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The Show Must Go On

The Olivos Clan Has a Proud Tradition of Showmanship Thanks to the Trailblazing Efforts of the Late Family Patriarch

January 03, 1999|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Lewis Olivos Sr. died at age 80, relatives gathered at family matriarch Phoebe Olivos' home in Santa Ana to make funeral arrangements with their pastor.

A religious man, Olivos had written in his Bible the hymns he wanted sung at his funeral. But recent family tradition also dictated that a song be sung summing up the relative who has died.

Someone suggested "The Wind Beneath My Wings," but that wasn't it. What about "My Way"?

Still not right.

After several others were rejected, Alfonso Olivos, 56, went upstairs to a bedroom he and his wife, Carmen, had moved into after his father suffered a stroke seven years earlier. "Dad, I'm going to find the right song," he said aloud. It came to him suddenly. When he told the others, everyone agreed: it was perfect.

And so, at the funeral service Nov. 3 in the Apostolic church housed in the late Lewis Olivos' old West Coast Theater in downtown Santa Ana, 400 friends and relatives listened as nephew and entertainer Rudy Pena delivered a rousing rendition of "There's No Business Like Show Business."

There wasn't a dry eye in the house.

Irving Berlin's theatrical anthem indeed sums up Lewis Olivos Sr., if not his entire surviving clan.

For the West Coast Theater on North Main Street was one of two theaters Olivos owned during five decades as an exhibitor of Spanish-language movies in Santa Ana. Beginning in 1940, a time when Latinos and other non-whites were forced to sit in the balconies of the city's English-language movie houses, Olivos pioneered the showing of films from Mexico, Spain and South America.

His audiences were the Latinos living in the immigrant farm worker camps and the small barrios scattered around overwhelmingly Anglo Orange County.

Known respectfully as Don Lewis by his customers, Olivos was a familiar figure in his theaters. He worked day and night and was not above grabbing a broom and sweeping the front sidewalk. He also earned a reputation as a showman for bringing Latino film stars and entertainers to Santa Ana for live stage shows, for which he served as master of ceremonies.

A devoted family man, Olivos didn't look far to find help in running his theaters.

His was truly a family business, in which virtually every family member--his four sons and daughter, two brothers, nieces and nephews and, later, daughters-in-law and grandchildren--were on the payroll at one time or another.

Family members helped manage the theaters. They served as doormen, ushers and cashiers. They passed out handbills of coming attractions and worked behind the concession stand. They even made the taquitos and tortas they sold along with the popcorn and candy.

"They were showmen; that's what they are," said family friend Pablo Rivera. "It's a family of show people."

Nor has the family's show business tradition died with the old man.

Louie Olivos Jr. is carrying on the tradition with Actores de Santa Ana, Orange County's only bilingual theatrical troupe, which he founded in 1971.

The acting troupe operates on a shoestring, depending on donations from local business people and small grants to subsidize productions typically budgeted at no more than $1,000.

Olivos, who once handled screen advertising for the family's theaters, writes and directs four productions a year. He also trains the actors, the majority of whom are high school students and young adults who hadn't been on stage before he took them under his wing.

Since Actores de Santa Ana lost its professional home when the Olivos family sold the Yost Theater in 1985, troupe members have performed in parking lots, the Amtrak station in Santa Ana and a string of colleges and churches throughout Southern California.

"We're like gypsies," said Olivos, 58. "Wherever we can, we perform."

Like his father before him, Olivos enlists family members to work on and appear in his shows.

His wife, Macaria (Mickey)--a driving test examiner for the state Department of Motor Vehicles whom he affectionately refers to as "my Juliet"--reluctantly co-starred in an early production. Now, she serves as cashier. Their daughter, Gaye, handled wardrobe before marrying two years ago. Their son, Roman, who studies music and business at a New York university, has played small parts and served as his father's "gofer."

Son Louie Olivos III did the lighting and sound until his alcohol-related death at age 30 two years ago.

Indeed, the family has endured more than its share of tragedies.

Olivos' brother Adam died in a hunting accident in 1988. A year later, another brother, Aaron, who frequently was Olivos' leading actor, went out for a late-night taco and was shot to death while driving into a fast-food restaurant.

"It's like Greek tragedy," said Louie Olivos.

Today, his niece, Karla Olivos, and nephew, Aaron Olivos Jr., are members of his acting troupe; his son's widow, Beatrice Olivos, dances in the group's musical productions.

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