By Dale Reynolds
“Keep a diary when you’re young and it’ll keep you when you’re old,” moaned actress Mae West. And that is what Cristóbal (Cris) Franco, an actor just at the beginning of a career, did when he earned his professional acting card in 1978’s iconic Zoot Suit.
And why was this so momentous? Because as a Latino, before embarking on his long career, he’d never had reason to see success for himself in this field. So, while Latino/a theatre is relatively young in this country, covering as it does immigrant populations from Spanish-speaking countries throughout North and South America, Spain and the Caribbean, the enduring American-Latino plays essentially began with Center Theatre Group/L.A.’s Zoot Suit.
And while this particular brand of ethnic theatre still hasn’t hit its full popularity with American theatre-goers, in the 39 years since that meaningful play-with-music hit big (playing almost a year in Los Angeles as well as a short stay on Broadway and in myriad productions since, both professional and academic, throughout the country), other theatres all around America built on its success with more Latino/a theatre, including the late Max Farra’s INTAR Playwrights Workshop in New York City, CTG’s Latino Theatre Initiative, co-directed by Luis Alfaro and Diane Rodriguez, and South Coast Repertory’s Hispanic Playwrights Project in Costa Mesa, California. In addition, The Los Angeles Theatre Center, under the direction of José Luis Valenzuela, has produced dozens of original plays dealing with Latino issues, including several by his wife, actress Evelina Fernández.
So, enter handsome comic-actor and –writer Cris Franco who began his artistic career in the well-regarded Mexican-American drama, Zoot Suit, when it moved to Hollywood’s Aquarius Theatre for an extended run, earning him a coveted Actors Equity card, and inadvertently inspiring his future writing career.
“Being cast at the age of 23 in Zoot Suit taught me of art’s power to transform,” he said while being interviewed in his Sherman Oaks home office, amid his numerous entertainment awards and prized Zoot Suit poster. Franco is correct in that beyond transforming the artistic trajectory of the playwright and director, Luis Valdez (of California’s El Teatro Campesino), and launching the careers of a dignified staple of Latino actors such as Sal Lopez, Tony Plana, Enrique Castillo, [the late] Lupe Ontiveros, Dyana Ortelli, Bel Hernández, Evelina Fernández, Rose Portillo, Danny Valdez, Alma Rosa Martinez and most notably, Edward James Olmos – Zoot Suit contributed mightily to the Latino/a theatre movement.
Cast while still a novice college actor, Franco states that what impressed him most about being in the production wasn’t stars like Cher, Dustin Hoffman and Henry and Jane Fonda coming backstage to congratulate the cast, it was “the waves of loving appreciation bestowed upon us by the Latino audiences, thrilled at finally seeing themselves portrayed on-stage. To me the real star of Zoot Suit was Luis’s brilliant and uncompromising play itself.”
Franco knew he was part of something revolutionary so he began keeping his Zoot Suit Diary as, along with lots of dancing and covering four secondary parts, he understudied the principal role of ‘Joey’ — the youngest of the four boys accused in the Sleepy Lagoon murder of 1942. (‘Sleepy Lagoon’ was the nickname of a small reservoir southeast of downtown L.A.) “I had to record everything ‘Joey’s’ character did on-stage so I began to also write down the backstage goings-on at the Aquarius. And there was a lot going on.”
While his initial diary entries simply recounted daily life backstage, his later entries touched upon an eye-opening conversation he had with Abel Franco (no relation), the middle-aged actor portraying the father in the play. “Abel, who reprised his role in the film version, was a proud and brilliant Mexican-American actor who, due to his ethnicity, had been relegated to a career comprised primarily of tiny TV and film parts traditionally offered Latinos at the time. When Abel learned I was keeping a diary he urged me to pursue my writing talents, saying it was the most important work I could do for la causa, saying, ‘writing is the start of everything – it’s where change begins’.”
Abel was spot-on, Zoot Suit changed young Franco’s life. “Working on something as culturally empowering as Zoot Suit informed my entire career. It prompted me to develop material that, like Zoot Suit, not only would entertain, but would explore the unique American-Latino experience.” And in his almost four decades since, Franco has done exactly that — from working with such icons as Cheech Marin, George Lopez, Paul Rodriguez and Gregory Nava (who directed him in “American Family/La Familia,” to penning and publishing forward-thinking comedies with comedy groups such as Latins Anonymous (Diane Rodriguez, Armando Molina, Luisa Leschin and Rick Najera) to writing, hosting and producing his own multi-Emmy Award-winning English-language Latino talk show on PBS, The Cris Franco Show, and his Golden Mike-winning essays on KCET’s California Connected, and Life & Times. He recently had produced his semi-autobiographical celebration of his late father, Emilio, ’57 Chevy, (which stars Ric Salinas of Culture Clash), and his most recent work seen on HULU’s hit teen telenovela, East Los High.
“All my endeavors have been driven by the memory of the Zoot Suit audiences I recall so many decades ago — standing on their feet cheering Luis’s brave, uncompromising and unapologetically Chicano story. And in this age where our very presence in this country is being challenged, it’s what we all should be striving for.”
Zoot Suit is currently playing at the Mark Taper Forum/downtown in a new production, starring Demién Bichir, through April 2, 2017.