Sunday, June 6, 1999
by Laura Bleiberg for The Orange County Register
This is a birthday note for Joanne Perez, who turned 91 this week. Happy birthday, Joanne.
Joanne owns, operates and yes still teaches ballet at Pepito and Joanne Academy of Ballet in Santa Ana. The school itself is 50 years old, which must qualify it as one of the oldest still-running dance schools in the county, if not in all of Southern California. Joanne and her late husband, the Spanish-born clown Pepito Perez, moved to Newport Beach 50 years ago “to get out of the rat race of Hollywood,” as Joanne said. They had been popular performers on the vaudeville, and then nightclub circuits, touring throughout the world. Close friends with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Pepito helped the famous couple come up with the format for the “I Love Lucy” television show. Joanne owns the original pilot episode for the hit comedy. Pepito loved deep-sea fishing, and the couple spent summers in Newport Beach. After they retired from the stage, they moved there year-round. Pepito had a 47-foot boat that he chartered for their show business friends.
Joanne swore, though, that she’d never open a dance school: “We dancers always used to say, ‘When we’re over the hill, we can always open a dancing school,’ and to me that signified you’re washed up,” Joanne said in a recent phone interview. But she loves children, and when her neighbors found out about her performing experience, they persuaded her to give lessons to their children.
The school started in her garage in Newport Beach, but in 1950, Pepito bought a studio in Santa Ana at north Main and 17th streets. Within four years, Joanne was so successful that she had 500 students at four studios in Santa Ana, Orange, Corona del Mar and Huntington Beach. The Santa Ana school is now on North Ross Avenue in an 1892 Victorian house.
Originally from Milwaukee, Joanne (born Falcy)* was in her late teens when she met Pepito in 1928. She had a solo act (her mother traveled with her) in which she did ballet and gymnastics. She was auditioning for a part in the hour-long live act at Grauman’s (now Mann’s) Chinese Theater that ran in-between showings of Charlie Chaplin’s film “The Circus.”
She got the job as the Human Rubber Doll and it was Chaplin himself who suggested to Pepito that the two work together. They were married for 47 years before Pepito died. “Pepito, when he was brought over from Europe, had a tremendous name in Europe,” Joanne said. “One of the newspaper articles (about him says) he was the highest paid clown in the world. ”
Today, Joanne and Pepito’s dance school offers lessons in different dance forms depending on the day of the week: Polynesian dance on Mondays, ballet on Tuesdays, tap and jazz on Thursdays and folklorico on weekends. Joanne is happy with the 75 or so students she has. “I’ve got recognition. I’ve got all the recognition I ever wanted or needed. I love kids. “
* Joan Falcy was Joanne’s stage name, and Margaret Janet Zettler was her birth name. Falcy was her mother’s maiden name. Her legal name after marrying Pepito (Jose Escobar Perez) was Margaret E. Perez, but she called herself Joanne, always.
The Orange County Register, Sunday, June 6, 1999, Show section, page F26, article no longer on website, http://www.ocregister.com.