MEMORIES OF EL GRANDE THEATRE
© Rogelio Agrasánchez Jr., 2010
This article was written as part of the promotional efforts to revive El Grande Theatre in Harlingen, Texas.
If only the walls could talk, as the saying goes, El Grande Theatre should recount us its precious stories. Like the day it proudly opened its doors to the local Spanish-speaking moviegoers, on February 21, 1942. Though it was not the first theatre in showing Mexican movies in town, it was indeed the largest and most comfortable one.
If it could talk, El Grande would tell us about its wartime efforts, selling war bonds and showing Mexican movies with a message of support for the allies. It would tell how audiences were moved watching ‘Espionaje en el Golfo’, a film about the submarine attack on Mexico’s oil ships during WWII, and how they enjoyed watching a Villa-like rebel defeating some German spies in ‘Soy puro mexicano’.
El Grande could also tell how amazing it was to see Juan Charrasqueado in person, on its own stage, with those piercing blue eyes and his voice that sounded like thunder. Of course, Juan Charrasqueado was the name of a movie and its star Pedro Armendáriz, but a theatre cannot tell characters apart from the actors who played them.
Besides, it should mention the multiple occasions in which rivers of tears ran all the way to the lobby. This was the moviegoers’ response to those grand dramas like ‘’Cuando los hijos se van’, ‘El derecho de nacer’ or ‘Angelitos negros’. The virtues of Motherhood were the center of those old-fashioned tearjerkers starring Sara García, Libertad Lamarque, Prudencia Grifell, and later on, actresses like Marga López and Amparo Rivelles.
El Grande would of course remember the comedies featuring Cantinflas, Resortes, Clavillazo, Chaflán or Mantequilla that made people laugh in such an uprarious way that anyone in La Placita Park could hear the noise.
Adventure, wrestling and horror movies caused a lot of commotion. Some people would yell expletives to villains in the films, as well as encouraging phrases to the hero in turn: ”¡Dale!“, ”¡Cuidado!“, ”¡Acábalos!“. Horror movies made people scream so loudly that the theatre feared for the integrity of its panes.
El Grande also would recall the times when people dressed-up to attend its shows, and how proud it was to have such an appeal to Spanish-speaking people: whole families, youngsters, and guys that felt alone because all of their kin were in Mexico. Watching Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, María Félix, Dolores del Río, Fernando Soler or Joaquín Pardavé delighted people and made them forget their everyday worries.
There would be the memories of Mexican songs, too. Whether in film or in live shows, music always struck a sensitive chord. The song ‘La Golondrina’, for intance, made some Mexicans quietly cry while listening to the sad notes and lyrics that talk about a far away homeland: ”¿ A dónde irá, veloz y fatigada, la golodrina que de aquí se va?“. There were the corridos, which brought some male members of the audience to make rooster-like sounds, or the beautiful folkloric songs that are still populr today.
The theatre should reckon that not all the moviegoers behaved the way they were expected to. A few naughtly rascals let their hands slip onto laps that were not their own. A shame, of course. Wisely, some women use to bring security pins with them, and employ them to sharply recall those scoundrels whom the laps belonged to.
And what about the aficionado nights? El Grande should recollect at least one of those nights, the one when a young Baldemar Huerta, from San Benito, won the prize for being the best performing aficionado. He got a food basket. That day, an artistic legend was born; a legend named Freddy Fender.
Asked about what it misses since its closing in the eighties, the theatre would tell us about the long queues at its box office, the pop corn rich aroma, and the expectant faces of people while waiting for the curtain to unveil its silver screen. It also should retain a nostalgic memory of the particular noise made by the movie projectors. That monotonous clatter was actually El Grande’s heartbeat.
Alas, not all the memories are so joyful. As El Grande should tell us, there were at least two occasions in which extreme fear overcame it: one, in 1967, when hurricane Beaulah’s wrath spread over the city and again in 2008, when hurricane Dolly mercilessly stayed over Harlingen for so many hours. In both cases, El Grande emerged from disaster almost unblemished. And it still is one of our historical landmarks.
Unassuming as it has always been, El Grande should not tell you about its importance; about it being the only place in town where Mexican and Hispanic American cultures were celebrated all year round. But it was so. Times have changed, of course. However, El Grande still is a symbol of the cultural diversity in our city, a symbol that should be preserved, and put to work again. This time, not only for the Spanish-speaking people, but to anyone interested in fostering art and culture in our community.
All contents © Agrasánchez Film Archive