A Cuban Cinematic Pioneer:
Producer, director and writer Manolo Alonso turns 97
By Alejandra Espasande Bouza
Note: This article was originally published in 2002.
"With tears in my eyes Manolo, I send you a message. Back to the era in which we met, many generations have passed, and we have assimilated those generations. Because you, the man, have elaborated interesting projects that will culminate in posterity, and because of it, I congratulate you, admire you, and appreciate you."
Actor Ernesto de Gali
Manolo Alonso, pioneer of Cuban Cinema and Television, was born on August 23, 1912, in the city of Havana, Cuba, from the union of Spanish immigrants, Maria Garcia and Jesus Alonso. Manolo's formative years developed in the Salesian School of La Vibora, followed by his entry, in the prestigious San Alejandro Academy of Arts, enrolling in the drawing department. His talent landed him work in the field of comic strips, where he created for Sergio Carvo's La Semana magazine. At the same time, Manolo starts working as a ticket holder for the theater Campoamor, a position that later gained him the title of theater administrator for the Campoamor, Alcazar, Fausto, El Encanto theaters.
Manolo teamed up with Nico Lursen, and Lucio Carranza, to produce the first Cuban animated sound film, inspired by one of his comic strips, published for the newspaper El Pais Grafico. The two minute project, filmed in black and white on 35 mm film, was titled Napoleon: The Pharaoh of Misunderstandings (1937), produced the same year that Ernesto Caparros directed The Red Snake, the first Cuban feature-length sound film.
In 1938, at the age of 26, Manolo made history once again with the founding of
Cuba?s first newsreel production company, the RHC Cadena Azul-Noticiero Nacional, followed by the addition of Noticiario America-El Pais and The Royal News.
Financed in part by Cerveza La Polar, Manolo started the production of 52 annual comic sketches, to be played with the newsreels, introducing the characters of Chicharito and Sopeira, best known as Alberto Garrido and Federico Pi?ero, Cuba's funniest comedians. Two Cubans at War, Things I Left in Cuba, Funeral Mouse, Gallic Garrido, What Kids are These! and Chicharito for Mayor, represent the quality and dynamic of sketch production that took place in the 40's.
In 1943, he directed I Am Hitler, a comedy which mocked the German leader, written by Castor Vispo and starring Adolfo Otero, Min?n Bujones, and Rolando Ochoa, and the debut of young actor, Rosendo Rosell. In 1950, with the arrival of television, Manolo follows the lead of Cuban TV icon Gaspar Pumarejo, by producing a sketch of Chicharito and Sopeira for Channel 4 Union-Radio-Television, starring the famous comedians Heda Bejar and Rosendo Rosell.
In 1950, he directed the film 7 Timely Deaths, produced with an array Cuba?s best actors: Juan Jose Martinez Casado, Alejandro Lugo, Raquel Revuelta, Ernesto de Gali, Rosendo Rosell, Maritza Rosales, Adolfo Otero, Gaspar de Santelices and Manolo Coego. This was a new film genre: the Cuban-Thriller, a mix of mystery, with comedy and music, played to the rhythm of Osvaldo Farres' compositions.
In 1953, Alonso directed Oaks' Caste, a rural drama written by Alvaro de Villa, scored by musical director Feliz Guerrero, and photographed by Spanish cameraman Alfredo Fraile. The film, performed by Xonia Benguria, Angel Espasande, Mexican film star David Silva, Santiago Rios, Ricardo Dantes and Antonia Valdes, marked Alonso's entry in the history books as the best Cuban filmmaker of the 50's. By the age of 41 he had already pioneered Cuban news, films and television.
William Rebustillos, entertainment journalist for Fuste's Show magazine, wrote a column, dated May of '52, depicting the director's pioneering vision, not to be "the dream of a romantic poet, " but "a reality." Rebustillos comment was formulated as a direct attack against the lack of governmental support for the development of Cuban Cinema. "Each government that has taken public office invariably has promised Manolo Alonso, lead supporter of Cuban Cinema, its outmost collaboration, then, the days go by, and the purposes of the executive focus on the political currents, which by turn, absorb it all."
In his search for support, Manolo found in President Pio Socarras a leader that understood the importance of newsreels. With Fulgencio Batista, part of the National Lottery was set aside to finance Manolo's efforts, culminating in the construction of the Biltmore Studios, later renamed, the Estudios Nacionales, a copy of Mexico's Churubusco Studios. Finally, a law was passed to create The National Institute for the Funding of the Cuban film Industry.
His next film project, We Are, was to have the participation of actress Xonia Bengur?a, and comedian, Guillermo Alvarez Guedes. It was to be the first Cuban color film, developed in Alonso?s newly formed Color Lab (Noti-Color), if it hadn't been for the change in politics that resulted in the confiscation of Alonso?s Estudios Nacionales, which in turn became the Animation Department for the ICAIC (Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematograficos).
In 1960, Alonso joined the masses of Cubans that went into exile, marching to Miami with the entrepreneurial spirit that was to guide him in 1963 to New York. Next to Victor del Corral and Rosendo Rosell, Alonso started representing Latino artists and organizing variety shows that took place in the Lincoln Center. The shows were an intermix of exiled artists with International stars, including, Celia Cruz, Rolando La Serie, Rafael, Sara Montiel, Pedro Vargas and Tito Puente.
With his brother, cameraman Bebo Alonso, Manolo produces The Cuba of Yesterday, a film, made up by newsreels, that documents the high standards of life, and progress of Cuba's pre-Revolutionary era. At the same time, Manolo started working with Rene Anselmo in WNJU TV Channel 47, where he was to make history in the elaboration of the future of Spanish Media Television in the United States.
Time passed, and the reality of his exile condition made itself present with the arrival of 7 Timely Deaths to the New York screens, as a representative of the Cuban government, using the confiscated film for financial gain. In volume II of Life & Miracles of the Cuban Far?ndula, actor Rosendo Rosell, now a established writer, records the director?s discussions with the situation. "My property title for 7 Timely Deaths is not only registered, but it is tattooed on the memory of the Cuban people. Recently, with my consent, it was exhibited in the French Festival Des 3 Continents, and now, without it, Castro, through Joseph Papp, presents it in New York. Actually, I don?t know whether I feel more hurt, with the confiscation I suffered, than with having to witness how here, in New York, Castro exhibits my film, mixing my name with his film gang.?
These are the sacrifices of Cuba's greatest pioneers, whom, in advocacy of their democratic believes, have chosen the harsh path of remaining stoically away, without the support of a nation, but with all the inconveniences of exile.
This month one of those pioneers celebrated nine decades of dreams and achievements. In the name of the many that watched his films, in the Cuba of Yesterday, or in the exile of some remote post, we congratulate this glory of our Golden Cuban Cinema Era, and tell him, Gracias Maestro!