Aunt Inezita, The Mambo and Me
(From Latin Beat Magazine © 2007)

February 1, 2003 | Kellin, Don

There are many things that distinguish Los Angeles from the other major cities of the world, but without a doubt, the cool summer nights that follow hot, dry days rank among the most appealing. This is a story about one of those nights, and of my odyssey as a boy.

I was sitting with my wife and friends surrounded by a crowd of Latin music lovers gathered together to enjoy a night of Cuban music under the stars at the California Plaza, a pristine business complex in the center of downtown Los Angeles. From the steps of the terrace mezzanine, the grand plaza, framed by skyscrapers, looked like a clearing in a giant forest of marble, glass and steel. But despite the setting, I expected it was going to be a night like many before--until I saw her sitting on the steps below me.

It was the way she wore her jet-black hair up in a bun. It was how her back and shoulders moved while she sat there listening to the band swing. And when she finally turned toward me, it was the color of her eyes. They were as green as hers were. I had traveled a 50-year journey from that time we shared in my youth; fifty years so intense and arduous that the memories of the time we spent together in the carefree world that was hers and became mine had been all but buried by the stresses of budgets and bottom lines. But as I watched the woman swaying, the music faded, time slipped away and I was back there again and with her.

It happened in New York in 1949. I was 14, living the typical tenement life of a nice Jewish boy in the Bronx, surrounded by adoring parents, aunts, uncles, friends, teachers and rabbis. I did my homework, played stickball and basketball, and had my share of the neighborhood acne problem. Life was not boring, but predictable. Like trains moving on tracks laid down by our parents' generation, my friends and I traveled at different speeds, but in the same general direction.

My Uncle Paul had traveled his own path. After their mom died and their father abandoned them, my mom and her brother separated. Mom chose to live with their ailing Grandma Dora, and Uncle Paul--who was too difficult for Grandma to handle--chose the streets rather than be sent far from the neighborhood to an orphanage in New Jersey. As I grew up, the family referred to him as a character and a half. But he was simply a survivor who eventually gambled for a living and did some shady stuff that provided wads of cash, beautiful cars and women, and enough food to fill the enormous void created by a parentless youth.

I was home alone the day he returned after months of gambling in Havana. The bell rang, the door opened, and there was Unc with his arm around a tall, slender woman with green eyes, red lips and a smile on her face.

"Hi Donny. This is your Aunt Inezita, the Mambo Queen of Cuba."

My uncle had fallen in love with and married the featured dancer at the Tropicana Club in Havana, a woman who would soon be the featured person in my life.

They lived with us for months in our two-bedroom apartment in the Bronx. After school I would run home to watch her dance to her Cuban "forty-fives" in front of the gold marbleized mirror in my parents' bedroom while she told me stories of her career in Cuba, Miami and Puerto Rico. And when we were all at home together on the nights she wasn't working, the songs of Yiddish star Molly Picón and the words of Molly Goldberg, our own Jewish TV sitcom sage, spilled out of the living room to compete with the music of Arsenio Rodríguez, La Sonora Matancera and Conjunto Casino de la Playa. Polite but bewildered, my parents survived.
Aunt Inezita was not the typical compact, curvy, voluptuous, spike-heeled Latin bombshell. She was tall, at least five foot, eight inches, and her long legs took forever to reach the floor. I couldn't take my eyes off her when she danced. Her hips moved more forward and back than side to side. It seemed to me that from the waist down the rhythm dictated her movement, but no matter how intense the rhythm, her arms and hands moved to the melody like gossamer in a breeze. Days passed and although I wanted her to ask me to dance, I had no clue as to how I'd react if she did--until one evening when she extended her arms and said, "Come on handsome, dance with me." I was 14, five feet, five inches tall, and weighed one hundred and ninety pounds. The year before, while dad and I were shopping for a bar mitzvah suit at Barney's Boys Town, the salesman, Mr. Okun, referred to me as "temporarily stout." Arms still extended, Aunt Inezita repeated: "Come on handsome, dance with me."

And so we danced. We practiced in the afternoon after I finished my homework and in the evenings in between her club dates.

"Feet together, back straight. Stop wiggling so much. This is not a rumba!"

She explained the importance of clave: the beat created by striking two hardwood sticks together that formed the backbone of the rhythm. She made me listen to the conga and taught me to pick out the slap of the second beat of the four-quarter time that you danced to and that made the mambo unique. We danced and talked and danced and danced.
I was still 14 when she invited me to go out to the Tremont Terrace, a club in what was then known as the East Bronx. It was a hot spot for Latin bands and dancers. From the moment we walked in to the moment we left at midnight, although she was known by all and besieged by offers to dance, she danced only with me. Surrounded by pistol pockets and pompadours, by satin and sequins, and engulfed by the music of Noro Morales, I was her short, chubby, freckled-face partner.

We went out at least once a week for over a year. My uncle encouraged us because he hated to dance, and it gave him nights out with his buddies at the trotters. My parents didn't object because I kept my grades up, my weight down, and I seemed unaffected by it all. On one of those nights at a club in Manhattan, we sat at a table with Machito, the Afro-Cuban jazz great, and his sister Graciela. Joe Loco, the bandleader, invited her to sing a few songs and when Inezita was asked to do the same and front the band, Graciela stepped off the stage and asked me to dance. I couldn't tell if she was amused or impressed, but while we were dancing she had a laughter-filled conversation in Spanish with Inezita who stood above her on the stage. The word I heard more than once over the sound of Inezita's maracas was "Palladium." When the set ended I asked my aunt what the conversation was all about and what did Palladium mean? She explained that Graciela liked the way I danced and said, "I should take you to the Palladium and show you off." With reverence, Inezita explained that the Palladium was a grand ballroom and the home of the mambo. It was where the best dancers went to dance to the best music and she said she would take me there after returning from a job in Miami. As I sat there, a 15-year old man about town, moving in and out of a world unknown to everyone who knew me, I felt like Herb Philbrick, the main character in the popular cold war TV spy series" I Led Two Lives." I saw my buddies, played ball, did my schoolwork, screwed around, and like many others, contemplated where to seek cover when the bomb fell. But my growing love for the mambo and my other life was shared only with my wonderful Aunt Inezita and her friends.

On a Monday in the fall of 1950, my exquisite aunt died in a plane crash, killed on her way back from working in Miami. She had called late the night before to remind me we were going to the Palladium on Wednesday, and that I should shine my only pair of black shoes and make sure I had no schoolwork left undone. After her death, surrounded by heartache and a feeling of abandonment, it seemed that all the color had left my life. I mourned for months thinking that nothing would ever be the same, that she had given me something and then taken it away--until my Aunt Ceil, after hearing about my secret passion, convinced me that Aunt Inezita had not taken anything away, but had given me a gift for safekeeping. God Bless Aunt Ceil. I wish her logic could have helped my uncle as much as it helped me. But it didn't. He never stopped mourning.

I started listening to Inezita's music again, collected more records, and practiced dancing with her memory in front of the mirror. Unc decided to move to Miami to jump-start his life and run an illegal card joint--but before he left he arranged for my own custom-made driver's license to show the proper age if I was carded at the clubs. It was my right of passage, literally and figuratively. I could now get out and dance, and so I did. In early winter, before I was sixteen, I made my first visit to the Palladium.

It was a second floor dance hall in the middle of Manhattan between 52nd and 53rd streets. Although windows lined the perimeter of the building on Broadway, I could hardly hear the music through the heavy velvet drapes. But when I opened the thick glass doors at the bottom of the steep carpeted stairway to the ballroom, it was another story. I was drawn by the music up through the sweet aroma of violet-scented gum while ascending the stairs somewhat sideways to check myself out in the mirrored walls wishing Inezita was with me. During my school years, each time I went there I craved a partner by the first landing and by the second, had left unimportant things like school, work and the cold war to the rest of the world downstairs.

The ballroom was a large rectangle. As you entered, the coatroom was on the right, and along the right wall from the back of the ballroom to the stage, cliques of dancers hung out. To the left was the bar. Dancers don't drink, so if the bar got any play it was from tourists or non-dancing locals who were on the prowl. Tables with setups for the landed gentry and celebrities lined the left side and were separated from the dance floor by a four-foot high wrought iron rail. The voyeurs sat thunderstruck by the music of Machito, Tito Puente, Tito Rodríguez and others and the sheer energy and style of the dancers.

We who were swept away lived in two worlds. One of McCarthy and Cohn, atom bombs, iron curtains, prejudice and inhumanity; the other, the Palladium, a safe harbor for self-expression provided by the free-spirited, care-free Latino musicians and dancers who shared their passion and gave us their music. A different world, rich with people, cultures, melodies and rhythms in counterpoint, that drove us to find more elegant ways to interpret the music while dancing together on the sleek wood floor.

Our country has always been referred to as a "melting pot." Our shores were a haven for millions, including my own family. Once here, however, the reality was that different cultures didn't "melt" together at all. We lived in our own neighborhoods with "our own kind." If you were from my neighborhood and weren't inclined or fortunate enough to go to a subsidized city or state college, with rare exception, the only time you talked with an Asian was when you were ordering food or, with a black person, while you were getting a shoe shine or went to a sporting event or jazz club.

The Palladium was an oasis of self-expression, far removed from both the insidious and overt prejudices of that generation. Pitch black, mocha or chalk white, fat or thin, young or old, gay or straight, Jew, Gentile or Muslim, the only thing that mattered was the music, dancing and sharing of the experience. We would invent steps or revise someone else's, or spend hours in front of the mirror dissecting a new step or routine. We learned from each other and at the same time invented a dance that would be popular for decades. We were oblivious to the reality that for the first time in our culture, there was a dance evolving that you could enjoy by doing steps with a partner or, when inspired, express your exultation by separating and going solo. While moving to the music, our world consisted of our partner and a three-by-six-foot piece of dance floor.

Dancing near the celebrity tables against the rail one night, I turned around after being tapped on the shoulder and found myself eye to eye with an incredulous Marlon Brando who asked, "Am I in heaven? What planet is this?"
The music and the mambo scene filled my life to the exclusion of almost everything else except work and school. I went to dances five or six times a week. Saturday at the Riverside Hotel in Manhattan, Sunday afternoon at Ben Maksik's in Brooklyn, and later that evening, to one of the Jewish centers that featured live Latin bands. There was nota night that didn't have its venue, but none compared to the Palladium on Wednesday night.

It was not fashionable to show up late. The first set started at about nine-fifteen, and we wanted to be on the dance floor and in our space when that first note of the first number began. We danced until one-thirty in the morning and each time I walked out soaking wet into the cold early morning air on Broadway, filled with fresh memories of the new steps I had danced, I wondered if Inezita was proud of me. The evening's memories sustained me for most of the trip home on the uptown "D" train--until they faded into the lousy realization that it was back to the mundane and making due till next time.

The Palladium lost the big bands in the summer. They went on the road, settled into hotels in the Catskills, or played a beach club. Lido Beach, on the south shore of Long Island, had three clubs a scant hundred yards apart that featured Tito Puente, Tito Rodríguez, and the La Playa Sextet, three of the most popular bands of the day. Puente played the Malibu Beach Club where, in August of 1955, I first met my one and only wife, Betty Ganis. We danced outside that first of the almost fifteen thousand nights we'd spend together. On painted concrete made slick by the thick salt air, we danced through the night until the final Santito Colón bolero. Pressed against her, my head on her shoulder, and hopelessly in love, I realized that Aunt Inezita had saved her best gift for last.

During the early years of our marriage I clung to the music and we danced often, until business opportunities far from New York and the responsibilities of being a partner, provider and parent increasingly usurped the time to dance. For a time we sustained ourselves with recounting stories about the early Palladium years. One story we relished involved the team effort if took for my wife and her sister Evie to be on time for the ritual first number on Wednesday night. Evie ran production at her dad's children's sportswear factory in Manhattan's garment district. Buried in piles of sizes 3 to 6x children's pants, Evie often worked at night until ten or eleven o'clock. But on Wednesdays, Betty would speed down to the shop and help safety-stitch enough crotches and blind-stitch enough hems so that both had enough time to put on their makeup and get to the Palladium on time.

So many stories and images, faded by decades, like the old sepia photos of my ancestors in Europe, flooded back to me on that cool summer night in L.A. and have been my constant companions ever since.

No doubt my aunt was the reward for something wonderful I'd accomplished in a previous life. What other logical explanation could there be for these remarkable gifts I received as a boy? The Mambo Queen of Cuba introduced me, her enamored, wide-eyed, 14-year-old Jewish nephew, to the mambo--a dance that has endured for over fifty years that still makes dancers dance and enthusiasts with two left feet yearn for a miracle. More importantly, Inezita gave me the gift of knowledge that there was a world beyond my neighborhood where much shared joy, respect and carefree happiness was and still is attainable.

The woman, the inspiration for this piece, must have left before the last number while everyone was standing and cheering and I was sitting there lost in thought. How I wished I could have thanked her for being there, for although our eyes never met, she had inspired me to rediscover what time had buried--my year with my Aunt Inezita and how it changed my life.

That night I dreamed of my aunt. She appeared as I last remembered, lean and elegant, and I as I look now, 64, a bit round-shouldered and paunchy. We danced together and she chided me about my posture and how serious I had become. She made me promise to lighten up and to take Betty out to dance more often. I have.

Over fifty years later, the music still stirs me--but alas, now the mambo is in the tenuous safekeeping of a diminishing group of purists, who dance in the classic style surrounded by a sea of flailing, fun loving, salsa enthusiasts. Although far from authentic and not nearly as elegant, the salsa style is much easier to teach and might be heading the mambo toward the same fate as the mountain gorilla. Aunt Inezita must be spinning in her grave, albeit elegantly.