I was talking to a friend of mine last week and the conversation turned toward “¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.?” a PBS-produced sitcom we watched religiously in days gone by. Hailed as the first bilingual situation comedy “¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.?” centered on the multi-generational, Cuban-American Peña family living in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. The show, which initially ran for four seasons (1977-1980) looked at how the Peñas struggled to assimilate to American mores and customs, while still holding on to their Cuban roots.
“¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.?” was a must-see for many of us because we could relate to the situations and players on the show. That was particularly true – I’d think – for those of us who grew up in multi-generational homes. A lot of the comedy in the series was created by the friction between the kids, who were in a constant struggle to gain what was seen as American liberties and the elders, who wanted to hold on to traditions like chaperones. One of my favorite episodes, “Joe Goes to the Hospital” shows how the entire family plans to stay overnight in the hospital when the son goes in for appendicitis. They even show up with a roll away bed, or as we referred to them a ‘pin pan pun.’ Funny stuff. If interested you can watch episodes of the series for free at the Que Pasa, USA? page, which features Spanglish tabs and all or on PBS Video.
My favorite character on “¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.?” was the grandmother, Adela played by Velia Martinez. As Adela Martinez exhibits the same sort of chutzpah and comedic timing as Estelle Getty‘s Sophia Petrillo on “The Golden Girls,” to give you an idea of how funny she is. Adela and her husband, Antonio spent much of the show complaining about how everything was better in Cuba, something I’m sure grandparents in many households do referring to their youth and native soil. My own grandmother said it constantly – everything from potatoes to beef to…you name it was better in her Cuba. Anyway – I remember talking to my mother about the actors on “¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.?” and the conversation always turned toward Velia Martinez in particular.
Martinez was an accomplished entertainer with a long career on stage both in Cuba and in the States. A Tampa, Florida native Velia was born to Spanish parents. She’d moved to Cuba with her family and made a name for herself performing as a cabaret star in some of the country’s most popular theaters when the island nation featured nightclub shows frequented by the rich and famous the world over. Check out her renditions of “Que Linda es Mi Habana” and “Lover Come Back to Me.”
Martinez lived in Cuba until 1960, leaving the country not long after the revolution with her husband, fellow thespian and writer Ramiro Gómez Kemp whom she’d married in 1946 and their two children. Velia began appearing in telenovelas while in Puerto Rico where she lived for two years after emigrating from Cuba moving to Miami in 1962 where she continued to work on stage and television. The actress reached the pinnacle of popularity with “¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.?” but she continued to work through the 1980s. Velia died in Miami in 1993 at the age of 72.
The conversation about “¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.?” prompted me to consider Velia Martinez as the subject for an entry to be featured in the upcoming Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon, an event I’m hosting to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. Although I knew Velia Martinez had appeared in a few Hollywood productions I had no idea she’d been in a movie with Errol Flynn, Richard Wilson’s The Big Boodle (1957). She also appeared in William Grefe’s The Devil’s Sisters in 1966, but it was Boodle that piqued my interest.
Written for the screen by Jo Eisinger based on the novel of the same name by Robert Sylvester, drama editor of the “New York News” The Big Boodle was shot entirely in Cuba in 1956, one of the last American films to be shot in the island nation before the Castro takeover. Errol Flynn returned to Cuba for his final movie, Barry Mahon’s Cuban Rebel Girls (1959), but he died of a heart attack before it was released. That movie I haven’t seen, but I was quite surprised by The Big Boodle, a terrific thriller I’d never heard of.
The action in The Big Boodle takes place in Havana and for that alone – seeing the pre-revolution capital – the movie is worth the price of admission. The story here has noirish tendencies with the hero forced into a cat-and-mouse game while trying to clear his name after being implicated in a counterfeit ring.
Errol Flynn looks a bit worse for wear in The Big Boodle, but honestly he’s still more handsome than most humans and I like his performance in this movie as I do that of several of the other actors including Rosanna Rory, Pedro Armendáriz and Gia Scala. Flynn plays Ned Sherwood, a blackjack dealer in a Havana casino. When a woman (Rory) leaves him a bundle of counterfeit bills and walks away, Sherwood is left at a loss for the money, in possession of incriminating evidence and a primary suspect. Soon he’s caught between the police and the bad guys with everyone convinced Sherwood knows where the counterfeit plates are. All things come to a head in a terrific final gun battle in Cuba’s famed El Morro Castle watching over Havana Harbor.
Aside from Velia Martinez, The Big Boodle deserves a mention in the Hispanic Heritage Blogathon for Havana (of course) as well as some of the other actors that appear in the movie. While most are Hispanic actors I can’t claim to know much about (take a look at the entire cast list here) we’d all certainly recognize the great Pedro Armendáriz who plays Col. Mastegui, the head of the Cuban police heading the counterfeit investigation. Mastegui is painted in interesting light as we (or I) are never sure whether he’s on the up-and-up or a corrupted official as seen in so many crime films of the era. Armendáriz is always wonderful to watch and that’s no less true here. The only slight problem if you’ve a Spanish-inclined ear is that he’s playing a Cuban who doesn’t sound Cuban. But that’s a “problem” inherent in many Hollywood productions that I won’t go into details about here. If interested I mentioned it in my commentary of The Cuban Love Song (1931) and discussed it at length in The Story of Spanish-Language Hollywood.
I was pleasantly surprised by the appearance of Guillermo Álvarez Guedes as the casino manager in The Big Boodle. Álvarez Guedes as he’d come to be known across the Spanish-speaking world was a hilarious Cuban stand-up comedian who I had no inkling had appeared in Hollywood films at all. I knew him as an actor in Spanish-speaking shows and that his comedy was a staple in Cuban households, but nothing more. It’s funny what connections we find by way of classic movies. They’re the gifts that keep on giving.
Finally, there’s Velia Martinez who has but one scene in The Big Boodle, but it’s great fun to see her play opposite the likes of Flynn and speaking perfect English. Velia’s role may be small, the secretary to one of the shady characters in the movie, but it’s pivotal in the story as she sets forth one of the many assassination attempts on the hero. Perhaps more importantly she introduced me to a classic movie.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief introduction to Velia Martinez who for a brief moment shared the screen with Errol Flynn in Havana, Cuba. I’ll be back with at least one more post for the Blogathon on October 12. Be sure to visit this blog that day as I introduce fantastic entries by bloggers far and wide who are dedicating posts to Hispanic-themed movies and players deserving of attention.