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The Fire of Flamenco: El Cid Turns 50

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Dripping red velvet curtains, illuminated by dusky dark red lights pull to the side of a raised stage as the red brick building is filled with the reverberations of a powerful male voice, percussion and a guitar. The audience's eyes follow the swoosh of her long black skirt, the swift tapping of her feet, and her smooth intricate hand gestures as she glides on stage. Misuda Cohen's eyebrows furrow as she follows the voice of singer, Antonio de Jerez and the rhythm of guitarist Kai Narezo and percussionist Samuel Flores, who came from Spain for the performance. Male dancer, Manuel Gutierrez, soon accompanies Cohen. He walks on stage with purpose and sharply halts his movements to emphasize the true artistic pauses of Flamenco dance.

El Cid, a revered historic restaurant and live performance venue nestled in the Silver Lake Sunset Junction neighborhood is celebrating its 50 years of Flamenco dinner shows after decades of many transformations and traditions. On October 11, Arte Flamenco series continues. Recently Cohen and the other performers commemorated El Cid's 50th anniversary by presenting the show, "Flamenco Andalusi." The passionate and seductive art form, originating from Andalucía, a territory in the south of Spain, had an audience of children to elders, old Flamenco dancers to people new to dance, and locals who had never been there before to old customers.

Cohen, who studied Flamenco is Spain, has been dancing for around 15 years. She enjoys performing at El Cid and has been for about seven years.

"It is a monumental ground for Flamenco," said Cohen. "In its original heyday -- this was the hub. All of the greatest artists have passed through here. They have either worked here or come here or know of this place and it's just the history that sets it apart."

What is El Cid today is very different that its original incarnation. Prior to the building's initial construction, in 1915 film director D.W. Griffith used what was a hill and cornfield where El Cid is now, to film scenes of "The Birth of a Nation," a film based in the American Civil War and Reconstruction era. First assembled in 1925, the structure of El Cid used to be the Jail Café -- a restaurant designed as a prison with waiters walking around in striped inmate uniforms. The building was turned from a café into the Cabaret Concert Theatre. Finally, in late 1962 the playhouse was converted into a replica of a 16th century tavern, which is El Cid today.

A teenage Juan Talavera received a call one day from Margarita Cordova, a Flamenco dancer in need of a partner. Talavera accepted the request to be her partner and together they danced at the Purple Onion -- the first place in Los Angeles to have Flamenco dance. After at least six years of dancing there, Cordova, Talavera and Cordova's husband, Clark Allen, started to think of the idea of opening up their own Flamenco hub. According to Cordova, this was their only way of holding a permanent job, after having random gigs lasting only four to six weeks.

After looking around town, they kept returning to what is now El Cid and opened it on December 7, 1962. Allen initially wanted to name the spot after his full name. But each letter was costly in constructing a sign illuminating each letter, and 24-letters would not do. Then one day he called up his wife and thought "El Cid" would be perfect. It was the name of a popular movie shot in Spain that had just come out at that time. According to Cordova, Allen told her "You can't get any less letters than that."

According to Talavera, Cordova and Allen took a loan out on their house, purchased a liquor license and put on shows five days a week, with three Flamenco shows in one night. "We kept it pretty Spanish," said Talavera. "It wasn't American trying to look like Spanish."

Business kept picking up as more and more talented dancers performed on the stage. Actors, directors, and producers of the time, including Marlon Brando, even came to what was known as "the" Flamenco spot in those days. People packed in and stood on the outside entrance staircase surrounded by greenery and rustic lanterns as they waited to come inside the authentic restaurant and performance venue.

According to Cordova, there were leaks in the roof at one point and they would hand out umbrellas to their customers. And, when it got too hot, they went down to Tijuana, Mexico to purchase a bunch of fans to pass out to their customers so they could cool off during the show.

"I think that's what made it popular," said Cordova. No one knew when they would need an umbrella or a fan or knew who their waiter or waitress would be for the night. The neighbors also enjoyed having El Cid close by and they would even look out for it.

"In Flamenco there are a lot of great dancers and guitarists and singers and I've got to work with the best at El Cid," said Talavera who believed El Cid was an educational experience for him as he shared the stage with well-known performers. Allen and Cordova held onto it for many years.

However, in 1973, after closing up and walking outside, Allen and Cordova were held up by two men who had been sitting at the bar all night long. Allen and Cordova handed over the money but the two men still shot Allen. He was in and out of the hospital for three years.

"That soured me on the place," said Cordova. Once he was well and on his feet, Cordova told him that they were selling it. If that event did not happen though, Cordova believes they still could have been owners to this day.

As owners changed, Talavera was still rehired until 1989, when he then decided it was time to leave El Cid. Talavera still returns to dance there once in a while but some people have continued to hold onto the place a lot longer. Current server, Fidel Ramirez's first job was at El Cid and since 1979 he continues to work there. He has seen it change owners numerous times and go from a Flamenco venue to a nightclub and back to a Flamenco and mixed performance venue. Ramirez is happy with where it is going now with the current owners. "I feel like I belong there," said Ramirez who has enjoyed bonding with several unique people who have walked through its doors.

Current General Manager, Laura Ann Masura enjoys the vibrancy and authenticity of the place. "It's such a gem," said Masura. She also loves hearing stories about the old El Cid and tries to bring more of the past back into the current spot.

"I can't give it enough attention. I take the responsibility really seriously of trying to ... honor the history of it. I find it a really important part of Los Angeles."

Cordova appreciates that. "I'm so pleased and forever grateful [the owners] kept the name and honor the name," said Cordova. She also enjoys coming back to the same Flamenco atmosphere.

Allen's vibrant murals are still painted on the inside walls and outside patio and staircase walls. Two large trees on the patio, planted by the original owners, are still there. One is named Clark and the other Margarita. To Masura, it looks as if they are hugging.

"It feels special when you dance here because of the history," said Cohen. "That's such a big part of what Flamenco is and what it means to us," said Cohen.

To continue the tradition of Flamenco dance and to celebrate the venue's anniversary, El Cid will be putting on "Arte Flamenco" on Friday, October 11 at 7:30 p.m.

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