Pepito, Spain’s Court Jester, Recalls Glittering Era (1948)



Pepito, “playmate of kings” and official court jester for the Spanish Crown under King Alfonso, chewed on a theatrical-looking cigar and spoke of clowns.

“In Spain and Europe, generally clowns enjoyed the dignified status of dramatic artists,” Pepito said, comparing the position of the beloved fraternity abroad with its humbler station in America, where the emphasis is on slap-stick and straight comedy roles. And, Pepito, who was hailed by American dramatic critics as one of the four greatest living clowns, ought to know. With his wife, Joanne, he has circled the globe three times with his celebrated pantomime act and played in most of the capitols of the world. He received the decoration of the Spanish crown from Alfonso’s queen, an honor he shares with Paderewski.

Pepito said he regards Charlie Chaplin as the sole American exponent of the genuine pantomimic art and, in fact, it was in the prologue to “The Circus” with Charlie Chaplin that Pepito met Joanne back in the days when prologues with live actors were featured as curtain raisers. This, Pepito recalled, was in 1928 at the [Grauman’s] Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Both he and Joanne did an act in the prologue. After 100 performances, Pepito married the girl and brought her home to Newport Beach and henceforth they traveled the Orpheum circuit together. For diversion they toured the world with their act.

Labeled by Ripley

Labeled by Bob Ripley as “the most famous clown who never worked with a circus,” Pepito got his start in America at the old Hippodrome in New York where he enjoyed a run of 16 months after after his initial performance in December, 1924.

Ripley, incidentally, comes into the picture at Madison Square Garden where Pepito one year christened the annual six-day bicycle race by wheeling around the
course on “the smallest bicycle in the world” at the propititious moment when the packed house, suitably reverent, was awaiting the arrival of Mayor James J. Walker. The maneuver brought the house down, and Ripley, apparently, was moved to wonder, Pepito admitted — and abruptly produced the miniature vehicle. It was a bicycle all right — one of the classic props of funny men the world over — but the smallest this reporter ever saw.

“It’s a foot long and eleven inches high,” Pepito explained, holding it aloft for inspection.

“You mean you rode that?” we pressed Pepito.

Took Six Months

“I did,” Pepito said, but a perusal of his bulging scrap-book revealed that it took him six months to master the bike.

Painter, sculptor, actor and sportsman, the man who is acclaimed most of all for his pantomimic artistry began his career at 16 in Barcelona, Spain, as a painter and sculptor and a contriver of stage props for theaters and circuses about town. By day
he attended the School of Dramatic Arts in Madrid. And Pepito says he conceived the idea for his original clownish costume from an American newspaper he happened on in the streets of Barcelona before he even thought of coming to America. The paper carried a cartoon of “Little Nemo,” which inspired his conception, later executed in statuary, reproduced in Detroit, and circulated to American theaters preceding his appearances.

“I thought it was funny,” Pepito said.

“The man will have enough to fill TWO papers,” Joanne, attending to her sewing across the room, admonished her husband.

“But it’s all true,” Pepito sighed, emptying his wife’s discarded thread scraps and pins from an ash tray to accommodate the visitor.

Settles in Newport

Pepito arrived in America in 1921 [1922] and settled in Newport Beach the next year. Following his marathon engagement at The Hippodrome, his triumphal tour
of the country was studded with appearances on bills with performers like Houdini (the great), and Al Jolson. Once in the Orpheum circuit Pepito found himself on the same bill with “Bob Hope when he figured in one of the supporting acts and I was the star of the show.” American critics promoted him to the ranks of the great clowns including Ferry Corway, Toto, and the Novello brothers. “But the kids of today don’t remember the great performances of that era,” Pepito said sadly.

Together, Pepito and Joanne toured the country and the world for 15 years until three years ago when, after an engagement at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, they discarded their garish regalia in favor of the peaceful life by the seashore, not far from their present home at 121 Goldenrod, Corona del Mar. The car they shipped abroad on their European tours reposes in the garage, a memento of the past. And we were not surprised to learn that it is “the smallest car in the world.” Especially made by the Packard people in Detroit for Pepito, it is four feet long and two feet high and the veteran clown doesn’t have to be encouraged to show it. He and Joanne used it for advance publicity, touring the cities they played outfitted for their act.

Joanne Perez

Studied Music

Joanne, who describes herself as “just an American,” studied music and dancing in Milwaukee and entered the Orpheum circuit with her own act, coincidentally, at 16. They both pronounce the verdict that, having been all over the world to places as remote as Africa and Australia, “Newport Harbor is the finest place in the world to live.”

But retirement from the circuit, has not emptied their lives. As a painter, Pepito won second prize in the American Artists Association show at the Beverly Hills Hotel several years ago. The picture, “Cliffs of San Diego” hangs in their living room.

Active in community affairs, the master entertainer is a member of the Angling Club and sportsmens’ groups here. In summer, his power cruiser, “Teaser,” carries fishermen to sea — and brings them back, too.

ARTIST AT WORK — Corona del Mar’s versatile son, Pepito, at work in the study of his home at 121 Goldenrod. Actor, painter, ex-clown, Pepito was the official Court Jester for the crown of Spain under King Alfonso before coming to America. Now he does character parts for Paramount productions.

Hosts to Niece

Curiously, the troupers’ foreign tours never took Pepito back to Spain where his father was Lieutenant-Governor of Barcelona at the time of his death and where most of his relatives remain. But the couple have been hosts for the past two weeks to Pepito’s niece, Conchita Noriega, and her three children — Chita, 9; Meche, 8 and Lalie, 5. They are en route to Mexico City, where Conchita’s husband, Edwuardo, has recently
gone into business.

Today, at 50, Pepito is a bona fide actor in the movies, doing character parts for Paramount productions. But he is unaware, it seems to us, of heightened prestige, bestowed by his new status. The heart of the pantomimic artist belongs to the Orpheum circuit whose audiences he beguiled in the role of a clown.

In “Golden Earings,” he told us, he played the father of Marlene Dietrich. He appeared in “Lady in the Dark,” starring Ginger Rogers and co-starring Pepito in nine separate roles — all clowns. Pepito designed the costumes and sets for the circus sequence in the picture.

His latest picture is “Sorry Wrong Number,” starring Barbara Stanwyck. Asked what part he takes, Pepito replied ruefully: “I’m a bad boy.”

EFFIGY — “The playmate of kings,” Pepito, shows his grand-nieces from Barcelona his sculptured effigy of the clown he played for almost 30 years. Inspiration for the clown Pepito got from a “Little Nemo” cartoon he happened on in the streets of Barcelona, his native city. Let to right: Meche Noriega, 8; Pepito, Lalie, 5, and Chita, 9. The girls are en route to Mexico City with their mother, Conchita Noriega, Pepito’s niece.

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