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COVER STORY : The Sound of Musica : Universal makes a home for some of Latin America's biggest stars


It could have been any night at the Universal Amphitheatre, with snappily dressed men and women arriving for a summer concert.

But the buzz of voices in the lobby was almost entirely in Spanish. And the vendor at the beer and wine stand called out: " Cervezas y vino. Cervezas y vino aqui ."

The crowd had come to see Ana Gabriel, a Mexican pop superstar. In this city, where more than a third of the population is Latino, such concerts are in demand.

"There are a lot of Latino people who want to go out and they have nowhere to go," said Elio Gomez, program director at KLAX-FM (97.9), a Spanish-language station that leads the local Arbitron radio ratings. "There is the Pico Rivera Sports Arena and there are dances. There aren't many places for big shows."

In fact, top-flight venues such as the Hollywood Bowl and Greek Theatre feature just a handful of Latino concerts each year. Only Universal and the Los Angeles Sports Arena frequently book Latino bands.

For its part, Universal has been trying to present at least one Latino pop concert each month. The amphitheater charges unusually hefty ticket prices for these shows. People like Carmen Burgueno--a big Ana Gabriel fan--say they have no choice but to pay.

"This is the first time I've had a chance to see her," said Burgueno, who spent $35 on a mezzanine seat that costs about $25 for other types of concerts. "No way would I miss this."

Gabriel's show and a recent performance by Gloria Trevi, the so-called Madonna of Mexico, attracted large and raucous crowds. Luis Miguel has sold out three of four nights beginning Sept. 23, and Juan Gabriel has sold out three shows in October.

None of this should come as a surprise, even to those who do not keep close tabs on the Latin American music scene. Performers such as Los Lobos, Gloria Estefan and Jon Secada have scored numerous crossover hits. KLAX's success confirmed that the city's Latino community is eager for entertainment.

Yet the amphitheater adopted its diverse booking policy almost by accident when, in 1983, Julio Iglesias sold out five consecutive nights.

"That was our first experience with Hispanic music," said Larry Vallon, an executive vice president with MCA, which owns the amphitheater. "It opened a lot of eyes around here."

Vallon and co-worker Emily Simonitsch set out to learn more about which singers and bands were popular in Latin America. Claire L. Rothman, general manager at the Great Western Forum, said this task can be confounding.

"We know we have a Hispanic market, but will they like Cuban music or South American music?" Rothman asked. "We don't know."

At Universal, the management did some homework.

"I listened to Hispanic radio stations and worked with the record companies and various promoters who have a handle on Hispanic talent," said Simonitsch, the amphitheater's director of special events.

This "pop" talent covers a broad range. Among this season's singers, for example, Juan Gabriel will bring a crooner's good looks and ballads, while Vicente Fernandez plays more traditional ranchera and mariachi . Celia Cruz will headline a salsa festival.

These performers, for their part, are eager to play Los Angeles.

"For a Hispanic artist to make it to the Universal Amphitheatre, it's a big deal," said Maria Nava, the promotions manager at KLVE-FM (107.5), a Spanish-language station that offers ticket giveaways for the amphitheater's concerts. "It's Hollywood. You've made it. Everybody wants to be there."

But several of Mexico's biggest names have flopped at Universal. And popularity is not the only consideration. Singers like Gabriel and Miguel travel with large bands. A visit to Los Angeles can be costly.

"Can the artists get multiple plays in multiple cities so they can amortize their costs?" asked Alex Hodges, a vice president in charge of concert booking for the Nederlander organization, a promoter that works with various Southern California theaters including the Greek, Pantages and Wilshire. "Some can and some can't. Primarily, they play in Los Angeles."

Which means that travel costs must be recouped in one night or a single series of nights. Said Simonitsch: "Obviously, it doesn't behoove an artist who can't fill 4,000 seats to come to Universal."

Universal cites this financial crunch as a reason for charging higher ticket prices--the best seat for Vicente Fernandez runs $50 while the same ticket for Lyle Lovett costs $35.50. Forum officials say the bottom line keeps Latino singers out of their arena, where a performer must sell roughly four times as many seats to fill the house.

"At Universal or the Greek, they're small and they have a chance to do something like this," Rothman said. "But you can't come into a place the size of the Forum because if you fail, that's the end of your career in this market."

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