There was Motown, the British Invasion, and TV created pop bands like the Monkees, but not everyone remembers early rock and roll bands that came from the heart of East LA. Other than Richie Valens, Chicano (Mexican American) bands were mostly popular locally and were virtually unknown nationally. The musical, Eastside Heartbeats, currently being performed at Casa 0101 Theatre in Boyle Heights, was inspired by an East LA rock and roll band called Cannibal and the Headhunters. They went on to open for the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl in 1965.
It’s an energetic and insightful show that opened on May 5th (Cinco de Mayo) and runs through May 29th. I took the Metro Red Line from the San Fernando Valley and then the Gold Line, which stopped 2 blocks from the theater in Boyle Heights. It’s the actual neighborhood where the play takes place. Boyle Heights is a family-centric Chicano community that was once a predominately Jewish neighborhood. It has a mixture of turn of the century Victorian and Craftsman homes and colorful murals painted by local Chicano artists.
As I came out of the subway, a “Bernie rally” was marching down First Street. The theater is located directly across from the Hollenbeck Police Station.
During the 60’s, some of the more well-known bands that came out of East LA included The Premiers, The Midniters, The Sisters, and The Blendells.( “La La La La La,” ) It was a wild time, not far from the site of the Watts Riot of 1965. Whittier Boulevard was a well-known gathering place for low-riders, mural artists, and political activists. The songs and art reflected the racial tension and struggles of the time.
Eastside Heartbeats starts off with a bang as the entire cast commands the stage in an energetic dance number. The story takes place in 1965 and all the costumes were dead-on authentic. They looked exactly like what I wore in high school, although 10 inches above the knees mini dresses were more prevalent a couple years later. The choreography was also spot on. “The pony,” “the jerk” and “the swim,” were executed expertly and true to the era. I didn’t see any modern-day dance moves slip by. It made you want to get up and go-go dance along with them.
Kenneth Miles-Ellington Lopez, skillfully plays Jimmy Ramirez, lead vocalist of the Eastside Heartbeats. He yearns for his band to be nationally recognized, but as the play begins, they’ve only played local events and weddings. His father Carlos, acted by Benjamin Perez (substituting for Gabriel Gonzalez in the performance I saw) once had dreams of singing in a band but has kept that dream hidden from his son and his wife. He comes across as a hard-ass who doesn’t support Jimmy’s dreams telling him he hates “rock and roll.” Carlos begs Jimmy to get “a real job” and insists that he only play traditional Mariachi music. Deep-down, you can tell he loves his son and only has his best interests at heart.
Jimmy rebels and doesn’t give up on his dreams despite his father’s badgering. He and his band members continue to practice on the sly. His father gets him a wedding gig with one of his customers and is appalled when the band launches into a rock and roll version of “La Bamba.” Teresa Gomez, played by the bright and talented Chilean actress Bernardita Nassar, works in a record store. She is the girlfriend of record promoter Hal Fisher, comically portrayed by Jordan Charles. Teresa scores the band an audition with Hal that leads to recording a single. It plays on KRLA radio, a prominent radio station in LA at the time. The single becomes popular locally but goes nowhere any place else.
Arguments ensue both between the band, Jimmy’s parents and the promoter. Frustrated, Jimmy is on the verge of giving up when Hal gets a call from Brian Epstein. He requests that the Eastside Heartbeats open for the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl.
I was impressed by the dancing and singing skills of the cast. They easily move from one spirited number to the next, keeping the energy flowing throughout the performance. One stand out was Katie Kitani, in a hilarious turn as Hal’s harried assistant. It’s a small speaking part but she makes the most of it.
Jahmaul Bakare plays Eddie Mitchell, Jimmy’s mentor from Watts. He shines as a black singer who teaches Jimmy a few Motown moves and deals with living during the volatile times of the Watts Riot.
The rock and roll bands of East LA helped make it possible for the success of Hispanic musicians such as Carlos Santana, Ruben Blades, Selena, Los Lobos and others. However, they still haven’t gotten the recognition they deserve compared to Motown artists. Like a line in the play when they mention Richie Valens – “What was a boy from East LA doing in Iowa?”
As a side note: Executive producer Maria Elena Yepes was in the audience as a teenager when the Beatles and Cannibal and the Head Hunters played the Hollywood Bowl in 1965.
Eastside Heartbeats ran at Casa 0101 Mainstage Theatre