Olga San Juan, “The Puerto Rican Pepperpot”
Today is the birthday of the lovely singer-dancer-actress Olga San Juan (1927-2009).
Born in Brooklyn and raised in both Puerto Rico and New York’s Spanish Harlem, San Juan began dancing at age three and performed in nightclubs throughout her childhood. Gradually the venues grew more prestigious (the Copacabanna and the El Morocco) and she was hired by The King of Latin Music, Tito Puente. Eventually she formed Olga San Juan and her Rumba Band and began to be heard on radio as much as in nightclubs.
In 1943, at the height of the Latin craze, Paramount hired her and she began to appear in pictures, most of them musicals. She was in Blue Skies (1946) with Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby, the all-star Variety Girl (1947), with Ava Gardner in One Touch of Venus (1948), and with Sonja Henie in The Countess of Monte Crisco (1948). Her last major film role was in the late Preston Sturges comedy The Beautiful Blonde of Bashful Bend (1949), which I watched recently and first brought her to my attention. While San Juan often played Lupe Velez and Carmen Miranda type broad-stroke Latin characters, in Beautiful Blonde, she downplays that element, radiating taste, wit and intelligence rather than crude dialect humor. It made me sit up and take notice.
Unfortunately, that was her last opportunity to do that in film. That year she also married the actor Edmund O’Brien, and she retired to raise their children. She had one more major role on Broadway, in the original production of Paint Your Wagon (1951-52). After this a couple of bit roles in the films, and that was it. She and O’Brien divorced in 1976.
For more on show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.For more on comedy film history see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc