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Reminiscences of Life on Both Sides : Culture: Movies and bullfights are the spice of life for an 80-year-old San Diego border straddler.

April 23, 1990|SYD LOVE

SAN DIEGO — The idea was to kidnap John Wayne.

"We were in Texas filming 'The Alamo.' One day at lunch I made the suggestion to a bunch of the Mexican extras working in the picture as Santa Anna's troops. I didn't tell them I was kidding.

"I said, 'Look. Texas belonged to Mexico. It was literally stolen from us. What I'm going to propose to you is dangerous, so if you want to forget it, OK. . . .'

" 'I can get live ammunition. . . .' At this point, everyone became very tense. I told them: 'We get this tall guy--what's his name? Win? Wino? We kidnap him and contact Washington. We'll give him back if the United States will give us Texas back.'

"One colonel said he had a family to think of. Another said the U.S. Army was only two hours away and, 'They'll wipe us out.' I said, 'Yes. But we'll die as heroes.' The next day I had lunch alone."

The speaker was Ruben Dario Padilla Colon y Magallanes, a longtime San Diegan reminiscing about a kaleidoscopic and sometimes fascinating life on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border.

An interview related to Padilla's 80th birthday evoked memories of those deeds that have entertained him, from his career in the film industry to wearing pistol and badge as police chief of Texcoco, to working in tourism and politics and publicity in San Diego and Baja California Norte, and more.

In his milieu, it seems that everyone knows Padilla and he knows everyone. He is one of those binationals common along the border, but nothing is common about him. Padilla is a gregarious, knowledgeable, humorous character, quick with a joke, a fact or a connection, a man known to be able to get the job done or send you to someone who can. He can even get you out of jail with a phone call, two at the most (Tijuana or Mexicali only).

In "The Alamo," Padilla portrays Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, leading his soldiers at San Antonio against defenders holed up in the old mission called The Alamo. It was filmed in 1959 near Brackettville, Tex.

"I didn't have many lines," Padilla said, "but Santa Anna is referred to all the way through, so he's a major character."

And of course he had to ride a white horse, as was Santa Anna's custom. Former Texas Gov. Price Daniels provided his horse, White Cloud. Padilla had never ridden.

At the moment Santa Anna was to appear at the head of his troops, Michael Wayne, the actor's son, told Padilla, who was wearing an authentic 1836 Mexican army uniform: "You'd better mount."

"Mount what?" Padilla asked. "I've never ridden before."

"You'd better tell Dad."

Padilla said, "You tell him."

Eventually, Padilla learned to manage on horseback, although once during a charge he fell.

"All I heard was, 'Cut, cut, cut,' " Padilla said. "And I never heard so much cussing (from John Wayne) in my life."

Much of Padilla's life has revolved around filmmaking and bullfighting. Friends in one field often led him to the other in a glamorous and pleasant ricochet. The pattern for this life may have been cut by Padilla's father, Dario, a Mexican importer-exporter who was a friend of the first great Mexican bullfighter, Rodolfo Gaona.

However, for Ruben Padilla, born in Guadalajara on Feb. 16, 1910, the first personal step was his fast friendship with another star matador, Silverio Perez, whom he met in the early 1940s at Mexicali, where Silverio--immortalized in song and politics as well as in the taurine world--was fighting.

Padilla lived across the border in Calexico, where the family had moved in 1923 after spending four years in San Francisco to avoid the terrors and confusions of the Mexican Revolution.

Later, at Hotel Caesar in Tijuana after a bullfight in the early 1940s, Padilla introduced Perez and other matadors to producer-director Budd Boetticher.

"Budd had a script, "Torero," which became "The Bullfighter and the Lady," Padilla said. 'Wayne had just finished 'Sands of Iwo Jima' and had quite a bit of money. Budd contacted him about financing the movie, and Wayne was interested. He called me at Calexico (to arrange for bullfighters). He was very concerned about how much the matadors would have to be paid.

"I said, 'Yes, Mr. Wayne?' " And in that slow resonant voice, Wayne told Padilla: "My friends call me Duke." And that started a friendship that ended only with Wayne's death in 1979.

Padilla arranged for the matadors. And so Wayne financed "The Bullfighter and the Lady" with a $450,000 budget ("A lot of money then," Padilla said). Padilla portrayed the impresario in a cast that included Robert Stack, Gilbert Roland, Katy Jurado and Virginia Grey. It was filmed in Mexico City. Naturally, there was an occasional party.

"Stack liked the sauce made from maguey worms until we told him what it was."

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