Irma Serrano

Irma Serrano at the People’s Theater, Back of the Yards, Chicago, Illinois

I never understood why my mother went to Mexico when Irma Serrano came to Back of the Yards to perform at the People’s Theater. She absolutely loved Irma Serrano. My mother had all her records. My mother saw all her movies. Yet, my mother went to Mexico the summer of 1970 when Irma Serrano came to People’s Theater.

But my mother had a plan! While she was away in Mexico, I would go for my mother to see Irma Serrano in concert! I was only fourteen at the time, so I was a little nervous when my mother explained her plan to me. I would see Irma Serrano in concert and then tell my mother all about the concert when she returned from Mexico. My mother thought her idea was absolutely brilliant. I, on the other hand, had mixed feelings. Because of my mother, I, too, loved Irma Serrano as a singer and an actress. I just couldn’t let my friends know this dirty little secret about me. What if my friends saw me going to the People’s Theater when I went to see Irma Serrano? What would I tell them? What if they wanted to tag along? That was my dilemma of the summer of 1970.

My mother arranged everything. She bought another camera just for the concert because she always took her camera to take pictures in Mexico. I was to take pictures of Irma performing on stage. I was to take pictures of every outfit she wore. She changed a few times during her performance, so I made sure I took pictures of every outfit. I must admit that this was fun, especially since Irma seemed to welcome the additional attention of an adolescent male admirer. My mother also wrote a letter to Irma that I was supposed to hand deliver to Irma Serrano personally. Those were my mother’s orders! My mother wanted me to go backstage after the performance to talk to Irma and take more pictures of her.

Irma Serrano in the dressing room.

“But how am I supposed to go backstage?” I asked my mother. “Just tell them that you’re delivering a letter to Irma Serrano from Carmen Rodriguez! They’ll let you in then!” I was always painfully shy, but now I was truly afraid to follow through with my mother’s plan. She wanted me to meet someone who was really a successful star and really, really famous. I was scared to approach Irma after the show. But I was even more afraid of how my mother would punish me if I didn’t take pictures of Irma and deliver my mother’s letter backstage.

I must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed the concert! Of course, that was also because none of my friends saw me going to the People’s Theater that afternoon. Luckily, the concert was on a Sunday afternoon when most of my friends spent the day visiting relatives. I recognized every song Irma sang because my mother always played them at home on her 8-track player. The only time I didn’t like listening to my mother’s Mexican music was on Saturday mornings. She played her music starting at sunrise. If I told her to turn it down a little, she would yell at me for being lazy and staying in bed. I would put the pillow over my head and the music didn’t sound so loud that way.

Since I was at the Irma Serrano concert of my own free will, according to my mother (under duress, if you asked me), I attempted to enjoy myself as much as possible. The audience consisted of less than about a hundred people, but they were all really into Irma. Even me! It was a really good concert! And since the audience was so small, it was also very intimate.

After the concert, I was able to get backstage by mentioning my mother’s name. I seriously doubted that would work, but I was amazed that I got to meet Irma Serrano in person. I told her that Carmen Rodriguez had written her a letter and I then handed her the letter. She smiled as she took the letter and said, “So you’re Carmen’s son? She told me about you.” I don’t know if Irma really knew my mother, but she knew how to treat fans appreciatively.  I asked Irma if I could take more pictures of her, and she consented. I was thrilled to be backstage with Irma Serrano all by myself!

So that was my closest encounter with a very famous star!

Peoples Theater

Peoples Theater, Back of the Yards, Chicago, Illinois

Growing up in Back of the Yards had many advantages. One of them was the Peoples Theater at 1620 W. 47th Street where we went almost every weekend to see movies. I was really impressed by the theater because it seemed so classy to me. There were marble floors, marble walls, and even the restroom looked elegant with its marble floor and walls. The incongruous thing about the restroom was the fact that the rolls of toilet paper were securely bolted in place. Otherwise, people would either steal the whole roll of toilet paper or dump it into the toilet. I could never understand why anyone would dump a perfectly good roll of toilet paper into the toilet, but other public restrooms in the neighborhood that didn’t take such precautions actually had rolls of toilet paper in their toilets. However, in my circle of young friends, there was an unwritten rule that you never used the sit-down toilets of a public restroom. Never! Never ever! Under no circumstances. You were supposed to hold your number two in and run home to the comfort of your own bathroom, hopefully in the nick of time. In the auditorium of the theater, there were a lot of terra-cotta decorations. I used to stare at them while waiting for the movie to start. I was always fascinated by the ceiling way over my head. There was a giant oval recess that was always lighted. I would imagine different things while looking at it. But what I usually saw was the underside of a giant turtle. I imagined that it was in a huge overhead aquarium and I was always afraid that it break open from the weight of the giant turtle and that we would all drown under the huge waterfall. As you may have already divined, I now tell this story because no such disaster ever befell upon me!

For Christmas, Holy Cross School would have a special day for us to go to Peoples Theater to see a Christmas movie. We would get out of school for this special field trip a whole two blocks away from the school. We loved any event that allowed us to miss class!

During the week in the summer, my mother would take my younger brothers and me to Peoples Theater while my father was working. She used to like watching those romantic movies, which I found so boring when I was little. I believe we saw Gone with the Wind, Dr. Zhivago, and From Here to Eternity. Whenever the couple would kiss, I thought the movie was over and I would pull my mother’s arm so we could go home. My mother only took us to the show when she wanted to see a movie. My father would take us even if it was movie just for kids. Of course, he would sleep through the entire movie because he worked midnights at Curtiss Candy, a candy factory underneath the old S-curve at Lake Shore Drive and the Chicago River that manufactured Butterfinger and Baby Ruth candy bars. The only time he really wanted to see a movie was when they showed Cecille B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments. Of course, he fell asleep through those movies, too. We usually only went to the matinée show on Saturday because the tickets were only fifty cents.

When I was a little older, I started going to the movies with just my brothers and no parents. I was in charge of taking care of them. When my brothers were older, we all went to the theater separately with our own friends. I went a lot with Adam Mendez or Patrick McDonnell. One day, Patrick invited me to go with him during the week. I told him I couldn’t go because I couldn’t afford the full price of the ticket. He told me that he had free passes for the theater. His father had told him where to get them. There was an insurance sales office near the theater that gave free passes to customers. Patrick, who was wise beyond his years, showed me where to go to get the free tickets. He made small talk with one of the insurance agents who asked how Patrick’s father was and gave us two free passes to Peoples Theater. After that we went to show once a week during the week when the tickets cost full price and sometimes we were able to sneak in to see some adult movies. However, they caught us when we tried to see Bonnie and Clyde with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway and they made us leave. One day when we went to the insurance office, the manager told us that they were closing down, so he gave Patrick the whole packet of movie passes. If we liked a movie a lot, we would see it at least twice, oftentimes, more. When Patrick moved away, I inherited the packet of passes from him. Then, I used to go Peoples Theater with my brothers and my friend Adam. I remember that Adam and I really loved the movie The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly so much that we saw it everyday for two weeks. And we never got tired of it. I saw many of my favorite movies there: The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, Born Losers (a biker movie), Flipper, and others that I can’t recall now.

I just had to buy the DVD!

When I was older, my mother sent me to see Irma Serrano at the Peoples Theater. My mother went to Mexico when Irma Serrano came to Chicago. She told me to tell Irma I was Carmen Rodriguez’s son. When I did, Irma invited me backstage and I took pictures of her. I never did learn how my mother got to know Irma Serrano

Alas! Peoples Theater is no more! There is a Walgreen’s on the site now. But I will always remember Peoples Theater for all it’s terra-cotta decorations and marble walls and floors, even in the restroom! It was kind of like going to church every week.

My mother had friends everywhere

Irma Serrano at the People's Theater, Chicago, Illinois

When I was a young boy, I was convinced that my mother knew everyone in the neighborhood. Every time I went grocery shopping with my mother, she always met someone she knew, either from the neighborhood, the old neighborhood, or from México.  While talking to someone she met in the street, my mother would ask about other mutual acquaintances. I was amazed at how many people she knew. She could talk for an hour with someone she met on the street because they knew each other very well and I would always be pulling her arm so we could go home before the milk went sour.

Once before my mother went to Mexico for her summer vacation, she asked me to do her a big favor. The Mexican singer Irma Serrano was coming to Chicago to perform at the People’s Theater on 47th Street and Ashland Avenue in Back of the Yards. Well, my mother wanted me to go to the show and take pictures of Irma Serrano for her. I was nervous because Irma Serrano was very famous in Mexico. Then, my mother told me to go backstage after the show and tell Irma that my mother says hello. Well, this was just too great a task for me! I told my mother that I didn’t think I could do all this. My mother assured me that I could once I told Irma that I was the son of Carmen Rodríguez. I told my mother that if she wanted to see Irma Serrano so badly maybe she shouldn’t go to Mexico and she herself should go see Irma Serrano at the People’s Theater instead. After much convincing and threatening on the part of my mother, I agreed to take pictures of Irma Serrano and then go backstage to talk to Irma and then take even more pictures. The day of the concert, I watched Irma perform beautifully—I have to admit that even I loved the show—and I took plenty of pictures of Irma as promised. It took me a while to build up my courage, but I managed to go backstage and talk to Irma Serrano. When I told her I was the son of Carmen Rodríguez, Irma hugged me and asked me how my mother was doing. I asked her if I could take some pictures of her and she posed for me. I managed to get a good picture of Irma’s dress that looked like butterfly wings from behind. My mother loved the pictures!

When I joined the Marines, my mother told me to look for somebody she knew. I said, “Chances are I won’t ever meet him. Even you have never met him!” He was the uncle of a little girl Melanie for whom my mother would babysit. My mother knew that her uncle was in the Marines, but had no other information about him. I promised my mother that I would look for him, but I was sure that I would never run into him since the Marines are stationed all around the globe and I never left California. However, one day, when I was stationed at Camp Pendleton, California, some arrogant Marine entered our shop shouting, “Anyone here from Chicago?” I didn’t like his cocky attitude, so I didn’t answer him immediately. Then he shouted, “Any south siders here?” Well, I couldn’t resist that invitation to meet and greet a fellow south sider. What a coincidence! He just so happened to be Melanie’s uncle. We even knew some of the same people. We became friends because of my mother!

¡Gracias, Irma!

Flor de Mayo

Irma Serrano, The Peoples Theater, Back of the Yards, Chicago, Illinois.

My mother always helped Mexicans who were new to Chicago. Whenever people threw away furniture, I would have to help her bring it from the alley to our basement until she could give it to someone who desperately needed furniture more than us. Many Mexicans came and went from my house because not only would my mother give them furniture, but she would also advise them on how to survive in Chicago.

My mother went to Mexico about once a year. She loved Mexico so much because the Mexicans in Mexico loved her and envied her because of her success in America. One year when she returned from her Mexican vacation, I overheard her calling the Spanish TV station and I asked her why. She had met a single Mexican mother with a one-year-old daughter. I don’t remember the woman’s name, but she also played guitar and sang songs she wrote herself. My mother had convinced this woman to come to Chicago because my mother knew people at the radio and TV stations. Important people!

So anyway, my mother told this woman she would have a promising musical career if she left Mexico and came to Chicago. Somehow, my mother convinced this woman to come to Chicago and she was scrambling to get her an appearance on the radio or TV. My mother was so sure that this woman was an extremely talented musician! I don’t know how she did it, but after a few days, my mother got her on the radio and on a TV show. I remember she rehearsed at our house a few times before her appearances. I was only about ten years old at the time, but I thought she performed very well and she was so beautiful!

Sometime after her public appearances, she returned to our house to show us her new 45 record. I don’t remember how well it sold, but she had a record! Her manager gave her the stage name of Flor de Mayo. We were all excited that Flor had made it, but none more excited than my mother who had exaggerated her connections to get Flor de Mayo to come all the way from Mexico.

At my mother’s wake, many people, most of them Mexicans, came to pay their last respects to my mother. We had a three-day wake, which families no longer have. I saw a lot of people whom I hadn’t seen for years. The biggest surprise arrival was a woman who approached me, shook my hand, hugged me, and said in Spanish, “If it wasn’t for your mother, I wouldn’t be here in Chicago!” She was rather plump then but still beautiful. I recognized her voice, but I couldn’t place her, so I asked her who she was. She said, “Flor de Mayo.”