Honoring the Dead, Living and the First Latino Movie Icon
By Joseph R. Castel
Because of her strong Cuban beliefs in the spiritual world, Day of the Dead has always been a special holiday for Rodri J. Rodríguez, founder of the famed Mariachi USA festival. “It’s so important to pay tribute to those who came before us and to those who made a significant contribution in our lives,” said Rodriguez.
The music producer just celebrated 25 years of her legendary festival at the Hollywood Bowl in June. But before the last trumpet note was played, she had already started planning her next cultural extravaganza which will take place Nov. 1 and 2, in the city of Coachella—the first annual Día De Los Muertos USA.
The vivacious promoter anticipates that 40,000 people will come together at Coachella’s Rancho Las Flores Park to listen to more than 20 bands. Rodríguez promises more than just a music festival. “It’s going to be a spiritually grounded affair rooted in Aztec tradition with a focus on honoring the dead and celebrating the living through art, entertainment and culinary enjoyment.”
The art component of the event will highlight ‘ofrendas-altars’ that will pay homage to various causes such as the United Farm Workers and those who have passed from AIDS. There will also be an installation where attendees can post photos of their loved ones and leave personal tributes to them on decorated walls. In addition to the public memorials, elaborate altars will be set up for cultural and musical luminaries like Selena, José Alfredo Jiménez, Cantinflas and many others.
One dearly departed and former cultural idol that Rodríguez plans to honor is silent film star Ramón Novarro. The Mexican born actor is unfortunately remembered more for his brutal murder at the hands of two male hustlers than playing the title role in the original 1926 version of “Ben Hur.” The producer’s connection to the movie star is quite personal since she currently resides in the sprawling west Los Angeles home where he was slain.
Imprint of a Murder
On the eve of Halloween 1968, brothers Paul and Tom Ferguson solicited themselves into Novarro’s home for a threesome. In reality, the young hustlers were in search of a nonexistent $5,000 which had been rumored to be hidden somewhere in the house. When the brothers couldn’t find what they came looking for, they tied up the 68-year-old actor with a lamp cord and brutally beat him with their fists and a cane until his nose was broken. The frail man then fell backwards unconscious and drowned in his own blood.
After the film star’s death, the property exchanged hands several times, all with tales from the owners that the house was haunted. Despite the disturbances of lights being turned on and off and strange noises being heard, Rodríguez firmly believes that Novarro’s spirit had never been actually trapped within the house.
She consulted a spiritual healer who gave an alternative explanation for the paranormal activity: because the murder was so traumatic, the violent act itself sent a dense electrical DNA-like charge into the ether creating what she refers to as a psychic imprint of the murder.
The healer meditated and played sacred monk chants continuously for a week in order to alter the vibration level in her home. The ritual was even taped for an episode on The Christina Show. After the cleansing, Rodríguez noticed that the paranormal activity had calmed down considerably. “Now my home is really a creative, positive space for my artwork,” said Rodríguez.
Although the imprint of the murder may have been extracted from the home, the stigma surrounding its circumstances was not. Many people still associate the star’s murder with the false Hollywood rumor that his killers suffocated him with a stone phallic statue given to him by Valentino. Rodríguez dismissed the ridiculous gay urban legend and found it unfortunate that Novarro is primarily remembered for the scandalous killing. “After all, he was our first Latino movie star,” claimed Rodríguez.
Before Dolores Del Río, Anthony Quinn and Ricardo Montalbán, there was Ramón Novarro. The struggling actor became an overnight cinematic sensation after the blockbuster success of “Ben Hur.” He had millions of fans worldwide and was able to command a six figure fee per picture. However, in 1934, after a decade with MGM, he refused to renew his contract because it came with a stipulation of a prearranged marriage.
It was no secret within Hollywood circles that Novarro was gay. Because of his indiscretions, MGM executives insisted that their romantic box office attraction keep his sexuality concealed from the public. For years, publicists touted the Ben Hur star as the greatest Latin lover since Valentino. He had been carefully paired on the silver screen with MGM’s most luminous leading ladies: Myrna Loy, Lupe Velez, Joan Crawford and the great Greta Garbo. Novarro had survived the transition from silent films to talkies, only to walk away from it all.
After MGM, Novarro made a handful of films before fading into obscurity. He fortunately had saved enough money to live a comfortable lifestyle without having to work. In the late 1960s, he had secured several TV guest roles, but any idea of a comeback was squashed due to his heavy drinking.
Despite standing up to the studio bullies, the unemployed actor would gradually become racked with guilt and shame over his sexuality which conflicted with his staunch Catholicism. Unable to reconcile his religious faith and sexuality, the despondent actor spiraled into a haze of alcohol. On Halloween morning 1968, the scandal of Novarro’s demise at the hands of two male hustlers sent shockwaves through a pre-Stonewall nation. America’s matinee idol was finally exposed as being gay.
Rodriguez would like Novarro to be remembered with an altar at her Día De Los Muertos event for being the first cinematic Latino superstar. She’d also like people to know that the actor had the courage to walk away from Hollywood when it tried to make him pretend to be something he was not. And if there is any doubt that the star’s spirit still lingers in the home where he was killed, Rodríguez offered this bit of philosophy: “I was taught that death is not a destination but rather a transition into something wonderful. Once you complete what you were sent here to do, then you move on.”
For more information on the Día de los Muertos USA festival or to obtain General Admission or VIP tickets, visit www.diadelosmuertosusa.com or follow Día de los Muertos USA on Facebook @Día de los Muertos USA and on Twitter @DayOfTheDeadUSA.