolades.

Kurdish Jazz in Suleimaniya

Participants in the Unity Youth Performing Arts Academy in Iraq perform a jazz arrangement of a popular Kurdish song under the direction of Dr. Gene Aitken.  They worked together for about 10 days.

Gene Aitken has the most sophisticated musical perception imaginable. He seems to hear every note in every unusual Jazz harmony. Just a quick flash of his eyes in your direction and you know he heard something unusual. If he has to stop the group he can tell you exactly where something unusual happened and what note should have been there. He never assumed the musician was wrong. He might ask what note is listed in the chart, where and please, to play it! Sometimes he would correct the score in favor of they musician's choice, whether intended or accidental.

In Jazz a note is never wrong, at least philosophically. But some certainly sound better than others in a group setting. Every once in a while gene would step the group through a song beat by beat and listen to the harmonic fabric.

One great joy of being in one of Gene's lab bands was the tremendous amount of sight reading. The start of every session put a couple of new charts in front of us play. We had just one chance to get it right. It got the blood pumping and a feeling of victory if we nailed it. Then the chart went away and work began on the current playlist.

There were some unspoken rules known among jazz musicians. One was about making mistakes. To miss a note once was a learning experience. To miss it twice was a cause for questioning looks. To miss it a third time was to risk being replaced.

In the fleeting moment of jazz performance, you are only as good as your last riff and you are never done getting it just right.

I could tell an embarrassing story about how Gene entrusted me with the lead alto spot in a lab band and how I brought the sax soli in two measures early during the command performance of the saxophone-right-of-passage, "Cottonmouth" but it would be too humbling. As a true master at leading musicians Gene gathered the bass and drums with a quick look of eyes and some deft body and arm work to bring everyone into the correct time frame. Gene saved it. Someone made a joke its good "as long as we start and finish on the same note!" Gene didn't have to say anything, it was understood in just a fleeting look and stance. I could do better.

It is so difficult to lead creative people to improve without crushing their delicate creative souls. Thank you Gene for knowing that. Strike one. I went back to the woodshed.

--- Musical note: Duke Ellington composed “Cotton Tail” in 1940 after returning from the band’s European tour. His famous 1940’s band with Jimmy Blanton on bass and Ben Webster on tenor sax recorded it on May 4, 1940. Webster arranged its celebrated saxophone section chorus and played the solo which became a famous standard. Later versions were nicknamed Cottonmouth, describing how the sax section felt when playing this piece. It was said that if you could play this piece, you could play any sax Jazz tune as it contained all the classic rhythms and riffs of modern Jazz. Hear a hot sax section playing this at high tempo and it leaves you breathless.