Naturally, this reminded me of a similar education received from my mother when we would watch afternoon matinees on the TV with Mom training me to identify actors. Actors were the first group of people I associated with movies—long before I was won over to the directorial auteurship of filmmaking—precisely because Mother was interested in actors. I suppose that at that time movies were pure escapism for housewives and this body of experience was like a syllabus a mother could hand down to her children. When I relayed this to Matthew, he confirmed that our mothers were alike in that they talked more about the stars than specific films. "I realize now," he offered, "that these personal stories formed the basis of my own exploration into classic films."
On the occasion of my mother's 80th birthday this last October, I decided to sit down with her once again in the middle of an afternoon to talk about our love for movies. This transcript is my way of telling her: thank you, Mother, for this wonderful gift you gave me; this gift we share. I love you.
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Michael Guillén: Mom, I'm curious about the first movies you watched as a young girl?
Mom: The first movies that I can remember seeing were actually westerns, Michael.
Guillén: Were they short reelers?
Mom: In those days they had what they called chapters. Western serials. But the first real movies that I saw were Shirley Temple movies, like Little Miss Broadway (1938) and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938).
Guillén: How old were you then?
Mom: Well, I'm about three or four years younger than Shirley Temple. She'd be about 84 or 85 right now. She'd made these pictures but I didn't get to see them until about three or four years later; but, I remember her and I would try and go see any Shirley Temple movie that I could. Then, of course, the Walt Disney movies started coming out, like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Bambi (1942).
Guillén: Since you came from a large family, when you went to see the Shirley Temple movies, did all of your sisters go with you? Or was it just you?
Mom: Actually, when I was that little, we weren't a large family yet. In those days you would only pay 10 cents to go into a movie. I would save my pennies. I used to have a little red wagon when I was five or six years old and I would go out and do little odd jobs. My brother, your Uncle John, had fixed up this little wagon for me. It had different-sized wheels. All four wheels were different sizes. It'd be flopping around all over the place but I would pull it and go around and do little odd jobs for people and they would give me a penny, two pennies, or something like that and I'd save them. Of course, your Uncle John was pretty smart and he'd say, "Well, if you give me a dime to go to the movies, I will do certain things for you." It wasn't that he was mean or anything. He just wanted to go see a western. In those days it was Roy Rogers, mostly Gene Autry movies. We wouldn't go together. At that time there weren't many kids who could afford ten cents to go to the movies.
Guillén: And this was when you were growing up in Colorado?
Mom: Yes, in Grand Junction, Colorado. So, I would save my money and I would go to the movies and sometimes they would have free shows for some of the poor kids. They'd give us a free movie now and then.
Guillén: Did you ever see any silent movies?
Mom: As far as silent movies, I don't remember ever seeing any because they were never shown to us. I do remember seeing one with Charlie Chaplin but I don't remember a whole lot about it. It was a comedy and I think it had Mary Pickford in it and I remember enjoying it but don't remember too much else about it. At the time it wasn't a movie that I had anything in common with and I didn't really quite understand it.
Guillén: You were a little bit of a tomboy, weren't you? Is that why you preferred the westerns?
Mom: I was a big tomboy! I loved the westerns, but then everybody did. They made everybody feel good. I mean, the good guy in the white hat always won. They were different than the westerns nowadays. Their plots were a little silly but they were good and we kids liked them. And like I was saying, they'd be in serials and something exciting would happen, a cliffhanger, and you'd have to go back the next week to see what happened.
Guillén: Did you go to the movies with your mom?
Mom: Oh yeah, Mom loved the westerns. Every Gene Autry movie Mom wanted to go see. She was just crazy about Gene Autry. All the neighborhood—even though as I said we lived in a poor neighborhood—we'd all pinch our pennies to try to get together and go to the Saturday matinees.
Guillén: It's always kind of amazed me how movies provide that relief during hard times. Even now with the economy doing so poorly in the U.S., people still somehow scrape up ten, twelve, fifteen bucks to go to the movies.
Mom: Because it kind of takes you away from the problems you might be having. You escape into that world you're seeing on the screen. That's what it did for me. Another movie that was popular at the time, certainly popular with me because I was such a tomboy, was Tarzan. I'd come home and become Nyoka the Jungle Girl. I broke my arm once because I tried swinging from one tree to another as Nyoka.
Guillén: Nyoka the Jungle Girl?
Mom: I think that was her name. I was just five or six years old but I had tied a rope from one tree to another and I proceeded to do what she did or, at least, I thought I could. I didn't. I didn't tie it tight enough and, of course, when I tried to swing across from one tree to the other tree, I didn't make it. So, yes, I was very much of a tomboy.
Guillén: I'm surprised then that you were so fond of Shirley Temple.
Mom: Well, it was like there were two people inside of me. [Laughs.] One part of me wanted to be Nyoka the Jungle Girl and the other part wanted to be a dancer and a singer, because I was good! But there was this other part that was a tomboy that wanted to do what the good little girl couldn't do and it got me into a lot of problems. I broke my arm. I broke my front teeth. In the third grade there was this boy who dared me to slide down the slide standing up and, of course, I didn't make it very far. My shoes stuck to the metal of the slide and I toppled down and hit the bottom and broke my front tooth. I was a mess! When I went home, I scared my mother half to death.
I tried things like that. I wasn't scared of doing anything. And I think it was the movies that was inspiring me and giving me these ideas. I figured, "If they can do it, I can do it." I never realized that it was make-believe in the movies. So I would try all these stupid things but, thankfully, I never seriously injured myself too bad. But, yeah, Tarzan was one of my favorites and the westerns with Gene Autry. Roy Rogers wasn't that well-known yet. He hadn't come into his time yet.
Guillén: What about The Lone Ranger or Zorro? Were they around yet?
Mom: Not at that time. They came a little later on when I was a little bit older. But Zorro did become one of my favorites and you used to really love The Lone Ranger.
Guillén: I've always had a thing for masked men. Talk about movies having a bad influence.
Mom: [Laughs.] Oh, Michael!
Guillén: And the thing about Zorro that was so cool for me was that he was Spanish! He was like us! Did his ethnicity mean anything to you?
Mom: Oh yes, I thought he was fantastic. I just fell in love with Zorro. I connected with the fact that he was a Spaniard and—being that my grandfather was from Spain—I fell in love with the stories that came out about Zorro. They came out in sequels too and so I would want to save my ten cents and go back every week to see what happened to him. But sometimes I couldn't save up enough to go so I'd miss a chapter, miss a week.
But old movies from the '30s, it was difficult for a lot of us to go to see them. Even though we wanted to, we just couldn't scrape up enough for all of us to go. Like I said, I was the little hustler. I would stand in the street corner and sing and passers-by would throw pennies at me, sometimes nickels, and I would come home with a little bag full of change. I'd give some to Mom because I knew we were struggling and it would help buy something for all of us. And then as I said, my brother John always managed to get at least a dime from me to go to the movies. Then things started changing for the better and we got the chance to go to the movies more often.
Guillén: So when you went to see movies and they were in serial form, did they also include a news reel?
Mom: Oh, they always had a news reel! That's how you got your news. They were mostly about what was happening in America; but, of course, as I said, being the age I was, I didn't connect with the news reels because I didn't think that what they were showing was really real. I remember I was 10 or 11 years old when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and that's when the news reels became a little more real for me. That's when I could understand that they were actually news. But before then, I could see it on the screen and knew it was happening but it seemed so far from how we lived that I didn't really get involved, do you know what I mean? But they were interesting. I liked the travelogues. But mainly I just wanted to see what I had come to see.
Guillén: From a tomboy who loved westerns and action movies, did your movie preferences shift as you became a teenager?
Mom: Yeah, I got into the Betty Grable and Alice Faye musicals. I would always memorize everything Betty Grable did because I wanted to be a dancer and a singer. I guess I wanted to be in show business but never quite made it. I used to imitate Betty Grable's songs, Alice Faye's songs, but Betty Grable was my favorite.
Guillén: Was this around the time that you were an usherette at the Adelaide Theater in Nampa, Idaho?
Mom: Yes, I would have been around 13, going on 14.
Guillén: Can we talk about that experience? How you became an usherette at the Adelaide?
Mom: Well, I went in to apply for a job because they were hiring help. Bill Snead was the manager of the Adelaide Theater at the time. He had several girls working for him. It was a big theater. They had usherettes for every aisle and they had usherettes for the balcony and they were all in uniform, all very presentable, very nice, and the theater itself was very nice. I walked in there, applied for a job, and Mr. Snead thought I was a beautiful, young girl but I think what made him really hire me was that—when he said, "Yes, I'll hire you"—five of the other girls quit because I was Mexican and they didn't want to work with a Mexican. That really bothered him. "All right," he told them, "go ahead and quit. If you think that she's different than you are, then I am going to make her different than you are." He would order my uniforms in a different color. He had pictures taken of me and the lobby was full of photos of me. I wish I still had all those photos he had taken of me; I don't know what happened to them other than the one or two I've given to you. Bill Snead made me be proud of who I was. Those five girls quit but he hired other girls and they eventually accepted me because he gave me great chances to advance. I went from an usherette to a ticket seller outside and then—when they brought in the popcorn maker—I worked at the concession stand. He was a great boss and he did a lot for me and my self-esteem and I'll never forget him for that.
The Adelaide would have talent shows and, of course, I was the main attraction. I didn't mind getting up on the stage and making a spectacle of myself. I would sing "Guadalajara" and "Allá en el Rancho Grande" (from the movie of the same name) and—though I didn't know a lot of songs—I could sing these songs that I had grown up with.
Guillén: You'd grown up with those songs but had you actually seen those Mexican films?
Mom: No, I hadn't. I knew the songs because every Mexican knew them. [Mom sings:] "La cucaracha, la cucaracha, ya no puede caminar porque no tiene, porque le falta las dos patitas de atrás." Even my grandmother would sing "La Cucaracha" but she would use the alternate lyrics: "La cucaracha, la cucaracha, ya no puede caminar porque no tiene, porque le falta marijuana a fumar."
Guillén: [Laughs.] God bless my Great Grandma Teresita!
Mom: We'd sing all those songs around the house. We'd get together in the evening and roast avas.
Mom: Yeah, avas, we called them "horse beans" and we'd roast them like chestnuts. We'd peel them and they were soooooo good. We'd cook them too but I never liked them cooked. And while we'd be roasting avas, the older people would sit around and tell stories and sing songs and that's where we kids learned these songs.
Guillén: When you were working as an usherette at the Adelaide, do you remember any of the movies they were showing there?
Mom: At that time, Michael, there were a lot of war movies because we were at war. That's also when the westerns became even more popular because they helped people forget about what was going on. But there were also a lot of dramas, love stories like Wuthering Heights (1939).
Guillén: So from Shirley Temple to Nyoka the Jungle Girl to Betty Grable and Alice Faye, as the movies progressed, did different actresses begin to speak to you?
Mom: Oh yes. Rita Hayworth became one of my favorites.
Guillén: At the time, did you know she was Latina?
Mom: I knew she was half-Spanish. Her mother was white, I think. I knew she had been a professional dancer with her father and they would come and dance in the border towns along California and Texas. Her name then was Cansino. I don't know who discovered her but they brought her to Hollywood and they changed the color of her hair and she became one of my favorites because she had that Spanish look. That had an impact on me because you didn't see that so much in those days. Latinos either played servants or roles with heavy accents and stuff like that so when I saw Rita Hayworth come out in a good movie, it made me feel proud.
Guillén: How about some of the other Latina actresses like Dolores del Río?
Mom: Dolores del Río was fantastic. For me, she was one of the greatest actresses from Mexico that ever lived. Another great Mexican actress was María Félix.
Guillén: So by now you were starting to see films from Mexico?
Mom: Some. Not many.
Guillén: Where were these Mexican movies shown?
Mom: Not in Idaho. Like I said, Idaho at that time was very opposed to anything Mexican. It was when we were in California that I got into the Mexican movies and that was more into the middle and late '50s. That's when I got to know "El Indio" Emilio Fernández, Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, Cantinflas.
Guillén: Actors from the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema.
Mom: Yes, the Golden Age. I got to see some of Dolores del Río's older movies at that time. I always enjoyed them. And that's one thing I've never been able to understand. That was at the time when nobody wanted to admit that they had any Latino blood in them because Latinos were treated so badly wherever they went. But watching these actors and actresses from the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema affected me just the opposite. I was proud to be Mexican and I didn't care what people thought of me. I defended who I was. I never denied it. I was never ashamed of being Mexican.
Guillén: Orale, Mama! [I clutch my mother's hand and feel like crying.] So let's backtrack a bit and talk about the story you've often told me of how a talent scout wanted to take you to Hollywood to screen test for the movies.
Mom: That was when I was working as an usherette at the Adelaide. I was about 14 years old. That talent scout begged my father three or four times to give them the chance to screen test me for movies. That was at a time when Hollywood sent out scouts looking for talent. But my dad was very old-fashioned and I don't think he realized the opportunity I was being offered. He looked at Hollywood as something really bad. The talent scout assured him, "No, we'll send her to school. We'll train her." Because I had a voice, Michael. And I wasn't afraid to get on the stage and sing. I didn't suffer from stage fright. When The Adelaide had its talent show every Wednesday I'd get up on that stage and I'd have my friends in the audience yelling their heads off for me—"We want Dolly! We want Dolly!", that was my nickname back then—and I'd always win those talent competitions and come out in the paper. They'd say, "Our little Dolly Santisteven: the Mexican bombshell!" Your brother Larry told me he actually found one of those clippings on microfiche. He went looking for it because he didn't believe me. But there it was right on the front page with my picture.
Guillén: How did you get that nickname "Dolly"?
Mom: Because my grandmother Teresita could never say my name Adulina. She would always say, "Dóle." And so it stuck and everybody started calling me "Dolly."
Guillén: So it was kind of like your first stage name? Back to the talent scout, Grandpa Elizardo put his foot down and said no.
Mom: That talent scout even went to our house three or four times to talk to Dad and to try to explain to him that I wasn't going to do anything bad, they would never let me do anything bad, they would keep a close watch on me, they just wanted to train me to sing and dance. But Dad said, "No, no, no, no!"
Guillén: Do you regret his decision?
Mom: Yes, I do. Because it was something I really enjoyed doing. I always regret not being able to do something that I really wanted to do. I'm not saying I would have become a superstar or anything like that; but, it would have been a chance to try. Because it was in my blood.
When we used to live out in the section in Cisco, Utah—I don't know if I should say this—but we had outside toilets and Mom kept it as clean as she could. But the toilet lid was made of wood. As a little girl of about 10 I would go out to the outhouse and practice my tap dancing on the toilet lid. Mom was always terrified I was going to fall in. She would yell at me because I was always out there dancing in the outhouse. [Laughs.] I'd be practicing my Shirley Temple steps.
Guillén: As a young girl, were you caught up in movie magazines?
Mom: I couldn't afford to buy them but I had friends who could buy them and they'd lend them to me and I'd go through them. I liked Screen and Photoplay.
Guillén: So then came television. When did you first get to watch television?
Mom: The first television I ever saw was when I was in the hospital in Baltimore back East, because that's where they first started coming out was back East. We didn't have a television until the late '50s-early '60s. Your Grandpa Elizardo got one and then Moises and I got one. [Moises Reyes was my stepfather.]
Guillén: I guess what I'm getting at is what it was like for you to suddenly have movies available to you on the television? You were a housewife at this point, right?
Mom: Yeah, and it was great to have movies on TV. I didn't actually get a TV for myself until late. Dad got a TV and maybe I'd run over there to watch Dale Robertson in that western that Grandma used to like: Tales of Wells Fargo? She used to like Cheyenne too. And some of the soap operas at that time were very popular, but I never really had the time to watch TV. Other things came into my life and I just couldn't keep up with them. Then all the talk shows came on, and now the reality shows, but I never really liked either of those. I prefer to sit down and watch old movies. The old movies were so good, their stories, their plots, the actors, and I was so happy when they finally started using some of the Mexican actors in better parts.
Guillén: By the "other things" that came into your life, I'm presuming you mean Barbara, Larry and me, your three kids? Suddenly you were taking us to movies. It amused me the other day when you recalled that the first movie you took Barbara to see was Them! (1954).
Mom: That was an awful experience. I regretted that for the rest of my life. Barbara was traumatized by that movie.
Guillén: [Laughs.] I'm sorry to laugh but I just think it's hilarious—knowing how terrified Barbara was of insects—that you took her to see that film. Were you hoping to help her get over her fear of insects? Is that why you took her?
Mom: No. We went because I loved those movies! I love science fiction. I went through a period where I liked those scary movies. I don't like the kind of scary movies they have now, but I liked those science fiction movies from the '50s: Them!, The Thing (1951), Tarantula (1955), remember? I liked seeing those. And I never in my wildest dreams thought that Them! would scare mijita half to death. Poor Barbara. I've thought about that so many times, "What did I do to my little daughter?"
Guillén: It's intriguing because it was before the rating system so how would you, as a mother, know when you took us to the movies if it would be suitable for a kid or not?
Mom: I didn't know. I just wanted to see Them! but I never thought it might affect Barbara the way it did. If I'd known how she would react, I would never have taken her to a movie like that.
Guillén: Do you remember the first movie you ever took me to?
Mom: You've told me it was some kind of sex movie.
Guillén: [Laughs.] I don't know if that was the first movie you took me to, but I remember you taking me to a fairly mature movie where a woman exposed her breasts and that had me bug-eyed.
Mom: I can't remember what it would have been because in those days they wouldn't even allow a married couple to lay in the same bed together. I remember Island In the Sun (1957) where everyone went berzerk because Harry Belafonte held Joan Fontaine's hand. I just don't remember, hijo, what movie I might have taken you to.
Guillén: Oh, that's okay, Mom, don't worry about it; it just turned me gay.
Mom: Oh, Michael! [Laughs.]
Guillén: What about the 3-D movies you took us to?
Mom: Those were fun. There again, I scared the daylights out of Barbara and I think Larry too because there was one where a flaming arrow came right out at the audience and it looked so real. Maybe it scared you too, do you remember? You were probably too little and were probably running up and down the aisles.
Guillén: Probably. Running up and down the aisles was a blast at that age. It was later that I really remember watching movies with you, usually mid-afternoon matinees on the TV. You loved certain movies that you would watch again and again and, by my sitting there watching them with you, I learned to love them too. Movies like The Jolson Story (1946) and Jolson Sings Again (1949) with Larry Parks in the role of Al Jolson.
Mom: Al Jolson was the one who introduced talkies. He owned Broadway at one time.
Guillén: So it was Jolson's music that you loved in those movies?
Mom: I still do love that kind of minstrel music. I liked how he presented it. It bothered me that he had to paint his face to do it; but, I loved the way Jolson sang. And I loved the movies because of the way they told Jolson's story. I actually got to see movies with the real Al Jolson but I can't remember much about them because that was way back then when I was a little girl.
Guillén: Another musical I remember you watched repeatedly was With A Song In My Heart (1952) with Susan Hayward in the role of Jane Froman.
Mom: There again, that was a movie about a real performer. Jane Froman did a lot to entertain the troops. That's where actresses like Alice Faye came into the picture for me, because of WWII when they went overseas to entertain the boys. I loved Jane Froman's story and Susan Hayward played that role beautifully.
Guillén: In retrospect, I now see that you taught me an appreciation for melodramas, or what used to be called "women's weepers". It seemed you were always watching movies like Back Street (1961), again with Susan Hayward, and Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life (1959).
Mom: Oh, and remember The Enchanted Cottage (1945)? I loved that movie. It was such a beautiful fantasy. It was something that wasn't real and couldn't really happen, but it felt real. It was one of my favorites.
And I still loved westerns like James Cagney in The Oklahoma Kid (1939). And did you know that he and Humphrey Bogart didn't get along in that picture because when Cagney came out with his big hat, Bogart told him he looked like a giant mushroom? Still, they ended up making three or four films together. I loved the story of San Francisco (1936) with Clark Gable.
Guillén: How about more realistic films like crime dramas and film noir?
Mom: I loved crime stories; but, you didn't see a lot of crime stories in those days. There were some—White Heat with James Cagney; a lot of the gangster movies with Edgar G. Robinson—but, the truth is that I liked a variety of films. I didn't concentrate on just one kind of film. If I thought I might like a film, I'd try it, I'd go see it. I liked the sob stories but I remember I walked out of Wuthering Heights one time because I was crying so hard I couldn't see!
Guillén: You also liked religious movies. Song of Bernadette (1943) was one we watched together a few times.
Mom: I liked The Song of Bernadette. I liked The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima (1952). I loved all the Mexican movies about the Virgin of Guadelupe. And I think Jeffrey Hunter was the best Jesus in King of Kings (1961). I liked Hunter a lot too in Joaquin Murrieta (1965).
Guillén: Were the Classic Hollywood divas like Bette Davis or Joan Crawford of any importance to you?
Mom: I liked their movies. I wasn't crazy about them but I did like a lot of their movies. I especially liked Bette Davis when she played the Queen of England with Errol Flynn. And I loved Olivia de Havilland when she played with Errol Flynn in They Died With Their Boots On (1941). And I liked Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce (1945). They weren't the most beautiful actresses, but they were excellent actresses, and those were excellent films. My favorite actresses were Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner.
Guillén: I always thought you looked like Ava Gardner.
Mom: Everybody did. There was a picture in the paper once and everyone was asking me, "How the heck did you get your picture in the paper, Dee?" And I said, "I'm not in a picture in the paper." It was a picture of Ava Gardner but I swear it looked like it was me. I saved it but I don't know what happened to it. I wish I had her beautiful eyes.
Guillén: How about your favorite male actors?
Mom: Oh, I loved Tyrone Power. My favorite of his was The Mark of Zorro (1940). Further back, Rudolph Valentino. I was yes and no with Gary Cooper, and yes and no with Jimmy Stewart. I liked them but I preferred actors to be dashing and swashbuckling like Errol Flynn. Gone With the Wind (1939) was one of the best movies ever made and no one could have played Rhett Butler like Clark Gable but then again he was not one of my favorites. And I adored John Garfield. It's sad that he died so young. I also thought Alan Ladd was awesome in This Gun For Hire (1942). He came out with Veronica Lake in that one.
Guillén: Thinking back, you taught me a lot about actors and actresses and the star system of the studios; but, did you ever consider directors?
Mom: No. Most people didn't back then. Later on, around the time they made The Godfather and when they spent a lot of money on those huge productions, then you'd learn a little bit about the people behind the scenes but earlier on, no, I never thought about directors or producers.
Guillén: The first director I became aware of was Alfred Hitchcock.
Mom: Oh yes, Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles.
Guillén: You've watched Orson Welles?
Mom: I watched a few of his movies. But I knew more about him because he had married Rita Hayworth. Again, I came around to him through the movie stars. I remember Citizen Kane.
Guillén: Did you like Citizen Kane?
Mom: Not particularly, because I didn't quite really understand it. Maybe now if I'd see it again I might understand it a little bit better. I've never had the chance to see it again. Now that I'm older, I grasp things that I didn't grasp back then.
Guillén: Do you go to movies now?
Mom: No, I haven't gone to a movie, Michael, since 1971 when I went to see Lady Sings the Blues. That was in Twin Falls and the last time I was ever in a movie theater. Now I watch movies I loved when I was young on Turner Classic Movies. That's my station.
Guillén: So, my final question: if there was one movie in which you could have played the starring role, which movie would that be?
Mom: I would have liked to have played the role of Lolita Quintero that Linda Darnell played alongside Tyrone Power in The Mark of Zorro.
Guillén: Thank you, Mother, for remembering all these movies with me.
Mom: Thank you, hijo, for letting me.