Monday, October 18, 2010
Ex-Student Unlocks Mystery of Couple’s Past.
The old house fascinated the girl long after her dancing days there ended. The majestic Victorian – a mansion it seemed – stood on the corner of Ross and 15th streets in Santa Ana. It was there, in the 1970s, that young Melani Motzkus studied dance in the house’s mahogany-paneled studio.
For a girl who loved Nancy Drew, the house – and the couple who lived there, Pepito and Joanne Perez – were sources of mystery.
Who were all those pretty people in all those photos on the walls? What was that glamorous life hinted at by their silent presence?
Who were Pepito and Joanne?
“I was imagining that life, of being in showbiz in the 1920s and 1930s, but I was too shy to ask anything about it,” says a now grown-up Melani Carty.
Some 30 years later, in 2003, Carty, who had moved to Virginia, sat at her home computer and looked up her old teacher’s name on Google. As she searched, Carty could still hear Joanne’s gentle-but-firm soprano count out the dance steps: “… 5-6-7-8!”
Then, when an Orange County phone number popped up on her screen, Carty hesitated. “What if I did pick up the phone? And what if I did talk to her and … ask her about all those pictures?
“I thought ‘She’s probably 300 years old by now’.”
Still, Carty dialed. And Joanne, then 95 and still living in the house where the Pepito and Joanne Academy of Dance had held court for several decades – the house where an aging Joanne had been carried from a wheelchair to her piano bench to greet arriving students – answered.
Carty and Joanne talked for three hours that day, and they had two more phone calls later that summer.
All the while, Carty scribbled notes.
THE CLOWN AND THE DOLL
The story Carty learned went something like this:
Jose Escobar Perez and Margaret Janet Zettler – Pepito and Joanne’s real names – were both successful in their own right before they met in Hollywood.
Already a favorite in his native Spain, and a hit as he traveled through Cuba and Mexico, Pepito came to the United States in 1922 and found fame on vaudeville.
Joanne, born in Milwaukee, had hit the stage young. As a child, after her father died, she worked to support her mother and herself, using various stage names as a dancer, contortionist, singer and pianist. In 1926, “Joann Falcy, The Twisting Marvel” played the Yost Broadway Theater at Fourth Street and Broadway in Santa Ana. A Santa Ana Register article described her as “a clever and talented acrobatic dancer, whose reputation is national.”
In 1928, Pepito and Joanne were both hired for a pull-out-the-stops stage show performed at Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theater, the live-act opener for the premiere of Charlie Chaplin’s silent film, “The Circus.”
Pepito and Joanne teamed up on Chaplin’s suggestion. Their act highlighted Joanne’s flexibility. He’d wheel a wooden box on stage and out would pop Joanne as a “mechanical” doll, who could bend in any direction before being stuffed back in the box.
“She was about 5 (feet), 1 (inch) and maybe 100 pounds. She had a mop of naturally curly blonde hair, alabaster skin and blue eyes,” Carty says. “She already looked like a doll.”
They married six months later and, as a couple, earned as much as $1,000 a week. As the movies killed vaudeville, Pepito and Joanne played nightclubs and other engagements, such as the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago. They vacationed at a cottage in Newport Beach.
They settled in Orange County in 1941, and bought the house in Santa Ana in the early 50s. Joanne taught ballet and Pepito ran a charter fishing business. Pepito’s fishing clients included many of his Hollywood friends – most especially Desi Arnaz.
Pepito and Joanne became close to both Arnaz and Lucille Ball. Pepito helped develop the routine that Desi and Lucy later performed on a tour they undertook to convince sponsors to back their idea for a TV show about a Cuban bandleader married to a zany redhead. Pepito also appeared, later, on “I Love Lucy.”
Pepito and Joanne could not have children of their own. But there were all those girls (and occasional boys) that Joanne taught to dance, and for whom Pepito created fantastic props and sets. They performed shows, with the children, at venues as diverse as the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles and the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach.
“She was a very warm and loving person, but firm about dance classes,” says Shirley Gardner of North Tustin who studied at Pepito and Joanne’s house in the 1950s. Students, Gardner explained, would “do what (Joanne) said” and “didn’t goof around.”
Gardner later befriended Joanne, who was left alone after Pepito died in 1975.
“There aren’t a lot of people as talented as Pepito and Joanne.”
Carty didn’t try to phone Joanne again until about a year after their initial conversations. When Carty tried to find the lost phone number, again using Google, she saw her old teacher’s name attached to an estate sale. Joanne had died in April, 2004.
But that didn’t end Carty’s curiosity.
Two years later, Carty successfully bid on eBay for boxes containing Pepito and Joanne’s old vaudeville contracts, reel-to-reel movies of dance recitals and shows, newspaper clippings, publicity photos and personal snapshots.
“Everything you would wish for if you want to make a documentary is here,” she says.
She set up a website, pepitoandjoanne.com, to chronicle what she’s learned, and to make contact with other former students.
The Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society contacted Carty when they decided to include Pepito as a character in this year’s Historical Cemetery Tour, to be held Oct. 23 at the place where Pepito and Joanne are buried, Fairhaven Memorial Park in Santa Ana.
On the tour, costumed actors from Orange County High School of the Arts will perform graveside scenes based on the theme “Strangers In a Strange Land: Immigrants Who Shaped Orange County.”
Pepito has been featured in an earlier Cemetery Tour. But this year’s scene will emphasize the couple’s life together, including their connection to Lucy and Desi.
“For the first time,” Carty says, “she’s the lead and he’s the foil.”
Roberta Reed, co-chair of the tour and treasurer for the Historical Society, adds:
“They were together for 50 years. Really, in a lot of ways, it was Joanne who kept his name alive.”
Now it’s Carty who is keeping alive the names of Pepito and Joanne, piecing together clues from her archive in true Nancy Drew fashion.
“I’m having a ball with this – ‘The Secret of the Old Mansion.'”
My Pepito & Joanne project was the subject of three features and two photo galleries in The Orange County Register and on their website in 2010, all of which are reproduced here at PepitoAndJoanne.com. The OC Register is based in my hometown, Santa Ana, California, the same city that Pepito and Joanne called home from 1950 onward. It is my hope to reach many former students of the Pepito & Joanne Academy of Dance. — Melani Carty
Melani Carty invites you to find and reconnect with old friends from Pepito & Joanne days on Facebook. Learn more about the “I Love Lucy” lost pilot episode that includes Pepito Perez doing a clown act. Or read about the 1956 “I Love Lucy: Little Ricky’s School Pageant” episode that included students from the Pepito & Joanne Academy of Dance.
And here’s a Pepito & Joanne Academy of Dance recital at the Balboa Bay Club from 1957. This is a silent film that Melani Carty digitized from an 8 millimeter home movie reel that is part of her Pepito and Joanne collection.
The Orange County Register, October 18, 2010, page 1. http://www.ocregister.com/articles/-271727–.html
Monday, October 18, 2010
I want to profusely thank staff writer Theresa Walker, her team leader Andre Mouchard, her deputy editor Rebecca Allen, photo editor Kari Hall, photographer Elizabeth Dodd, and The OC Register’s editor Ken Brusic, for publishing this piece about Pepito & Joanne.
Tuesday, October 19, 2010 – 12:08 PM
Years ago I went several tiems before the beautiful house and wondered about Pepito. Such a familiar diminutive in my country of origin, Spain. Somehow, in despite of being a faitful O C Register, I missed the articles about Pepito and Joanne. And, lo and behold, this morning, thanks to you, I am connected with such great people and to top it all friends also of my beloved Lucy and Ricky. What richness we have through the web and people like them and you.Now I am wondering about Fermin Valencia, restoring that house. Thanks to him too. I intend to visit often the web and go and look at the house since I live in Fullerton.
May you keep on dancing the beautiful steps that they taught you and sharing your writing and organizing talents with the rest of us.
Tuesday, October 19, 2010 – 02:47 PM
Really enjoyed your interview in the Orange County Register and also your web page.
In the late 50’s, 60’s and 70’s I worked at Campbell’s Photo Center on North Main Street in Santa Ana.
Both Joanne and Pepito were are customers. Whether alone or together I can still remember their stops at the store to have film developed or photos enlarged.
I was even invited to their studio/home. A wonderful place.
I was A LOT younger back then and didn’t realize what treasurers these folks were.
Keep up the web site it’s like keeping a wonderful & colorful couple alive.
(Using a Mac too!)
Tuesday, October 19, 2010 – 05:12 PM
I saw the great article on Pepito & Joanne in The Register newspaper today. I was also one of those girls dancing at their studio in the late 60’s early 70’s. Joanne was fabulous- – and an amazing dancer –of course I thought she was elderly then to me as a kid and she could still do the splits–just amazing! Rosalind Chao and I were dance partners and Joanne make us work hard. Rosalind of course has gone on to have a very successful acting career. Pepito and Joanne had a theatrical atmosphere, lots of pictures of Lucy and Desi and wonderful stories to share….truly a great couple!
Thank you so much for such a special website and tribute to them- – my experience with them gave me such wonderful memories … I appreciate all your hard work- — keep it up! Thanks again.
Tuesday, October 19, 2010 – 06:39 PM
I wanted to contact you regarding the website for Pepito and Joanne. I think it is awesome. It brings back a lot of great memories. I was Miss Joanne’s ballet student for 13 years. I think I might have some more photos that I can send to you. I already posted a comment on Pepito and Joanne’s Facebook page as well. I can’t tell you all the memories that are rushing back to me. It brings tears to my eyes, tears of joy. I haven’t danced ballet since the late 80’s but like I said Miss Joanne had a huge impact on me. You’ve done a great job on the website and your research. Thank you!
Tuesday, October 19, 2010 – 08:29 PM
I read the article today in The Register and had to smile at all the good memories I have of taking ballet lessons from Joanne in the 60’s. I probably took lessons from her for five or more years and still remember the studio very well – all of the pictures of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball above the ballet mirrors. I can also see Joanne sitting at the piano giving us instructions as we pirouetted across the room. I also remember how she used to demonstrate her doing the splits!!! I was very impressed! I went to junior high across the street from her studio so I would occasionally see her in the yard – she never seemed to change. And as a young girl, I always wondered what it looked like up those grand stairs inside her home. She must have been in her mid fifties (my age) when I was there, I also remember seeing Pepito puttering around the house every now and then – he was very nice. He was Pepito the Clown in some of the I Love Lucy episodes and I do remember making that connection even back then. I can’t wait to go through this website – it will be fun reminiscing!
Tuesday, October 26, 2010 – 01:47 AM
I grew up in that neighborhood and knew the house. I probably delivered the Santa Ana Register or Santa Ana Globe to that house.
I don’t remember meeting them unless it was through St Joseph’s School where I graduated in 1952.
Tuesday, December 28, 2010 – 02:32 PM
Wow…what fun it was to see and hear about Pepito and Joanne. My mom just sent me the article from Oct. 10 in the Register about the project you are doing. I attended the dance studio for about 5 years. Aprox. 1985-1990. I have a lot of pictures and video footage from the different recitals. Let me know if you would like me to send them to you. I have such fond memories of singing and dancing there. It was such an important part of me growing up. Thanks for sharing.