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Keeping It Real at the Pico

A rodeo-sized open-air arena in the San Gabriel Valley has quietly become a home for top Mexican musical stars.

August 31, 2000|ALISA VALDES-RODRIGUEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To be completely honest, it's not much to look at. Just a dusty old outdoor arena, good for rodeos, not too big, not too small. It's not much to smell, either. The sun buzzes down hard, baking the hay and manure out back. It's quiet during the day. Just the faint white noise of the Pomona Freeway in the distance, the clicking of insects in the weeds and the sharp snap of the metal trailer door as people come and go from the front office.

Beyond the door, cold air blasts from the vents. A receptionist sits behind a modest cherrywood counter and answers a phone that never seems to stop ringing. Pico Rivera Sports Arena. Buenas tardes. Can you hold please? Hauser Entertainment. Buenas tardes. Un momento.

Maybe it's not much to look at. But for many singers and bands, the Pico Rivera Sports Arena is an almost sacred place. Put as a simple analogy, the arena is to Mexican regional music what Nashville's Grand Ole Opry is to country music. It's a humble place where stars go when they've made it--not to gloat but to reconnect with regular people, to show their heads aren't bigger from the fame.

The humility, prized in Mexican genres much as it is in country music, resonates with the people who go to the Pico for afternoon and evening shows. Families sit on blankets in the Pico's bleachers with their popcorn, taquitos, soda pop and beer. They wear jeans and cowboy boots. They fuss over babies, tell jokes. They go for concerts, rodeos and combinations of the two, from the brilliant (an Ana Gabriel concert) to the banal (a "midget rodeo"). Sometimes fans cheer. Sometimes . . . they don't. This is the proving ground, a plain-looking, deceptively modest, 5,400-capacity holy grail for ranchera, norteno and banda.

In Mexico, particularly northern Mexico, the arena is well-known, say radio personalities and promoters in the music business. And among Los Angeles fans of ranchera, banda and norteno, the arena--called the Pico for short--is probably the most famous concert venue in town.

To everyone else, the Pico is virtually unknown, a bland blip in your peripheral vision as you zip past on your way somewhere more exciting--which is fine with Ralph Hauser Jr.

Hauser, 38, leases the Pico and runs his artist management and promotion company, Hauser Entertainment, out of these simple offices. He started off parking cars here in 1980. Now his empire is worth $30 million, with 25% growth per year, according to Hauser Entertainment's new chief financial officer. This means Hauser, and the Pico, over which he has exclusive booking rights, are two of the most formidable figures in the U.S. Latin music industry.

"I knew we were making money," says Hauser, who favors crisp white shirts and smells of expensive cologne. "But I didn't know until recently just how much. It's nice, but it doesn't really change me, or what I do."

Hauser still lives where he grew up, in Whittier--albeit in a hilltop mansion--because, he says, he likes the food and wants to be able to go to the 99-cent store. "I can't live in a fantasy," he says. "And to me, the whole Westside is nothing but a fantasy."

And this, in essence, is what the Pico is all about. Not just humility, according to Malu Elizondo, a former public relations representative for Hauser Entertainment, but a particularly Mexican brand of humility that says that showing off your money, especially your millions, and bragging are definitely taboo.

Humble Surroundings

Modesty is also a large part of the reason the Pico has been able to remain one of the top concert venues in town, even as more comfortable and attractive venues, such as the Arrowhead Pond and the Universal Amphitheatre, have begun booking many of the same acts. Though these other places may be pleasant, they aren't Mexican, say fans who attend shows at both.

"The Pico is very much like the traditional carnavales we have back in Mexico," says Elizondo, now president of her own publicity agency, which represents norteno superstars Los Tigres del Norte, who also like to play the Pico. "In Mexico you have concerts in bullfight arenas, and people expect to see superstars but to bring the whole family. The Pico's not exactly authentic in that respect, but it's the closest you'll get in the United States. I believe it's the only place like that in the U.S."

Juan Gabriel, a multimillionaire singer with limos and mansions in Mexico and the United States, regularly performs at the Pico, squishing through the pungent rodeo mud in his fancy patent leather shoes. He says it makes him feel alive to sing there, under the open sky, to humble families, and he says he'd rather sing there than in a luxurious theater. Hauser says that Gabriel's favorite food is M&Ms and that "that's all people want, whether they're stars or not, to be treated like normal people. That's what we do here."

"The Pico is very real," says Gabriel.

Vicente Fernandez performs here for the same reason. So do Nydia Rojas, Alejandro Fernandez, Rocio Durcal, Joan Sebastian and Ana Gabriel.

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