Hello; if it seems that I know a lot about the early years of tango in Los Angeles, it is because I lived it 24/7, week after week, month after month, and year after year. Tango for me was every night, non-stop.
I can think of two things that really gave tango a big and unexpected boost in L.A. during the summer of 1986, when the show Tango Argentino was booked at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood:
1) The producers of the show, and their agents, did something unusual: they invested heavily in television advertising, going far beyond what you would have experienced with most shows or movies. In those years, there was no cable or satelite TV, and no internet or PC's. If you had a show or movie to promote, you had to do it the old-fashioned way, with ads placed in local newspapers, in magazines, on the radio, and especially on local television stations.
Every day during the summer of 1986, TV viewers would see a lot of 30-second ads promoting Tango Argentino at the Pantages. You heard thrilling tango music, and saw 6 or 7 dancing couples, dressed elegantly in tuxedoes and gowns, with the announcer proclaiming, "Tango Argentino!.....Let yourself go!" The dancers included Copes, Virulazo, Arquimbao, Dinzel, and Rivarola. These ads would be run during the morning and evening news programs of most local Los Angeles TV stations, reaching an audience that was rather select: people at a high socio-economic level who were appreciative of culture and the arts. Similar ads were also run on L.A. radio news stations. This was how, for the first time ever, most people throughout Southern California discovered the true tango in dance and music. I have never seen a show or movie promoted so thoroughly as was "Tango Argentino," and promoted to the right type of audience.
All of this created a huge sensation among Angelenos, and they responded to tango enthusiastically! This was what really gave tango its big boost in L.A., and nothing since then has worked so well at generating local interest in tango.
2) In the 1960's, 70's, and 80's, Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show was king of variety, celebrity interviews and late-night entertainment. And, actor Robert Duvall did indeed appear several times talking about tango; but Carson never appeared to be very interested in anything related to tango dance or music. He seemed to merely "tolerate" the stories that Mr. Duvall would tell about his love of tango and the authentic milongueros who had become close friends.
However, in those years, The Merv Griffin Show was a much different story. Merv Griffin was a legendary television producer, and a very big name in Hollywood. His show was Carson's major competitor. And Merv was very different in one aspect: he really liked dancers. He frequently had ballroom dancers in L.A. perform on his show. In fact, he had a contract with the Bevery Hills Arthur Murray Studio, and frequently had their instructors as guest performers.
One night, towards the end of May, 1986, Merv announced on his show, "Ladies and gentlmen, the hottest ticket in town these days is for Tango Argentino playing at the Pantages, and I would like you to welcome Eduardo & Gloria Arquimbao. Here is Tango Argentino!" Eduardo and Gloria then performed their show number, a tango to the selection, “Milongueando en el '40” (“Floor Dancing in 1940”), a rousing tango from Aníbal Troilo.
The audience went wild, and apparently so did most of Southern California. The very next night, it was "Tangomania."
At that time, a few of us got together at a Bolivian restaurant on Lankershim Boulevard. called Nora's Place. They had a tiny dance floor, and a live tango trio, Osvaldo Barrios' Tres para el Tango. Well, from that moment onward, all of Hollywood tried to get into Nora's Place. The line was queued up five abreast and a mile long down Lankershim! You had to have reservations, which frequently got cancelled from the crush of people.
All the television and radio stations sent their mobile news crews to report live from Nora's Place about the Tangomania going on inside. We were all jammed like sardines in a tin can. Everyone was there every night, because the stars of Tango Argentino (particularly Virulazo) would come over to have dinner after their performances at the Pantages. And everyone was waiting for them. Robert Duvall had his own private table with many invited guests. When the cast members all walked in the front door, the band would play “La Cumparsita” and the dinner guests would all stand up and give them a rousing applause. The men would cheer; the women would scream. It was all very thrilling.
The cast members would dine until about midnight, and then Virulazo would slowly stand up from his seat. The band would start playing La Cumparsita again. Virulazo, arguably the greatest and most famous milonguero of all time, would select a lady from among the guests that he knew could follow him. He escorted her to the floor, which cleared out just for them. And then for a few brief minutes we got to see the greatest Milonguero give us a personal demonstration of his art and skill. He leaped, jumped, pranced, and for several minutes, to the utter astonishment of us all,
Virulazo gave us the show of a lifetime. The men stood and cheered; the women swooned; the entire house erupted and went wild. And what we saw those evenings was so exciting that it stayed with us for the rest of our lives.
You see, for an authentic old-time milonguero like Virulazo, tango was something that you HAD to do.
Nothing gives the true milonguero so much joy as the opportunity to practice his craft; he really loves the
chance to show tango to people. For someone like Virulazo, and for a great many others, tango was EVERYTHING in life. As Nestor Ray, another authentic milonguero, once stated, "I could not possibly conceive of life without tango."
The television ads, and the Merv Griffin show, caused an avalanche of interest in a beautiful new world. That was it! We were all hooked! And so it was that, during the summer of 1986, tango exploded on the L.A. scene, to be discovered by a wide cross section of Los Angeles that was more than ready to have something beautiful added to their lives; something that was very cultural; something that was a touch of class. Our lives were never the same again.
Those early days of tango in Los Angeles were magical and exciting. Nothing since then has equaled it.
More to follow,
Read more of Paul's letters!