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Archives for December 2012

Lunch with Ernesto Portillo at La Costa Brava, 3541 S. 12th Avenue

La Costa Brava has the best cabrilla, the best fish soup and shrimp ranchero I have had in this town. I am not sure how long ago I discovered it. Actually, I did not actually discover it. I was led there by my long time friend and compadre Ernesto Portillo Sr. who was for several decades the towering voice of Tucson’s Spanish radio. His story is also the story of Tucson radio from the mid-1950s.

Neto is a Chihuahuense, born in Parral. When he was a youth, his family moved to Juarez. His[slickr-flickr set=”Neto” delay=”2″] brother-in-law, who Ernesto says was one of the old-time broadcasters

]in Juarez, asked him if he might like to learn about radio. He got his training outside a radio control room, using a salt shaker instead of a microphone.

Neto qualified for his broadcaster license in 1951 at the ripeold age of 17 after taking examinations in Mexico City. He was given a provisional license only because he was underage. His official papers were issue when he turned 18.

Ernesto worked in Juarez radio for three years, figuring — correctly as it turned out — that he would either go to Mexico City or the United States to further his career. Spanish-language radio started in Tucson in 1953 with the advent of KEVT. Months later, in 1954, Neto got a call and an offer to come to Tucson. He was 20, working in radio and in father’s store in Juarez. He took the job. He stayed at KEVT until 1960 when he took a job selling life insurance. That lasted only three and a half years.

Two of his fellow radio colleagues at KEVT, Oscar Stevens and Carlos McCormick, applied for a license to operate the second Spanish-language station in Tucson, which eventually was granted. They asked Neto to be sales manager.

KXEW began broadcasting in November of 1963. After six months, they asked Neto to manage the station. After a time, the station’s management asked Ernesto to help establish a FM Spanish-language station. Years later, a group of investors, including Neto, Tucson attorney Lowell Rothchild — father of the present mayor — and Swede Johnson, a University of Arizona vice president, acquired the stations. Harry Belafonte was the principal seller.

In 1978, the group sold the FM station. It survives today as KRQ with obviously a different format. The group then sold the AM station KCEW two years later.

After three and a half decades in Tucson radio, Ernesto still was not finished. Neto joined the well-known restaurateur Diego Valenzuela of Gordo’s Mexican Restaurant, whose TV commercials were ubiquitous — “If you really like chimichangas, if you REALLY REALLY like chimichangas — to form another investor group. This one included Macario Saldate, a retired UA professor and currently a member of the Arizona Legislature, and Raul Grijalva, formerly a Pima County supervisor and now a U.S. congressman. This was the start of KQTL, which began broadcasting in October 1985.

This group sold KQTL in 2000 to a company with a chain of stations.

The radio business, like most media enterprises, has changed. Sharp decreases in  advertising revenue has led to consolidation of radio companies. “Two or three companies own about 98 percent of the stations,” said Neto. “It’s a different world. Local ownership, group ownership representing your community is a thing of the past.. It’s big business now.”

The Costa Brava is not a big business. It remains a sort of sideline for the wholesale seafood business, which was founded by Levi Rodriquez. He was a shrewd businessman, developing relationships with fishermen up and down the Baja Peninsula and the Sonora and Sinaloa coasts. At one time, he had a couple of store-fronts. Levi died a few years ago. His sons run the operation today.

Gloria Hugues, Levi’s daughter-in-law, has managed the restaurant for decades. She is the hero of the kitchen.

The restaurant stands out in at least one other respect — its décor. It includes some amazing Seri carvings, nautical paintings and prints, lots of parrots, nets, an enormous pocket-watch clock and tillers. At one end is a huge stuffed marlin caught by Nick Paulos of the now extinct Paulos Restaurant and a marvelous, hand-carved bow sprit at the front of a divider.

I invited the well-known auto dealer Jim Click to join me for camarones rancheros. Levi and Gloria went all out and brought out an enormous skillet. The shrimp was by far more than we could eat. Click, who will be known as one of the most generous men this town has ever known, picked up the pan and served all the other patrons in the restaurant.

It’s that kind of place.


William Manchester: The humiliation of John Wayne


There was a small story this month that someone had finished William Manchester’s third volume of his Churchill biography. I read the first two, and was among the thousands, if not millions, who were disappointed that Manchester — one of the giants of 20th-century journalism and biography — could not finish the job.  I’m not sure I could handle a substitute for Manchester. A few years ago, I went on a Manchester kick, reading almost everything he has written. There was one essay that appeared in The New York Times Magazine June 14, 1987 that I think about still.

Manchester was a Marine in the Second World War. He was wounded in the battle for Iwo Jima, returned to combat and almost killed in the furious fighting at Okinawa, among the bloodiest of the war. The piece for the magazine was prompted by a meeting of the Japanese and American soldiers who faced each other on Okinawa. Here are two excerpts from that article.

This was the lede:

“ON OKINAWA TODAY, Flag Day will be observed with an extraordinary ceremony: two groups of elderly men, one Japanese, the other American, will gather for a solemn rite. They could scarcely have less in common.

“Their motives are mirror images; each group honors the memory of men who tried to slay the men honored by those opposite them. But theirs is a common grief. After 42 years the ache is still there. They are really united by death, the one great victor in modern war.”


Here is an unforgettable scene:


“Once we polled a rifle company, asking each man why he had joined the Marines. A majority cited ‘To the Shores of Tripoli,’ a marshmallow of a movie starring John Payne, Randolph Scott and Maureen O’Hara. Throughout the film the uniform of the day was dress blues; requests for liberty were always granted. The implication was that combat would be a lark, and when you returned, spangled with decorations, a Navy nurse like Maureen O’Hara would be waiting in your sack. It was peacetime again when John Wayne appeared on the silver screen as Sergeant Stryker in ‘Sands of Iwo Jima,’ but that film underscores the point; I went to see it with another ex-Marine, and we were asked to leave the theater because we couldn’t stop laughing.

“After my evacuation from Okinawa, I had the enormous pleasure of seeing Wayne humiliated in person at Aiea Heights Naval Hospital in Hawaii. Only the most gravely wounded, the litter cases, were sent there. The hospital was packed, the halls lined with beds. Between Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the Marine Corps was being bled white.

“Each evening, Navy corpsmen would carry litters down to the hospital theater so the men could watch a movie. One night they had a surprise for us. Before the film the curtains parted and out stepped John Wayne, wearing a cowboy outfit – 10-gallon hat, bandanna, checkered shirt, two pistols, chaps, boots and spurs. He grinned his aw-shucks grin, passed a hand over his face and said, ‘Hi ya, guys!’ He was greeted by a stony silence. Then somebody booed. Suddenly everyone was booing.

“This man was a symbol of the fake machismo we had come to hate, and we weren’t going to listen to him. He tried and tried to make himself heard, but we drowned him out, and eventually he quit and left. If you liked ‘Sands of Iwo Jima,’ I suggest you be careful. Don’t tell it to the Marines.”


Everett S. Allen: Great White Father of Iambic Journalism

Everett S. Allen of The Standard Times, New Bedford, Mass.

Everett S. Allen once wrote a lead for his paper, The Standard-Times of New Bedford, Mass., in iambic pentameter. You don’t typically find poets writing news copy. But he was unusual from the start. Even in his later years, he sported a dazzling head of  shoulder-length curly white hair, flaring mutton chops and sailor’s craggy face, looking for all the word as he had just stepped out of 1968 and the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. It was for this reason that Roy Peter Clark called him the Great White Father of Iambic Journalism.

He won the first column-writing competition sponsored by the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1979. When I read these magnificent pieces, I sought to put his work in The Arizona Daily Star. I called him to see if I could buy the column. The column was not available through major newspaper syndicates. In fact, he said, his column appeared only in The Standard Times and the Raleigh News and Observer. I asked if he would send us a third copy, and we agreed on the price: $15 per column.

The column appeared Sundays. No other than the three newspapers ran his column. We spoke often by phone and finally met at conference in New England. He wrote twice as long as most columnists, about 1,500 words. He was certainly worth the space. Four of his books are still available and listed here along with a biography.

The columns here from the ASNE competition are in pdf format. Just click on the link.