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Bilingual Concert by Vikki Carr Leads KCET Overture to Latinos

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the years before World War II, when trade laws restricted the import of record albums from Latin America, legendary Mexican artists like Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante frequently crossed the border to perform live for Los Angeles’ Spanish-speaking community.

The songs were so popular most were quickly translated and recorded in English by the likes of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and the big bands of Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey and Glenn Miller, which soon made them classics in two languages.

Vikki Carr revisits that era at 8 tonight in a special hourlong bilingual performance on KCET-TV that kicks off the public television station’s March pledge drive. The station, which also produced the special, has paired it with an hourlong documentary, “The Puerto Ricans: Our American Story,” to form an unusual prime-time block the station hopes will boost viewership in the Latino community.

“The show is intended to reach a diverse audience, to be appealing both to Spanish-language families as well as English-speaking viewers,” said Barbara Goen, KCET’s vice president of communications, who oversees production of the pledge drives. “We would like to have a bigger Latino audience. That is our mandate: to serve a diverse audience. It is absolutely an ongoing strategic goal of KCET.”

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The Latino market is a largely untapped one for public television. Despite such critically acclaimed programming as “Chicano!: The History of the Mexican-American Civil Rights Movement,” Carlos Avila’s “Foto-Novelas” and documentaries on Cesar Chavez and the U.S.-Mexican War, KCET’s share of the Latino television audience remains small.

Although the station’s morning children’s block draws more Latino households than any other station except Spanish-language KMEX-TV, Latino viewership drops off dramatically--to about 11% of the station’s total audience--for other times of day. And the number of financial supporters in the Latino community is smaller still, with less than 10% of households in that community pledging to help fund the station. All of which is cause for concern for KCET, given Southern California’s rapidly changing demographics, which indicate that more than a third of the potential viewers in KCET’s market area are Latino.

Yet KCET has had success with past fund-raising appeals aimed specifically at Latinos. In June 1996, for example, the station sandwiched encore presentations of “Linda Ronstadt: Canciones de mi Padre” around the four-part series “Chicano!” and raised $74,000 in eight hours. A year earlier, the Linda Ronstadt program was paired with two other Latino-themed music shows to create a special Sunday afternoon pledge drive that netted $50,000.

“To raise $74,000 on a June night is very, very successful,” said Goen, who added that an average weekend pledge-break night generates about $20,000 for the station.

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For KCET, Carr, who recorded a string of English-language hits in the ‘60s and later won three Grammy awards in Spanish, represents a bridge between the English-language and Spanish-language communities.

“I don’t think it’s ever too late,” Carr said of KCET’s Latino initiative. “Now everybody definitely wants the Hispanic market. So it’s long overdue. Let’s see the quality of television they will continue to give in the future.”

In an effort to capture the ambience of an elegant ‘50s-era supper club as a backdrop for Carr’s performance, KCET taped the concert before a black-tie audience of 600 in Beverly Hills. Carr was joined on stage by Jack Jones, Pepe Aguilar and Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, as well as by a 22-piece orchestra, in reprising standards such as “Besame Mucho,” “Perfidia” and “Piel Canela.”

“The Puerto Ricans: Our American Story” produced by PBS station WKIW-TV in New York, which follows the Carr concert, is the eighth installment of the station’s ethnic heritage series. Featuring interviews with such entertainers as Rita Moreno, Tito Puente and Jimmy Smits, author Esmeralda Santiago and tennis player Gigi Fernandez, the program explores the bicultural experience of growing up Puerto Rican in the U.S.

It is “like a child jumping double Dutch . . . two ropes going in opposite directions very quickly,” says Santiago. “It is a constant juggling, a constant jumping up and down trying to be in one place or another.”

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“Vikki Carr: Memories, Memorias” airs at 8 p.m. to be followed by “The Puerto Ricans: Our American Story” at 9:30 p.m. on KCET. The station will repeat “Memories, Memorias” Sunday at 5 p.m.


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