Rendering unto Cesar
“You seem like you’re trouble,” growls the sneering rancher, towering over the uppity field worker. “Are you trouble, Chavez?”
Something is amiss about this “rancher.” He’s wearing a “Green Power for Green L.A.” sweatshirt -- along with shorts, athletic shoes, white socks and thin-rimmed glasses. Hey, isn’t that Ed Begley Jr., the eco-activist and screen star who is probably most famous for the TV series “St. Elsewhere”?
With his overall “Doonesbury” look topped by a shock of surfer-blond hair, Begley is not likely to be cast as an abusive rancher who’s picking on the young Cesar Chavez. In fact, he is simply filling in at a rehearsal for an absent actor.
It’s all a part of his work as the co-producer, director and writer of “Cesar and Ruben,” a musical about the life of Chavez, as moderated by the ghost of the late reporter Ruben Salazar. Featuring a collection of cover versions of popular songs from a variety of pop artists, the production opens Friday at El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood.
The show will commemorate the 10th anniversary, on April 23, of the death of the United Farm Workers leader -- and it’s not a moment too soon, Begley says.
When he was searching for music for his show, Begley entered a specialized record shop in L.A. and asked the clerk, who appeared to be Latino and in his 20s, if he knew of any recordings of corridos about Cesar Chavez.
The clerk thought he was referring to boxer Julio Cesar Chavez.
“It’s bad enough if I would get this from a pimply-faced kid in Woodland Hills,” Begley recalls. “Maybe the clerk was a recent immigrant from Central America. But it’s just not right that people don’t know about Cesar Chavez.”
Begley, now 53, wasn’t far from being the Woodland Hills kid he describes. He grew up in Van Nuys. His father, Academy Award-winning actor Ed Begley, was a conservative Republican.
But the younger Begley read and saw news reports of Chavez in the late ‘60s, “and I immediately embraced his cause,” he says. His own gardening in his family home taught him that tending crops was hard work. And he admired Chavez’s tactics. “He was fasting to send a message of nonviolence, and that grabbed me. I stopped buying grapes in 1968.” In retrospect, Begley figures that service as a devout Catholic altar boy also influenced his respect for Chavez, whose Catholicism was an important part of his beliefs.
A surprise encounter
During the ‘70s, environmental causes took up most of the time Begley spent on activism. But in 1985, while eating oatmeal at Pann’s coffee shop near LAX, Begley noticed that a fellow customer, with “a very modest car,” looked like Chavez. When the man walked by, Begley knew it was Chavez. The actor followed the labor leader to his table and introduced himself. Begley asked Chavez if it was OK yet to buy grapes. No, replied Chavez, explaining the union’s campaign against pesticides in grape fields. Begley began to appreciate the ties between Chavez’s struggle and environmentalism and started working with the UFW on pesticide issues.
Chavez often reminded environmentalists that people -- as well as other organisms and the Earth itself -- were in danger from ecological abuses, Begley says. In 1991, Chavez and Begley were on a panel at an environmental film festival in Colorado, “and Cesar kept bringing the focus back to how people were affected.” After the panel, the two of them adjourned to a church across the street and talked for a half-hour “about what spirituality meant to him and how we had to protect God’s creation. It was a time I’ll cherish forever.”
Two years later, Begley was one of 40 pallbearers who carried Chavez’s casket through the streets of Delano.
Not long after Chavez’s death, Begley was listening to a recording of David Crosby’s “Hero” and was reminded of Chavez. “That song could be in a movie or a play about him,” Begley remembers thinking.
A little later, he had the same thought while listening to Sting’s “Fields of Gold.” Then it was a Tracy Chapman song, a Peter Gabriel song, one from Van Morrison, and “after about a year, I had assembled a list of 10 songs” that would meet his requirements of a musical about Chavez.
He began writing. But when he talked about his project to his friend Tom Soto, an environmental consultant who also knew Chavez, Soto told him there was a problem. There were no songs in Spanish. While Chavez had eclectic musical tastes that extended beyond Latin music, Begley says, he certainly didn’t scorn the music from the culture in which he was raised.
Begley had little background in Latin music. His Spanish, picked up from trips to Mexico but without formal study, consisted of “400 nouns and one verb that I can’t conjugate -- quiero” (“I want” or “I love”). However, he knew Ruben Blades, and Blades agreed to let Begley use two songs. He learned about another song in Spanish from a Linda Ronstadt album. Gradually, Spanish songs joined the script (they will be supertitled in English at El Portal).
Still, the show languished until January 2002. That’s when Begley got a call from a charity fund-raiser who had heard about the show and wanted to use an excerpt at a benefit.
“I had pieces of a play disassembled like pieces of an old Studebaker,” Begley says, “but they only wanted 15 minutes. I began to write with a whole new zeal.”
Putting it together
At this point, Begley came up with a framing device in which the play takes place after Chavez has died. In the afterlife, Chavez encounters Ruben Salazar, the Los Angeles Times reporter and KMEX broadcaster who was killed during a Chicano Moratorium protest against the Vietnam War in 1970. Salazar serves as the spiritual guide who helps Chavez review his past.
An excerpt was staged at the fund-raiser, but Begley kept writing. He finished a draft on Labor Day and staged a reading at El Portal with Edward James Olmos and Vikki Carr on Sept. 21.
Begley raised $250,000 to pay for the full production in equal amounts from three sources: himself, his managers Erik Sterling and Jason Winters and Jarlath Dorney, an Irish stonemason who had done some work at Begley’s house. Begley describes him as “the go-to guy for cobblestone.” And apparently for seed money as well -- although Begley said he warned Dorney about the risks.
Begley wanted a mid-size theater because “I’m not so crazy to think I can drive this car on the freeway. But you can’t drive it in a tiny parking lot either.” Translation: A larger theater would have been too risky, yet a 99-seat space would have been too small.
But the rejection of smaller theaters also was influenced by the play’s theme. Begley said he wouldn’t do a show about a legendary labor leader without union contracts for the actors, which aren’t required in sub-100-seat theaters. His five musicians also are on a union contract.
Among the reasons El Portal got the nod: Begley remembered going to movies there as a kid; it’s close to his Studio City home; and he liked a ‘30s-era mural of farm laborers that adorns the south end of the lobby.
The Doolittle Theatre in Hollywood, which has been designated as a showcase hall for Latino productions by its owner, the Ricardo Montalban Foundation, could be the next stop for “Cesar and Ruben” if it’s successful at El Portal, Begley says. Montalban Foundation president Jerry Velasco says “Cesar and Ruben” is exactly the sort of show that should reopen the Doolittle when the 1,200-seat Hollywood venue is officially renamed after Montalban.
“It’s commendable that Ed Begley took the initiative,” says Velasco, lamenting the lack of productions about Chavez. “It’s embarrassing that a Hispanic didn’t do it.”
Don’t expect “Cesar and Ruben” to be what Begley calls “a dirty-laundry show.” Although the script has a fleeting reference to a Chavez association with the controversial drug rehabilitation program Synanon, “this is not an expose. I want to tell the truth, but I want to be respectful of the family.”
The family is grateful. Julie Chavez Rodriguez, a granddaughter of the labor leader and a program officer with the family foundation, says Begley’s script “does a phenomenal job in making the material contemporary and broadening Cesar’s legacy.”
“Since I have to do his whole life in two hours,” Begley said, “I’m not doing it in great depth.” A more detailed biographical script, without the musical passages, would result in “tumbleweeds blowing through the theater. The most important thing is to get people there.”
Besides, Begley says, all of the musical numbers “move the story forward.” His only experience in musicals was in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at Valley College near his boyhood home, and “I can’t sing a note,” he said. But he had fun incorporating the music into the play.
That effort also caused a few headaches, in the battle to obtain rights to some of the songs. On Feb. 19, Begley yanked five songs because the rights still hadn’t come through.
However, among the replacements, Begley is especially excited by his friend Don Henley’s “I Will Not Go Quietly.” When Begley called Henley (of Eagles fame), Henley checked with the song’s co-writer Danny Kortchmar and got back to Begley with a yes within a half-hour. The song “has made my show 100% better,” Begley says. Henley “saved my show.”
Not that Begley lacks confidence in his play -- or his subject matter. “On the 10-year anniversary of Cesar Chavez’s death,” Begley says, “you could read the Delano phone book and get people to turn out for a week. If you sing the Delano phone book, they’ll come for two weeks. If you have a good play, you’ll sell tickets for the whole run.”
‘Cesar and Ruben’
When: Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 3 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.
Where: El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood
Ends: April 27
Contact: (213) 480-3232