On the Road with Ramón (Segunda parte)

Esta segunda entrega de la entrevista-biografía que Howe escribió sobre el actor mexicano Ramón Novarro se publicó en Motion Picture Magazine de mayo de 1927 (Vol. XXXIII, No. 4, pp. 56-57 & 114-119). Las fotografías también provienen del mismo artículo.

On the Road with Ramón II

by Herbert Howe

The romantic life story of Novarro, who had the courage to play a Beethoven sonata on amateur night… and the artistry to win the prize

Motion Picture Magazine de mayo de 1927 (Vol. XXXIII, No. 4, p. 56)
Motion Picture Magazine de mayo de 1927 (Vol. XXXIII, No. 4, p. 56)

Before the curtain rises, permit me to make an announcement for the benefit of those of you who haven’t programs.

The following scene is laid in Santa Monica, California, nine years before the abduction of Aimee Semple McPherson. Or, for those of you who still reckon time by the birth of Our Lord, it is the year 1917 A. D. It is Amateur Night at the Bijou Theater. I wonder what that means to many of you, if at all. Peanuts are chirping, hot dogs are snapping, and the orchestra wails “Poor Butterfly”! Electric fans beat waspish wings against the soggy heat. The audience is large, with susceptible pores, and perfume fills the air in Nature’s own inimitable way.

The manager appears with his collar on, for this is Amateur Night. His voice is clear and golden, due to several Sunkist orange drinks, and he announces, just as I do, “Laydees ‘n Genlmum, I take pleshur t’night ‘n ‘ntradoosn’ the flower of Lus Anjulus an’ Sant’ Monica local talent…”

There issues a local favorite who renders “Poor Butterfly.” A saxophone artist renders it further. A juggler misses only three balls out of seven. A disciple of Booth does Kipling in a green spotlight. Two ballroom dancers (local society favorites) execute the Castle steps that won them three loving-cups and a shotgun in the Dreamland dance hall. Then a boy appears, bows gravely with unheeding smile, and sits down at the piano which two huskies have just lurched on.

He sits motionless for seconds… “Looks like he was prayin’,” sniggers someone. His fingers touch the keys, and slowly out into that crackling din rolls Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 8”… Pfeiffer’s “Inquietude”… “Etudes” of Chopin… a Beethoven sonata…

The boy arises and gravely bows. There is numbed applause… The manager bustles on… Each talented performer of the evening will kindly pass before him, and, as he lays a hand on the head of each talented performer, the audience will kindly burst into applause according to their liking for the performance of said him or her…

The performers file by. Each in his (or her) turn receives a burst of applause, now rising, now falling. The boy appears, he smiles, and the audience forsaking gum and peanuts suddenly lets go with applause and roars of “Give him the prize!”

The manager beams and lifts the boy’s hand to the audience. “This young genlmun,” he howls, “wins the handsome prize of two dollars and a half — in cash.”

When Ramón was playing in “The Prisoner of Zenda,” a carpenter ambled over to where he was standing on the set. “Say, ain’t you the kid that rattled the ivories down at Santa Monica a few summers back?”

“Yes,” said Ramón.

“Some entertainer you are,” said the carpenter with respectful eyes. “Some entertainer.”

Hearing this, I thought of the many who worry about going over the heads of the public. Ramón, preoccupied in his own sense of beauty, never stops to think that other heads may not be as high as his…

There is a blind faith that never stops to question, but goes right over the head of reason. And we are told it works miracles…

The pity is that so few of us ever have a faith great enough to put to this test.

Divine Language

Ramón tells of a little Mexican Indian woman kneeling before the image of her Blessed Virgin… It is one of the many stories and legends with which he weaves the spell of Mexico.

Wrapped in her shawl, the india knelt on the marble floor of the cathedral; with hands clasped and eyes uplifted, she was addressing her love to the Queen of Heaven: “Oh, dear Mary, my rose, my little dove, my onion, my little cabbage…”

A priest, in passing, overheard her. “Here, here,” he said gently, “you mustn’t address the Holy Mother in that way.”

The woman turned mute questioning eyes.

“Address her thus,” said the padre. “Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst women…”

The Indian woman looked back to the Virgin, then sadly shook her head, “Ah, she wouldn’t understand me… My rose, my bird, my little flower…”

I have no doubt that the old woman speaking the language she understood was understood by The Little Rose…

Ramón Novarro lee en la terraza de su casa
Ramón Novarro lee en la terraza de su casa

A Mexican Feast

Ramón told me the story while we were having dinner the other night in a place we often frequent. It is located in Sonoratown, the Mexican section of Los Angeles. Both the food and the patronage are exclusively Mexican, and the waitresses have eyes that are shy pools of tropic night.

Half grocery, half restaurant, the windows are stacked with that thin brittle pottery of Mexico that is unbreakable, and the counters are loaded with dried meats, cheeses and candies of crystallized pumpkin and cactus.

After a precautionary inspection of wood-partitioned booths along the wall we chose one next the open-faced kitchen. Ramón called the waitress and requested her to sweep out the remnants of food and bones that strewed the floor, this despite my protests that they gave the place a medieval charm, suggesting that the last to dine there was François Villon with a party of friends.

A slot in an iron box on the wall invited nickels for a player piano located in mysterious nether regions. I contributed two but only elicited a grunt and a sigh from the instrument. Evidently it had retired early after celebrating one of the numerous Mexican holidays. The waitress with the tropical orbs merely smiled at my efforts. The piano did not seem to wish to play, she said vaguely.

Ramón in rapid Spanish ordered the dinner, with numerous admonitions to each of which the waitress murmured, “Sí, señor…”

…“Sopa de arroz, carne de puerco con chile verde, frijoles refritos con queso, tortillas, chocolate y pan de huevo…” It sounded like an incantation and tasted like an offering to Zoroaster. Delicious fire-seasoned Mexican food!

Ramón told the señorita to serve us half portions, but she couldn’t bring herself to do so… “It seemed so little for the señors.” But to the señors it seemed so much they couldn’t move, even tho seats for Chaliapin awaited them after the chocolate y pan de huevo

The Face of a Don

Whenever I meet Ramón I make a new acquaintance. He has the sphinxian charm of being not quite knowable. Thru him I can readily believe that Mexico is a legendary land, “more various than Greece, more mysterious than Egypt.”

When his interest is not outwardly engaged, he withdraws into his tower and hauls up the drawbridge, the lights in his eyes turned inward as behind drawn shades, his gaze apparently fixed on some vision on the inner stage.

Such was his initial mood at dinner, and I observed him as one does an extraordinary face seen for the first time. An aristocratic face, reminiscent of old Spanish paintings, a trifle long and somewhat out of drawing. The skin has the moonlight pallor that glows from out the backgrounds of Velasquez. Characteristic too, the black, slightly waving hair, the rapier lines of the brows and the swift brilliancy of eyes under thick lashes and fine-drawn lids.

For all the sculptural definition of the head and features, the decisive intelligence of the eyes and the imperiousness bordering on arrogance which is indicated in the line of the mouth and the poise of the head, a painter of sensitive perception more interested in the essence of character than in literal imagery would portray his features in a slight diffusion as if not quite tangible to the eye.

An expression of “heroic sweetness” combined with the childish simplicity of the Latin may lead superficial minds to expect a nature of sympathy, tenderness and even softness. It requires only a short association with Novarro to discover that beneath this gentle courtly mien you soon strike bronze. Indeed, the very qualities of tenderness and sympathy are the ones in which Novarro’s nature is most wanting.

motionpicturemag33brew_0433
Ramón Novarro en su caracterización de Karl Heinrich en la cinta The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg dirigida por Ernst Lubitsch

The Curtain Rises

I am on the point of saying that Ramón in this rapt mood, the curtain down, is more typically himself. Then the curtain lifts… The lights in his eyes dazzle on… And a smile flashes into his face that expression of boyish eagerness…

Ramón Novarro: Lubitsch was funny today… He’s never gotten used to Hollywood, quite. Pacing up and down the set, shaking his head over the idea of gold-diggers in Hollywood… “What’s a man to do with such womans like this?” he asked… I said, “Bring over a wife as you did…” “Ya,” he agreed, “I think that is the only way… And you, Novarro, will you get married soon?…” “No.” I said, “Divorces are too expensive — I haven’t saved even one million yet…”

Herbert Howe (Sternly oratorical): There are just as many happy homes in Hollywood as in any town… Look at the… Look at the…

R. N.: I was telling Lubitsch that in Mexico when you see a girl thru the iron grille of a window you get a greater thrill than where…

H. H.: Where she sits on your lap. (Again oratorical) There are just as many good girls in Hollywood… There are good and bad girls everywhere…  But, oh, my God, how their technique differs!

R. N.: You know who is charming — so exquisitely feminine — Renée Adorée.

H. H.: Ah, we Latins!

R. N.: But no, really she is so modest — actually shy. And don’t you think her a great actress?

H. H.: If you had been reading good literature, you would know I do. I told Renée today that I had informed an editor she was the world’s greatest actress. “Ooh,” gasped Renée, “and did he faint?” “No,” I said, “He sent a wreath to Bernhardt’s tomb; he hadn’t quite realized before that she was dead.”

R. N. (Irrelevantly): Hold your tortilla like this and the butter won’t stripe your necktie… Ump, too late!

H. H.: I’m too emotional to talk of Renée and eat tortillas at the same time.

R. N.: You know who is charming also, Frances Marion. I met her at lunch today. By the way, she suggested “The Life of Shelley” as a story for me. Do you think it has great screen possibilities?

H. H.: It has if Frances says so.

R. N.: Last night I was reading the Romance of Leonardo da Vinci. How I would like to play a character like that!

H. H.: Sure, with a gray beard… You always want to play some patriarch

It’s too bad De Mille didn’t cast you for Moses in “The Ten Commandments.”

R. N. (Cheerfully): I’ll soon be old… I look forward to old age. It’s admirable. Youth is insipid, empty of life. That’s one trouble with the screen… Youth, youth, the leading characters must always be young and beautiful. I see beauty with fine lines around the eyes, tolerance and wisdom, as in the face of your beloved Havelock Ellis… But speaking of the Romance of Leonardo, it is filled with rare and touching pictures. Recall the scene of Leonardo with the golden child. It was after the banquet at which the child appeared as a gilded cherub. All the guests had withdrawn when Leonardo found him shivering by the fireplace. He took the little one in his arms — I can see Leonardo with his graybeard looking down on the baby. But the little fellow was ill. The gold with which they had painted his body had poisoned him… He died shortly afterward. It seems strange to me that while da Vinci is drawn with reference to Christ he could follow coldly and unemotionally the condemned to the gallows in order to study their dying expressions…

H. H.: To him Love and Knowledge were synonymous.

R. N.: Grace gave me the poems of Michelangelo in Italian. There is feeling! He surges with it, and so does his work. The agonies of Hell and the ecstasies of Heaven you feel in him… as in Beethoven.

H. H.: Do you know that Darios predicts you will enter the priesthood?

R. N.: Good!

H. H.: I don’t believe it… The monastery, perhaps, when you have finished troubadouring — like Ramón Lull.

R. N.: He was more hermit than monk.

H. H.: More sufi than Christian hermit.

R. N.: Ah, there is a marvelous story — the “Life of Ramon Lull.” If they would only do such things for the screen. What could be more pictorial, more inspiring, than Lull’s story. You know how his conversion was brought about? He was a great lover, a poet, a worshiper of beauty in women. He fell madly in love with a beautiful woman of Palma to whom he addressed poems without success. One day while he was on horseback he saw her enter a church. Spurring his horse, he rode after her thru the doors. So horrified was she and determined to repel him that she took him aside and uncovered her breast… It was eaten by cancer. In his revulsion the poet came to realize the mockery of all love of the flesh. He went on a pilgrimage and became a Franciscan. Of course, this is just one episode of his story. His attempt to convert Islam to Christianity, his vision of a continent on the other side of the world before Columbus sailed, his death at the hands of a mob to whom he was teaching Christ… all are moving pictures. It would be a service just to remind the world of Lull and his amazing books on so many divers subjects, for I don’t think many people know him.

H. H.: Unfortunately, Señor Novarro, the costume play is bad for the box-office. You might modernize it. Have Lull drive a Rolls-Royce into St. Patrick’s cathedral after his beloved… We could keep the touch where she opens her dress and shows her breast.

R. N.: In a modern version it certainly would already be showing. But you are sacrilegious. Like Voltaire — anything for wit.

H. H.: You are unjust toward Voltaire.

[The dialog is interrupted by the arrival of the waitress with cups of chocolate and the pan de huevo — a sugared bread resembling Danish pastry in shape.]

R. N. (To the waitress with tropical eyes): Hágame el favor de traerme un jarro y un molinillo.

H. H.: Am I in the way?

R. N.: No, I wasn’t making love to her, I was asking her for… But here it is.

(It appears that the chocolate did not foam in true Mexican fashion, so Ramón pours it into a pottery bowl which the waitress brought and churns it with the molinillo — an instrument resembling a potato masher, the handle of which he rolls rapidly between the palms of his hands. Then he pours the chocolate back into the cups, regretting that the foam is not so iridescent as it should be. He explains that it is permissible to dip pan de huevo in the chocolate.)

R. N.: But not that way! Just a small pinch, and eat it all after dipping it, otherwise you offend the laws of etiquette which in Mexico are very strict.

H. H.: Do they drink out of their saucers down there?

(A polished silence.)

R. N.: I hope you did a lot of writing while you were away at your cabin.

H. H.: I’ve become a Taoist.

R. N.: What’s that?

H. H.: Taoism you should know is the creed of Lao-Tse. The cardinal virtue is inactivity. “There’s no greater guilt than to sanction ambition, neither is there any greater calamity than to be discontented with one’s lot.” The Chinese should send missionaries to Hollywood…

R. N.: It isn’t ambition that makes trouble, it is rivalry, which in small minds breeds envy and malice. Here in Hollywood the people who are struggling are happy; it is only those who have achieved that are discontented. When I was working as an extra and in small parts, I was always happy because I was always living in the future. Disappointments only came after I had achieved what then I considered as a success. I always looked forward to the time — which is now — when I could be free to do great things. But I am no freer to do them now than I was then. You cannot arraign the motion picture on any one charge; the fault, it seems to me, from the standpoint of art, is rather in its complexity. For instance, Thalberg outlines a great story which he has in. mind for me. “But,” he warns, “don’t build too much hope on it… I don’t know how well the scenario writer will succeed in developing the idea. And I don’t know whether the company at this time will be willing to do a costume play of that period. Thalberg wanted to do “Romeo and Juliet,” but the Eastern offices had to be consulted and they consulted their salesmen, who consulted the exhibitors, who consulted I don’t know whom. . . . Anyhow “Romeo and Juliet” is not being produced. You begin to feel after a few adventures in this maze that you are up against a monster without a head. No one person can definitely say “Yes” or “No.” I’m happy just now. I have a charming story in “Old Heidelberg,” I have a great director in Lubitsch, one in whom I have implicit faith — and without that you can’t do good work, yet how rarely do you have it! And I am under the supervision of the finest producer in the business. Yet what will the next picture be? Another “Ben-Hur” or another “Arab,” another “Scaramouche” or another “Thy Name Is Woman”? It is true, you cannot build for tomorrow because tomorrow is without plan. Everything is — Kismet. No matter how hard you work improving your own little art, the combination of direction, story, photography, cutting is so overwhelmingly greater than your bit that you can be crushed to nothing, when actually you are at your best. On the other hand, you may be rotten but the story and direction so fine you are made to appear good. This to me is no more satisfying than to be placed at a disadvantage. The only genuine satisfaction is that which occurs within your own heart when you view your own work well done.

H. H.: I think it is a mistake to plume an industry with the name of art. No great work of art ever was created in collaboration of several people. That is, if we take music, sculpture, painting and literature as illustrative of our meaning; each is the expression of a single individual. They tell how Michelangelo, greatest of sculptors, would throw bricks at pope, priest and cardinal if any attempted supervision. And the cardinal who insisted that Michelangelo paint panties on the figures in Hell returned a few weeks later to find himself in Hell with jackass’ ears.

R. N.: Yet faith in the motion picture as a medium is so great that you keep on struggling even tho you can’t build hope on the tomorrow because of industrial exigencies. I think I am quite domineering. I am not content to be a participant. I want to create the whole show. That is why I love music so. Whatever I give to it I get back. And only I stand in the road of perfection. I come home from the studio thinking I’m exhausted. I go to work directing amateurs in my play on the stage of my little theater and within an hour I’ve forgotten weariness.

H. H.: I think the industry is simplifying. Even the great companies are dividing work into individual units with one man dominating.

R. N.: I hear that Eric Pommer predicts there will be no motion picture theaters in fifteen years. Pictures will be shown in the homes. What will poor Marcus Loew do then?

H. H.: Don’t worry. He’ll own the homes.

R. N.: Anyway, pictures will still be produced.

H. H.: And you’ll still be in them, or do you think you’ll give them up for the stage and music when you’ve finished this contract.

R. N.: I never want to give them up, but no more do I want to confine myself exclusively to them. The only real satisfaction in pictures, it seems to me, is in producing — to have the power of creating. But that commands all your time. It is a life-work. And tho I believe I could succeed with it, I will not confine myself to a life of pictures only. I want music, I want travel, I want time to develop me a real character, not just as a performer. The ideal of a true life is self-culture.

H. H.: And as for money?

R. N.: Oh, the truth about that has become so common it is considered trite. I like Marcus Aurelius’ phrasing — “With philosophy you can be happy even in a palace.”

H. H.: But speaking of the screen as a medium, it does offer larger scope than theater or concert hall.

R. N.: Yes, but as your audience is widened, your ideas are restricted—that is, if you are thinking of pleasing everyone. No artist should be concerned in pleasing anyone. He should express himself and if he pleases the whole world, fine! If he pleases no one but himself — fine also!

H. H.: But about his earning a living?

R. N.: Oh, let him die! He’s miscast…

motionpicturemag33brew_0336
Ramón Novarro en su papel de Ben-Hur, cinta que requirió un gran esfuerzo físico debido a la infinidad de tomas que se tuvieron que repetir; algunas ocasiones veinte y en otras, hasta treinta veces

The chocolate is drained from the cups. My Mexican cigar has been lifeless an hour. We tip the waitress with tropical who returns us a smile of twice the amount. Silently we drive to Ramón’s home in Los Angeles, where with invariable courtesy he says, “Good night and thank you so much for a most enjoyable evening.”

I drive on to my home in “aristocratic Beverly Hills,” where Mayor Will Rogers, a lineal descendant of an Indian chief, even as Ramón, rules the town with a sense of humor. What the motion picture needs, I decide, is more Indians.

And so to bed with dreams of Michelangelo, The Pope, Renée Adorée, Bernhardt’s Tomb, Da Vinci, Gilded Cherubs, Movie Producers, Headless Monsters, Ramón Lull, Horses in Church, Tropical Eyes, Cancered Breasts, Praying Peons, Holy Mary, Fires of Zoroaster, Voltaire, God and Me…

Divine fire-seasoned Mexican food!

Prince Incognito

The morning finds me, after a cold shower, still able to write.

On one point God and the Movie Producers seem agreed, and that is in casting Novarro for the role of Prince.

The title which he endows with princeliness in “Ben-Hur” and which he again ennobles in “Old Heidelburg” is a gift of nature distinguishing him as much in life as on the screen…

Thus it is said he travels incognito.

If by that is meant he travels as himself rather than as a movie star, I can truthfully add that he also lives incognito.

He claims no royal prerogatives, wears no majestic airs, and his habitat is not a palace in Beverly Hills. (By the way, I wonder when that interest on that mortgage is due.)

The common expression on meeting Ramón is, Why there’s nothing of the actor about him! This would seem trite were it not for the number of actors who wear their profession about them like a voluble perfume with gestures as recognizable as Brother Moose.

When Ramón leaves the studio he leaves his screen likeness with his costumes on the clothes-hangers. If it appeared at the door of his home it would be courteously turned away, like any pest.

To his family — none of whom has ever visited the studio — Novarro is still Ramón Gil Samaniego. For practical check signing reasons he has legalized the name of Novarro but only as a middle name. The initials on his personal effects are R. N. S.

To Hollywood, on the other hand, Novarro is only a screen reality. He never attends opening nights. He rarely is seen at social functions. And all “personal Appearances” are interdicted. Thus he appears to live a concealed life.

Mexican Aristocracy

In an artificial society, where pose and naturalness go topsy turvy, this way of living may appear a striving for exclusiveness, whereas with him it is an hereditary inclination.

By realizing Ramón you comprehend something of the Mexican character with its loyalty to tradition. Mexican aristocracy, as Lewis Spence observes, is chiefly remarkable for its exclusiveness or, more accurately, its self-sufficiency. Its members cling to the adage that there are no friends like the old friends, and thru the habit of living en famille they find the companionship of the home sufficient.

I once remarked to Ramón that Americans are quicker to receive you into their homes. “And quicker to throw you out!” he retorted with a laugh.

The Home of Ramón

When Ramón came into his earned fortune, he did not scale the peaks of Beverly Hills to rear a monument to his achievement in the form of a hundred thousand-dollar palace.

Instead, he purchased an old-fashioned roomy house in that section of Los Angeles known as the old exclusive; meaning by that, a section where families have lived long enough — together — to pay off the mortgages.

He renovated the house and added quarters for himself where he might pursue his musical studies and theatrical experiments without interrupting the family life. Here he lives with his parents, his brothers and sisters, a family life in the fullest traditional sense.

The creative ego is deemed incompatible with home ties. Too unyielding for the necessary compromises. With Novarro it is great enough to overcome them and to live among many as one apart. Here again is aptitude for Aurelian philosophy — the ability to retire within that little field of self.

Not a Society Man

Ramón is not a society man for still another reason: He’s too busy.

I don’t know anyone whose life is so filled with varied interests. Neither the Spanish trait of indolence nor the artist’s aversion to routine has any reference in him. He lives by schedule. A half hour each day he gives to music, two hours each week to instruction in it. He recently commenced the study of German, and he continues perfecting his French and Italian by the phonographic language method. Even his diversions have cultural aim. He attends the theater, opera and concert, and does a wide amount of discriminating reading. His chief recreation, as he has said, is producing plays on the stage of the little theater which he has constructed in his home.

We might venture to think him an egotist were it not for the blastful language which Balzac hurls at us on this point:

“Great men are the slaves of work,” says he. “Their indifference to outer things, their devotion to their work, makes simpletons regard them as egotists, and they are expected to wear the same garb as the dandy who fulfils the trivial evolutions called social duties. Such men want the lions of Atlas to be combed and scented like a lady’s poodle. These artists, who are too rarely matched to meet their fellows, fall into habits of solitary exclusiveness; they are inexplicable to the majority, which, as we know, consists mostly of fools — of the envious, the ignorant and the superficial.”

A World of Imagination

Ramón is by no means an egotist, as the term implies thoughts of self. Ramón never thinks of self. But neither is he one of those who are “always thinking of others.” He neither thinks of himself nor of others. His mind is filled to capacity with ideas — or rather the pictures which he instantly resolves from ideas.

Harry Carr has observed that Ramón never seems quite present, not quite of the world. The reason for this is that he lives so much more ardently in his imagination that he is more really alive in the unreal. He translates into pictorial symbols as instinctively as a writer of genius translates impressions into words — thus in reading Da Vinci he carries away the picture of Leonardo with his gray beard bending over the golden cherub, and the life of Lull the dramatic picture of the knight riding into a church to recoil before the cancered breast of his enchantress.

Knight of a Prolonged Romance

His environment has done its part in moulding an actor, a music-painter. Born into that prolonged romance which is Mexico, blended out of Spanish and Aztec traditions with Oriental antecedents, Ramón’s daily life has been an intensely pictorial drama. From the patriarchal ceremonials of the home, where the son on departing never fails to kiss his father’s hand and his mother’s brow, he passes to the dramatic rituals of that other home so significantly called Mother Church.

Even had Ramón been born on the stark prairies of our Middle West he would have recreated a romantic life, a spontaneous energy driving him to self-forgetful gestures.

By nature an actor, he has been one in the theatrical sense from the day he converted the sala of his Mexican home into a theater for his marionettes. And today he makes of his home a theater and of the theater his home.

Teatro Novarro

Teatro Novarro — or Teatro Íntimo as Ramón terms it — is an integral part of the home, an intimate theater in the literal sense. The auditorium is slightly larger than a drawing-room. The walls are of cream-tinted plaster, and the floor is velveted in thick taupe carpets. There are comfortable opera chairs for sixty people. The stage is large enough to accommodate a company of thirty. There is an orchestra pit for twelve musicians, slightly below the floor elevation and so concealed by a parapet that the heads of the musicians are out of sight; thus you are not distracted by the increasing baldness of the pianist or the fascinating wen on the drummer’s neck, and may enjoy a disembodied music such as that which gives an ethereal air to churches with choirs invisible.

A huge and complex switchboard in the wings of the stage has control over all the lighting effects known to the modern theater. It is with light that Ramón paints his scenes against a background of plain hangings.

If you expected to find a projection machine and a screen in Teatro Novarro you are disappointed. For, as I warned you, Ramón’s screen likeness is not invited to the home. When he wishes to view pictures, he goes to a theater where he can feel the reaction of the spectators.

Teatro Íntimo serves as training quarters for Novarro, whose ambition is not silenced by the screen. Here he is experimenting in ideas of stagecraft and the production of drama and musical plays.

motionpicturemag33brew_0296Me Honro en Invitar a Ud.

I attended the opening performance of Teatro Novarro, for which invitations were issued on parchment scrolls lettered in crimson and gold. Ramón characteristically chose the wedding anniversary of his parents as the day of christening for his theater:

Me honro en invitar a Ud. a la inauguración de mi Teatro Íntimo con la primera edición de la revista Novarro que para celebrar el 34 aniversario del enlace de los queridos autores de mis días:

Sr. Dr. don Mariano N. Samaniego y Sra. doña Leonor Gavilán de Samaniego

se verificara el 24 del presente Octubre, a las 8:30 p. m. (en punto)

(autographed) Ramón Novarro.

The courtly charm of the Spanish language cannot be translated precisely in English, but in effect it is: “I am honored in inviting you to the inauguration of my little theater with the first edition of the Novarro revue which is given to celebrate the thirty- fourth wedding anniversary of the beloved authors of my days, Señor Doctor don Mariano N. Samaniego and Señora doña Leonor Gavilán de Samaniego; presented on the twenty fourth of the current October at eight thirty (prompt).

With the exception of Mr. and Mrs. Harry Carr, myself and a few others, the guests were Mexican and Spanish, among them several priests, artists, musicians, a Mexican general and government officials who had, on behalf of President Calles, extended to Ramón an invitation to attend the opening of “Ben-Hur” in Mexico City.

La Revista Novarro

The revue, entirely in Spanish, consisted of one-act plays, songs and dances, the company recruited from the younger members of Spanish and Mexican families residing in Los Angeles.

The entire show was so incredibly spontaneous, gay and polished—from the first lovely note of Mexican music to the last flower that was flung in the finale — that I didn’t know whether young Mexicans are all born actors or whether, as each of them declared when congratulated, “All credit must be given Ramón, who directed us.” Certainly the entire revue bore the impress of his personality.

Louis Graveure, whom many consider the greatest of our concert singers, has declared that Ramón may, if he chooses, establish an unrivaled place for himself in concert or opera as a dramatic tenor. And as I have previously observed, it is while singing Mexican songs that his personality is elicited most fully. The wit, the sparkle, the dash and intelligent subtlety all combine to insinuate a charm that can only be described as Novarro. He is a conjurer of song, creating pictures out of sound.

Ramón en la azotea de su casa diseñada por Frank Lloyd Wright
Ramón en la azotea de su casa diseñada por Frank Lloyd Wright

The Azotea

After the performance Ramón conducted me by stairs leading up from the back of the stage to the azotea — a roof garden such as old Aztec dwellings had, similar to those of Moorish houses and not unlike the roof-top of the house of Hur in “Ben-Hur.” It is laid off in parterres of flowers and centered with an aviary where birds sing under the sky.

“You like it then, my revue?” he asks when we have taken seats along the parapet overlooking the lighted city.

“Immensely!”

“Now tell me its defects…”

“The direction was too good, several of the company all but equaled the star.”

A voice floats up from the stairs, “Ramón!”

His sister Carmen emerges out of light, the metal sheen of her dress in tone with her luster-pale skin. The pointed oval of her face, framed in night and gleaming hair drawn low, is such as Benda paints with Oriental eyes, There’s a mistiness to her beauty. She speaks musically in Spanish.

“Will you pardon me?” asks Ramón, swiftly rising. “My mother wishes to speak with me.”

Carmen lingers a moment, flowering out of the darkness. I congratulate her on the loveliness of her dancing in the revue.

“I hope you enjoyed the revue,” she says in English that has the soft colored texture of Spanish shawls.

“It was great,” I repeat, wishing to God for a miracle that would thrust a guitar into my hands and turn me into a troubadour.

“Then we did not seem too much like amateurs? Ramón worked very hard directing us.”

I am about to reply that the boy who turned Amateur Night into classic music has indeed the power of miracles.

But she has disappeared in the light by the stairs and I am left with the recollection of that scene in Santa Monica.

A boy leading Beethoven and Liszt and Chopin into a sweating, crunching mob of a tawdry theater… Making that crowd see the visions of beauty he saw until they, like a mesmeric power bringing others, shouted: Give him the prize!

A divining line sang thru my mind… None but the loftier spirits open to faith can discern Jacob’s mystical stair.

The Room That’s Ramón

The next afternoon just as Ramón had finished a lesson with Louis Graveure I visited his studio, above the auditorium of his theater and opening off the stairs that lead from the stage to the azotea.

Man creates in his own image, and his dwelling place is the distillation of his spirit. When you enter the room that is Ramón, you are affected not so much by its loftiness as by its inner glow serening the sense with that touch of mellow magic such as old cathedrals have.

Thru spired windows of pale amber tipped with sunset color the light strikes into the purple density of the hangings and gives a copper burnish to the carved wood of the ceiling. Playing over the monastic texture of the walls, it fastens here and there on the gold-leaf carving of a little door closed over a secret niche.

In an arched recess a fire burns on an Italian grate, bordered on either side by the mosaic pattern of books on shelves indented. A Tunisian broderie pours its aged color over a Venetian chest, and between the glow of fire and window stands the altar to which the place is dedicated — a great piano covered with a Roman cope.

Unless you visit the place with a reporting eye you are scarcely aware of size or details, but only of that personal glow which plays like a harmony over tints and textures. Later, leaning back in a deep-cushioned chair, you are conscious of the upward reaching lines, the slim aspiring windows, the long straight folds of heavy velvet, the high gleam of a processional crucifix, and over all, surmounting a canopy, the dim iron pattern of a crown of thorns.

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