LISTEN LIVE

Massive Digitization Effort Is The Latest Plot Twist For Cuban Radio Soap Operas

May 18, 2019
Originally published on May 18, 2019 12:45 pm

Binge-worthy podcasts may be a 21st century phenomenon, but addictive, serialized storytelling is nothing new. From the 1930s through the 1950s, Cuba exported more daytime and nighttime radio serials than any nation in the Spanish-speaking world — even Fidel Castro was a fan.

After the Revolution, Cuban emigrés in Miami began making original Spanish-language radio soap operas — better known as radionovelas — that reportedly ran on more than 200 stations worldwide. The Latin American Library at Tulane University is now digitizing a whopping collection of those 1960s-era programs and encouraging academic study of Cold War soaps.

Library director Hortensia Calvo, who acquired the collection for Tulane, says the stories and the manner in which they were promoted to radio stations throughout Latin America reveal a nascent middle class searching for a new way to live. Many of the programs were aimed at housewives and the frequent breaks in the action allowed advertisers to pitch all manner of household and luxury items.

The plot twists in these radionovelas kept audiences tuning in for more. Ida Schooler knows that better than anyone: Her job is to binge more than 1,000 hours of this 1960s-era must-hear entertainment.

Sometimes it's really dated and you kind of groan, and you have to just accept that it is of its time. But then sometimes it's really timeless and feels really modern. - Associate archivist Ida Schooler

Schooler is an associate archivist at the library who grew up speaking Spanish in Mexico. She's been listening to these soaps for about a year, and she says some hold up better than others. "Sometimes it's really dated and you kind of groan, and you have to just accept that it is of its time," Schooler says. "But then sometimes it's really timeless and feels really modern."

The Latin American Library is paying Schooler to help catalogue its collection with support from the Council on Library and Information Resources and the Mellon Foundation. "We're trying to find scholars to research them," Schooler says. "But my first thought is these would be great to listen to on a car ride — if I'm going on a road trip — or if I'm learning Spanish."

From 1963 to 1970, America's Productions Incorporated made more than 130 Spanish-language serials. Located in the historic Freedom Tower in Miami, the company hired displaced Cuban writers, directors, actors, musicians and engineers. Schooler is piecing together their names and resumés. It takes a lot of detective work.

"All we have is based on listening to things over, and over, and over, and sort of observing what are logical conclusions we can draw," she says.

Perhaps the best-known actor in the radionovelas was Minín Bujones — the Lucille Ball of Cuba. Tulane's massive collection of radionovelas — more than 9,000 reel-to-reel tapes — is named after Bujones and her husband, Louis Boeri, an Italian-born American businessman who founded America's Productions Incorporated.

Boeri is a bit of a mystery. Before the early 1960s, Boeri had never made a radionovela. He was a magazine publisher in Florida. In the final years of the Batista regime, he took a job with the Cuban government to promote U.S. investment and tourism there. But when Fidel Castro rose to power and partnered with the Soviet Union, Boeri left his home and fortune in Havana and relocated to Miami. Schooler says Cuban actors had cultivated a rare skill — the ability to speak "Continental Spanish."

El Agente Secreto is Pond — Richard Pond — agent 009, who works for MI6. Click here to listen to an episode.
Courtesy of the Latin American Library, Tulane University

"It would be the equivalent to the Trans-Atlantic accent," Schooler says. "So they'd figured out a way to alter their voices so that it was not region specific and it wasn't class specific."

Boeri's family suspects he worked for a U.S. intelligence agency. A daughter — Zenia Robertson — says she remembers him taking a lot of flights to Washington, D.C. That may be why Cold War politics seem so evident in these radionovelas. The protagonists openly embrace democratic and capitalist ideals. But no one says exactly who, or what they are fighting against.

"They don't want to say 'Communists', so the big sub-in is always 'The Existentialists,' " Schooler says. "So in multiple series you'll have like, 'It was the kind of bar where Bohemians and students and Existentialists hang out.' And they'll talk about Sartre and his philosophy."

Some of the radionovelas were pure propaganda, made to counter the ideals of the Cuban Revolution. But the serials for commercial radio were not so dogmatic — they managed to be both ideological and thrilling.

Christine Hernández, who oversees special collections at the library, is particularly drawn to the action-adventures, which often mirror world affairs in the 1960s. But then, who doesn't like a good espionage story, set against the backdrop of exotic world capitals and state-of-the-art gadgetry? Hernández says the radionovela producers made the Cold War fun and profitable, featuring entertaining heroes, "chasing down some evil doer who's going to destroy the world."

The Latin American Library plans to have the first third of its collection of radionovelas available for online research by December. Then Ida Schooler will have another 2,300 hours of audio to go.

Boeri once said that in his radionovelas "The American way of life shines, but without saying so." That's the definition of soft power — or in this case, soap power.

Copyright 2019 WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio. To see more, visit WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Before television, before the Internet, there were radio soap operas. From the 1930s to the 1950s, Cuba exported more radio serials than any other nation in the Spanish-speaking world. Even Fidel Castro was a fan. After his revolution, Cuban emigres in Miami began to make their own original Spanish-language radio soap operas, better known as radionovelas. Now Tulane University is digitizing a large collection of those programs. Our Gwen Thompkins has more on these Cold War soaps.

SIMON: The Latin American Library at Tulane has some of the earliest written materials ever circulated in the Western Hemisphere. They've got a letter dated 1521 and signed by the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes. But some of the oldest stories in the world are here on reel-to-reel tapes. Take, for instance, "Casa Del Dolor," aka the "House Of Pain." In this episode, a politician is trying to seduce his secretary.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "CASA DEL DOLOR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, through interpreter) You don't know how grateful I am to you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, through interpreter) Really? Are you saying that from the heart?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, through interpreter) I swear, Mr. Senator, on my parents' memory.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, through interpreter) All right. For the time being, I'll settle for your appreciation, Consuelito. But I aspire to have much more.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, through interpreter) Much more?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, through interpreter) I want your affection. You're very valuable to me.

GWEN THOMPKINS, BYLINE: Turns out, Senator Castroviejo is not only trying to bed Consuelito, the sweet secretary with absolutely no common sense. He's got his hands in other wrongdoing, as well. That's the genius of radionovelas - everything's complicated. The sleazebag senator's comeuppance may not happen for weeks, sometimes longer, which keeps audiences tuning in for more. Ask Ida Schooler. She's been listening to "House Of Pain" for a year.

IDA SCHOOLER: Friends, you know, they're crazy about podcasts. And so they'll tell me, you have to listen to, you know, this podcast, or, you have to listen to this. And they're telling the story. And I think that's kind of like what my job is.

THOMPKINS: Schooler is a 20-something associate archivist at the library who grew up speaking Spanish in Mexico. Her job is to binge more than a thousand hours of 1960s-era must-hear entertainment.

SCHOOLER: Sometimes it's really dated and you kind of groan, and you have to just accept that it is of its time. But then sometimes, it's really timeless and it feels really modern.

THOMPKINS: The Latin American Library is paying Schooler to help catalog its collection, with support from the Council on Library and Information Resources and the Mellon Foundation.

SCHOOLER: So we're trying to find scholars to research them. But my first thought was, oh, these would be great to listen to, like, on a car ride if I'm going on a road trip or if I'm - if I'm learning Spanish.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "CASA DEL DOLOR")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

THOMPKINS: From 1963 to 1970, America's Productions Incorporated made "House Of Pain" and more than 130 other Spanish-language serials. Located in the historic Freedom Tower in Miami, the company hired displaced Cuban writers, directors, actors, musicians and engineers. Schooler's piecing together their names and resumes.

SCHOOLER: So all we have right now - and a lot of the information I'm giving you is based on listening to things over and over and over and sort of observing what are sort of the logical conclusions we can draw.

THOMPKINS: Perhaps the best-known actor in the radionovelas was Minin Bujones, the Lucille Ball of Cuba.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MININ BUJONES: (As character, speaking Spanish).

THOMPKINS: Tulane's massive collection of radionovelas - more than 9,000 reel-to-reel tapes - is named after her and her husband, Louis Boeri, the Italian-born American businessman who founded the company.

Some of the radionovelas were pure propaganda made to counter the ideals of the Cuban Revolution. But the serials for commercial radio were not so dogmatic. "El Agente Secreto," aka "The Secret Agent," was ideological and thrilling.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "EL AGENTE SECRETO")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character, speaking Spanish).

THOMPKINS: The secret agent is a lot like James Bond. He also works for MI6, but his name is Pond, Richard Pond, agent 009. Schooler knows more.

SCHOOLER: We're in Paris. Carmen, played by Bertha Sandoval (ph), who is the primary love interest for Richard Pond in this storyline - she's been kidnapped. She was taken to a mental institution. A French policeman broke into the institution, and he gets into this very bloody confrontation with the mad scientist who's about to lobotomize Carmen.

THOMPKINS: The good news is Carmen is not lobotomized. The bad news is she gets amnesia.

SCHOOLER: And she's come to Chez Carlo, which is a nightclub in which Carlo is looking for a lounge singer.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "EL AGENTE SECRETO")

BERTHA SANDOVAL: (As Carmen, through interpreter) I do not know how I got to the door of your establishment or why I opened it and entered this place. That is all, Carlo.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As Carlo, through interpreter) Cherie. Cherie, you are the angel I've been asking heaven for.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AUTUMN LEAVES")

SANDOVAL: (As Carmen, singing in Spanish).

THOMPKINS: As Carmen, Bertha Sandoval sings "Autumn Leaves."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AUTUMN LEAVES")

SANDOVAL: (As Carmen, singing in Spanish).

THOMPKINS: But the library has yet to identify the actor playing Carlo. Company owner Louis Boeri is another mystery. Before the early 1960s, Boeri had never made a radionovela. He was a magazine publisher in Florida. In the final years of the Batista Regime, he took a job with the Cuban government to promote U.S. investment and tourism there. But when Fidel Castro rose to power and partnered with the Soviet Union, Boeri left his home and fortune in Havana and relocated to Miami.

Schooler says his actors had a rare skill.

SCHOOLER: Cubans had developed continental Spanish, so it'd be the equivalent to, like, the trans-Atlantic accent. So they had figured out a way to alter their voices so that it was not region-specific and it wasn't class-specific.

THOMPKINS: Boeri's family suspects he worked for a U.S. intelligence agency. A daughter, Zenia Robertson (ph), says she remembers him taking a lot of flights to Washington, D.C., back then. That may be why Cold War politics seemed so evident in these radionovelas. The protagonists openly embrace democratic and capitalist ideals. But no one says exactly who or what they're fighting against. Again, Ida Schooler.

SCHOOLER: They don't - it's like they don't want to say communists, and so the big sub-in is always the existentialists. So in multiple series, you'll have, like, it was the kind of bar where, you know, bohemians and students and existentialists hang out. And they talk about Sartre and his philosophy.

THOMPKINS: Picture Jean-Paul Sartre in a fabulous evening dress, and that could be Soledad. In the "House Of Pain," she looks like a fashion model and gets good results.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "CASA DEL DOLOR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As Antonio Miguel) Soledad.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: (As Soledad, through interpreter) What is it, Antonio Miguel?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As Antonio Miguel, through interpreter) May I ask you to dance?

THOMPKINS: The Latin American Library plans to have the first third of its collection of radionovelas available for online research by December. Then, Ida Schooler will have another 2,300 hours to go. Louis Boeri once said that in his radionovelas, the American way of life shines but without saying so. That's the definition of soft power or, in this case, soap power.

For NPR News, I'm Gwen Thompkins in New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF RY COODER AND MANUEL GALBAN'S "PATRICIA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tags: