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Keeping It Real at the Pico

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To be completely honest, it’s not much to look at. Just a dusty old outdoor arena, good for rodeos, not too big, not too small. It’s not much to smell, either. The sun buzzes down hard, baking the hay and manure out back. It’s quiet during the day. Just the faint white noise of the Pomona Freeway in the distance, the clicking of insects in the weeds and the sharp snap of the metal trailer door as people come and go from the front office.

Beyond the door, cold air blasts from the vents. A receptionist sits behind a modest cherrywood counter and answers a phone that never seems to stop ringing. Pico Rivera Sports Arena. Buenas tardes. Can you hold please? Hauser Entertainment. Buenas tardes. Un momento.

Maybe it’s not much to look at. But for many singers and bands, the Pico Rivera Sports Arena is an almost sacred place. Put as a simple analogy, the arena is to Mexican regional music what Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry is to country music. It’s a humble place where stars go when they’ve made it--not to gloat but to reconnect with regular people, to show their heads aren’t bigger from the fame.

The humility, prized in Mexican genres much as it is in country music, resonates with the people who go to the Pico for afternoon and evening shows. Families sit on blankets in the Pico’s bleachers with their popcorn, taquitos, soda pop and beer. They wear jeans and cowboy boots. They fuss over babies, tell jokes. They go for concerts, rodeos and combinations of the two, from the brilliant (an Ana Gabriel concert) to the banal (a “midget rodeo”). Sometimes fans cheer. Sometimes . . . they don’t. This is the proving ground, a plain-looking, deceptively modest, 5,400-capacity holy grail for ranchera, norteno and banda.

In Mexico, particularly northern Mexico, the arena is well-known, say radio personalities and promoters in the music business. And among Los Angeles fans of ranchera, banda and norteno, the arena--called the Pico for short--is probably the most famous concert venue in town.

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To everyone else, the Pico is virtually unknown, a bland blip in your peripheral vision as you zip past on your way somewhere more exciting--which is fine with Ralph Hauser Jr.

Hauser, 38, leases the Pico and runs his artist management and promotion company, Hauser Entertainment, out of these simple offices. He started off parking cars here in 1980. Now his empire is worth $30 million, with 25% growth per year, according to Hauser Entertainment’s new chief financial officer. This means Hauser, and the Pico, over which he has exclusive booking rights, are two of the most formidable figures in the U.S. Latin music industry.

“I knew we were making money,” says Hauser, who favors crisp white shirts and smells of expensive cologne. “But I didn’t know until recently just how much. It’s nice, but it doesn’t really change me, or what I do.”

Hauser still lives where he grew up, in Whittier--albeit in a hilltop mansion--because, he says, he likes the food and wants to be able to go to the 99-cent store. “I can’t live in a fantasy,” he says. “And to me, the whole Westside is nothing but a fantasy.”

And this, in essence, is what the Pico is all about. Not just humility, according to Malu Elizondo, a former public relations representative for Hauser Entertainment, but a particularly Mexican brand of humility that says that showing off your money, especially your millions, and bragging are definitely taboo.

Humble Surroundings

Modesty is also a large part of the reason the Pico has been able to remain one of the top concert venues in town, even as more comfortable and attractive venues, such as the Arrowhead Pond and the Universal Amphitheatre, have begun booking many of the same acts. Though these other places may be pleasant, they aren’t Mexican, say fans who attend shows at both.

“The Pico is very much like the traditional carnavales we have back in Mexico,” says Elizondo, now president of her own publicity agency, which represents norteno superstars Los Tigres del Norte, who also like to play the Pico. “In Mexico you have concerts in bullfight arenas, and people expect to see superstars but to bring the whole family. The Pico’s not exactly authentic in that respect, but it’s the closest you’ll get in the United States. I believe it’s the only place like that in the U.S.”

Juan Gabriel, a multimillionaire singer with limos and mansions in Mexico and the United States, regularly performs at the Pico, squishing through the pungent rodeo mud in his fancy patent leather shoes. He says it makes him feel alive to sing there, under the open sky, to humble families, and he says he’d rather sing there than in a luxurious theater. Hauser says that Gabriel’s favorite food is M&Ms; and that “that’s all people want, whether they’re stars or not, to be treated like normal people. That’s what we do here.”

“The Pico is very real,” says Gabriel.

Vicente Fernandez performs here for the same reason. So do Nydia Rojas, Alejandro Fernandez, Rocio Durcal, Joan Sebastian and Ana Gabriel.

That Hauser also represents these artists as a manager and agent in the States has helped make his Pico a household name in the Mexican regional music world. And if any complaints are spoken about Hauser in the Latin music industry, they generally have to do with his monopoly over top Mexican ranchera acts.

“It’s always an honor to perform at the Pico Rivera Sports Arena,” says Rojas, a young ranchera singer. “Many of Mexico’s beloved idols perform there on a regular basis, and it’s always a learning experience when I am invited to accompany them. Interacting with the audience is one of the key elements to a great show; Pico Rivera is one, if not the best, venue built for that type of audience interaction.”

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Newer singers, such as Jenni Rivera, perform there too, usually on a stage put together on the rodeo floor for concerts and later stored away. The stage sits about 75 yards from the audience, and the newer artists can see instantly whether people like them or not as they try to prove their mettle in the competitive world of Mexican regional music.

Mexican regional music, the largest segment of the U.S. Latin music market, accounts for about 60% of sales of Spanish-language music here. Just last week Billboard magazine, the music industry’s leading publication, published an article saying the future of Latin music in the United States is Mexican regional music, meaning that Los Angeles--and not Miami--is the true fiscal and cultural center of Latin music in the U.S.

This fact remains little known in most of the nation, in part because many leaders in the Latin music industry look down on Mexican regional music as being corny, dated or plain not hip. Sales figures prove this prejudice is not held by the music-buying public, however.

The anonymity of the Pico also stems from Hauser’s philosophy that humility is nobler than hubris. He refuses to hire a personal publicist, for example, and dislikes being interviewed about himself. He tried sending press releases about the Pico’s shows to the mainstream media for a while, but when they showed no interest, he stopped. He employs many family members, and often his artist contracts are nothing more than a handshake.

This modesty is worlds away from the self-promotion of Latin industry titans such as Miami’s Emilio Estefan, who, in the words of Latin music expert and writer John Lannert, “has to be in the spotlight every five minutes.”

When asked about the differences between himself and producer-manager Estefan, Hauser recounts the first time he met Estefan, a few years ago, when they were arranging for ranchera star Alejandro Fernandez, one of Hauser’s clients, to record a pop album under Estefan’s guidance.

Estefan’s first question for Hauser, Hauser says, was whether he would like to meet Gloria. “I said, ‘Gloria who?’ ” says Hauser, with a sad smile. “He meant his wife, Gloria Estefan, but I honestly didn’t know who they were.”

Lannert says this anecdote speaks pointedly to the vastly different Latin music universes inhabited by the two men, each equally powerful in his own sphere. “It speaks to Gloria’s irrelevance in the Mexican regional world,” says Lannert. “You see her everywhere in the media as the Latin music queen, but I’d say 90% of ranchera fans don’t have a clue who she is, or if they know who she is, they don’t know her music.”

Emilio Estefan has not spoken to Hauser since then.

But that doesn’t bother Hauser.

“Look, not an hour goes by in Los Angeles that one of my artists isn’t on the radio,” he says. “And that’s all I care about. I’m in it for the music, not for me. To me, ‘me’ is a bad word.”

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Hauser’s background is solidly middle-class. His businessman father owns a company called R&H; Electric in Montebello, which Hauser was planning to take over until he discovered his talents as a concert promoter and manager.

In 1980, Hauser’s father began promoting rodeos and concerts at the Pico Rivera Sports Arena. The younger Hauser parked cars during the events and says the large numbers of people attending the shows demonstrated a real lack of Mexican country entertainment in Los Angeles. Hauser met his wife, Delia, in the parking lot; he fell in love with her when he saw her ride by on a horse, carrying a Mexican flag. These days, the couple’s five children can often be seen helping out with shows.

When the Pico came up for lease in 1985, Hauser says, he jumped at the opportunity. Just 23, Hauser leased the arena with help from his family and formed Hauser Entertainment. He booked shows, including many non-Spanish-language performers. He also promoted Mexican music concerts at other venues in Southern California.

“The first four years were very difficult,” Hauser says. “We dealt with a lot of stereotypes. At that time, it wasn’t ‘cool’ to be Latin, Mexican, Mexican American, whatever. The American [booking] agents really weren’t interested in the talent. They did not understand the size of the market and said very insulting things.”

Among the most insulting and often-repeated concerns voiced by booking agents, Hauser says, was “that they thought we were charging too much money for Mexicans. They think we’re all broke. It’s really stupid.”

Hauser charges about $35 a ticket for Pico shows and more for shows he promotes at other venues. The Pico’s shows are slightly cheaper, he says, because “people want to bring the whole family to the Pico.”

“There came a day where something just hit me, and I said, ‘Why am I trying to take my music to the American public? Why am I selling hot dogs and hamburgers at the arena? Why don’t I just sell tacos and nachos and have the concerts there?’ ”

In 1989, Hauser joined forces with booking agent Emily Simonitsch to book Juan Gabriel for a concert at the Universal Amphitheatre. The show sold out, “and it helped open a lot of doors for me from there on out,” says Hauser.

“I have a lot of respect for Hauser Entertainment Group,” says Simonitsch, who still works with Hauser on concerts. “They’re a unique family, they stick together, and they’re very honest. They live up to their word.”

Though Hauser could make out just fine promoting shows at venues other than the Pico (he recently grossed $800,000 for a Joan Sebastian show at Staples Center) he and others say there is still a need in Los Angeles for a Pico Rivera Sports Arena.

“The Pico gives [Mexican] people a sense of their homeland,” says Simonitsch.

“If I could, I’d annex this place and I’d give it to Mexico,” jokes Hauser. “I’ll probably get hate mail for that. But that’s really what it’s like to come here. It’s like a little piece of Mexico in the middle of L.A.”

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Ranchera and Norteno at Pico

Here are upcoming concerts at the Pico Rivera Sports Arena, 11003 Rooks Road, Pico Rivera, (562) 695-0509. Tickets are available at Ticketmaster outlets, including Robinsons-May, Tu Musica, Warehouse Music and Ritmo Latino stores. Tickets also available at Suzy Records and Carniceria El Toro in Santa Ana.

Sunday and Monday: Antonio Aguilar, Banda El Recodo, Banda Lizarraga, Brenda y Sus Coquetas, Los Morros del Norte, Chalinillo. Aguilar and Recodo are superstars in the ranchera and banda genres. Aguilar, the father of Pepe Aguilar, is one of the grand statesmen of ranchera and a cinema superstar in Mexico. Recodo is the oldest and most prestigious banda ensemble in Mexico, known for intricate arrangements and lively stage shows. The other acts are less known but on the rise. 3 to 9 p.m. $35 in advance, $37 at the door; $15 ages 5 to 10. Children 5 and younger, free.

Oct. 1: Los Tigres del Norte, featuring a live rodeo. Los Tigres are regarded as the top band in the norteno genre, known for their deep, heartfelt corridos chronicling Mexican and Mexican American life along the U.S.-Mexico border. They recently donated $500,000 to UCLA for research on Mexican folk music. Time and ticket price to be determined.

Oct. 15: Los Tucanes de Tijuana, featuring a live rodeo. Los Tucanes are one of the most popular norteno bands, known for their playful lyrics, handsome lead singer and catchy songs. Time and ticket prices to be determined.


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