Wednesday, June 1, 1994
by Catherine C. Cate
(This article originally appeared in the Summer 1994 issue of “Eye on Santa Ana.”)
Behind the iron gates that surround the Victorian-style building at 1502 N. Ross in Santa Ana, California lies a world well known to thousands of aspiring performers: “The Pepito and Joanne Academy of Dance.” But it is a world protected and set apart not just to teach dance, modern singing and theatrical arts.
“The real secret is giving kids confidence in themselves,” says active 86-year-old Joanne Falcy, widow of Jose Escobar Perez (Pepito), whose own success in over 18,000 performances makes her exceptionally well qualified to inspire dreams and instill the value of hard work and self confidence in her dedicated pupils.
Her career has spanned the evolution of the modern entertainment industry. Her colleagues were among the industry’s biggest names from the 1920’s through the 1950s: Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Bing Crosby, Milton Berle, Leo Carillo (The Cisco Kid), Preston Foster (My Friend Flicka), Ginger Rogers, Marlene Dietrich, Lucille Ball, and Desi Arnaz.
This is a woman who has lived it all — from performing as an acrobatic dancer in one-hour live “prologues” that entertained audiences before the featured films of the 1920’s, through the era of silent films, vaudeville nightclubs, and finally, the transition to television.
Joanne begins her “first person” oral history when she was performing nationwide as a dancer and gymnast in 1928: “I auditioned and was chosen by Sid Grauman to perform in [the Ballyhoo prologue pre-show for] “The Circus” at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.” This simulated one-ring circus act was a creative collaboration between Grauman and silent movie star Charlie Chaplin, who suggested the “doll and clown” act that gave Joanne the honor of working with Jose Escobar Perez, the great European clown “Pepito,” who had emigrated from Spain to this country in 1922.
“Of course, I soon idolized him,” Joanne remembers, “but I was a perfect young lady under the watchful eye of my mother (who lived to celebrate her 100th birthday in 1983), and our association continued on a purely professional basis for the next five years.” During this time, Joanne also performed with Pepito at the world-famous Palace Theater in New York City, which closed in 1934. “I played the Palace before I was 20, and it was said that if you ever played The Palace, you never had to audition again!”
To her delight, Pepito finally realized that the accomplished performer also had matured into a lovely young woman. They were married in 1934, when she was 26 and he was approaching 40.
Pepito and Joanne continued to perform together in a variety of venues across the country, including the most glamourous nightclubs of the time, and Pepito also moved into motion pictures, where his exotic looks and charming accent gave him a natural advantage in Italian, French, and Spanish roles.
But when World War II broke out, Pepito decided to get a commercial fishing license in order to continue his favorite hobby: deep sea fishing out of Newport Harbor in southern California, which during the war was open only to commercial and military vessels.
Before long, his ability to pursue this hobby during wartime led to “fishing friendships” with numerous stars, including Bing Crosby, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, and Desi Arnaz — friendships that are documented by black and white photos that line walls, and lie in loose piles and albums — while Joanne and Lucille Ball were becoming fast friends back on “terra firma.”
While Pepito was following the fish, however, Joanne decided to put up ballet bars in the guest house behind their home in Corona Del Mar “and teach a few neighborhood kids until the war was over.” Within a short time, “a few neighborhood kids” had become over 100, and by the end of 1951 there were “Pepito and Joanne” academies of dance in Orange, Corona Del Mar, Huntington Beach, Hollywood, and Santa Ana.
In 1954, over 500 children participated in their first major revue, a three-hour production with spectacular sets and costumes which was held at Santa Ana High School, and repeated by popular request at Orange Coast College and in Garden Grove. They also produced the handsome production Hansel and Gretel in conjunction with the Orange County Symphony, with sets designed and painted by Pepito, with choreography and dancing by Joanne.
In 1955 when the Irvine Company wanted to reclaim the building located at Main and 17th where their Santa Ana studio was located, a friend found the historic building the Academy occupies today on Santa Ana’s Ross Street.
This house was originally built on the site of the present-day Willard School in 1892 as the ranch house for the Ford Ranch, which extended from Washington to 17th, and from Flower to Broadway. The house was moved to its present site in approximately 1924, and the ranch was subdivided following Mr. Ford’s death in 1924. His widow occupied the home until her death in 1945, when it was sold to Santa Ana businessman George Markowitz (owner of the Marbro, a ladies’ clothing store on Fourth Street), who used it as a rental property.
Although the property was in somewhat poor condition, it was perfect for their dance studio. And Pepito, who also was a talented artist, proclaimed, “I could make this look like Disneyland!” He soon set to work towards that end, remodeling the house and grounds to meet all their personal and professional needs, with an art studio, darkroom, and workshop for himself, as well as a dance studio with adequate storage for costumes and props. When he and Joanne moved from their home on Memory Lane into the studio, each had separate wings to decorate to their personal taste — Pepito’s in a traditional masculine Spanish decor, Joanne’s in more delicate pastels, French Provincial, and European fashions. The public area had been transformed with lovely molding, elegant wallpaper, accents of gilt and paint, and furnished with elaborate European lamps, other accessories, and fine furniture. Today, little has changed, including Pepito’s bedroom, which Joanne has kept as it was when he died in 1975.
And throughout these years Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Pepito, and Joanne had remained the closest of friends, sharing all the love and support of extended family. It was only natural, therefore, that in 1950, when Lucille Ball had the opportunity to produce a pilot film that would take Desi off the nightclub circuit and give them the ability to work together, she would turn to Pepito when she was dissatisfied with the script. The result was the splendid “cello” skit which appeared in the pilot for what became the world-renowned “I Love Lucy” series. And what became of that pilot film?
“Several years ago the series was celebrated on television,” says Joanne. “At the end of the program the host asked anyone who knew the whereabouts of the pilot to please come forward. I realized that person was me: Lucy and Desi had given it to Pepito as a memento of their successful teamwork.” In June of 1994 the pilot became available on videocassette.
And in 1956, 32 Orange County children were chosen from the Pepito and Joanne Academy of Dance to appear in the “I Love Lucy” episode, “Little Ricky’s School Pageant.”
Today, Joanne still keeps in touch with “little Desi,” who is active in the “Just Say No to Drugs” program, and “little Lucie,” who lives and performs in New York and is raising children of her own. Joanne continues to teach and to run the school according to Pepito’s philosophy that each teacher should work for herself and be paid on commission, because “working for someone else is slavery.”
She also produces several performances of an annual revue (see video clips) before an audience of over 400 on the spacious premises of this extraordinary school, announcing each act and accompanying many of her students at the piano. Ghosts of “performers past” seem to accompany those of “performers present” into the spotlight, many of whom are enjoying professional careers.
And their success is doubtless due not only to the professional training they received at the Pepito and Joanne Academy of Dance, but also to more than 50 years of guidance by the same voice of experience. “You can have what you want if you work hard enough.”