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Menudo anew

Times Staff Writer

GUILLERMO ARRIAGA was a just a kid in Mexico when he was swept up in one of the biggest pop music crazes of all time: Menudo mania.

Menudo was the boy band, an early ‘80s Latino precursor to groups like ‘NSync and Back Street Boys, and served as the farm team for Puerto Rican superstar Ricky Martin, an original member of the teen-pop sensation.

The group sparked dreams of romance in girls and dreams of stardom in boys like Arriaga, now 39. But the immigrant carpenter and amateur songwriter knew it was unlikely he’d be discovered in his home state of Michoacan, not exactly a stop on the road to Hollywood.

Last week, Hollywood came to Arriaga’s L.A. County barrio looking for stars in his own backyard.

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Menudo is being revived by MTV, and the call went out for bilingual Latino teens to audition for the new band. The first casting session was held last Saturday at Plaza Mexico, a Latino shopping mall on Imperial Highway in Lynwood with a colonial architectural theme that must remind Arriaga of home.

The man may have missed his chance the first time around, but now his 15-year-old son, also named Guillermo, had a shot at the same dream. Father and son made the short trip from their nearby South Gate home and got in line. Guillermo wore a No. 13 and an oversized black T-shirt that draped below his knees. He gave a brief performance before a three-judge panel that included singer Frankie J and high-powered manager Johnny Wright (Backstreet Boys, ‘NSync, Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake). Backstage, he answered questions for MTV Tr3s, the network’s new bilingual channel, which is filming the whole selection process for a reality series titled “Road to Menudo,” to begin airing May 12.

Guillermo was one of about 50 aspiring singers who participated in the Los Angeles-area tryouts. Auditions are continuing through the month, with stops in Miami, Dallas and New York. Once winnowed down to five band members, the new Menudo will appear this fall on the main MTV network in yet another reality series co-produced by Reveille, the Los Angeles-based company that specializes in importing successful foreign concepts for domestic TV, notably “Ugly Betty” and “The Office.” Viewers will watch the band coalesce, rehearse and record their first album for Epic Records.

“He might make it,” said Arriaga Sr. putting his arm around his son. “You never know.”

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As for his motivation, the teenager said simply, “I want to become something.”

As a freelance writer for The Times, I reviewed a performance by the original Menudo at the then-Universal Amphitheatre in 1984. What I remember most is the same thing I remember from attending the last Beatles concert at Candlestick Park in 1966: deafening screams that drowned out the show.

So is the world ready for another Menudo after a quarter-century? Well, some things never change. The world is still full of girls with the inclination to swoon, boys with the desire to be swooned over and adults with the compulsion to exploit the combustible combination of the two.

“This is like a novela,” says Lucia Ballas-Traynor, senior vice president and general manager of MTV Tr3s, during a lunch break from the auditions. “It’s the story of a kid who’s always wanted to be a star and get out of the barrio and make it big and bring all the family with him. We need more local novelas.”

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As opposed to the imported ones, she means, that you always see on Spanish-language television. And that’s the subplot of this Menudo drama. The show is just a piece of MTV’s overall strategy of reaching that elusive but coveted demographic -- the bilingual Latino kid in the U.S. who switches back and forth between cultures but thinks Univision is for his parents, which is not cool.

“Any company in the youth business needs a Hispanic strategy to survive, because Latinos are fueling the overall growth in the youth market,” says Ballas-Traynor, a former Univision executive. “It’s a top priority.”

Menudo was never about the music. Yet coincidentally, the original band’s most famous alumnus is enjoying a very respectable revival. Ricky Martin, who appears at Staples Center on April 20, has finally found a mature artistic voice, post-"Vida Loca,” with an excellent new Spanish album, “MTV Unplugged.” His new tour has been packing concert halls and stadiums in Latin America.

Martin has some good advice for today’s Menudo wannabes, posted on the MTV Tr3s website (www.mtv.com/mtvsites/mtvtr3s): “Take risks,” says the singer. “Risk it, even if you think it’s ridiculous. Be yourself and don’t be afraid of what people will say. I think that’s the key to success.”

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The website also includes this tip from the producers: “Be careful not to wear overbearing cologne; the casting panel does not want to smell you.”

Perfumed or not, you could tell a mile away that some of the contestants stank. After a few yowling, flat or off-key versions of “My Girl” or “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You,” it was hard not to be cynical.

“I see cruise ships in his future,” muttered the producer after one contestant’s ardent but loungy audition.

Some came alone. Some with friends or parents. Only one came with an entourage that included a manager and agent. His name is J.C. Gonzalez, 17, a handsome and polished Colombian kid from Houston. He caught the attention of Menudo executives who noticed that girls started screaming as soon as he walked on stage.

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What I found most inspiring was the earnest, untrained approach of some of these kids. You could see them practicing on the sidelines, pacing back and forth, singing their songs to themselves over and over.

Armando Quintanilla, a mop-topped 17-year-old, drove all way from Las Vegas with his mother and 8-year-old brother. Though he chose a song that wasn’t on the audition list, his soulful rendition of “Amazing Grace” seemed to impress the panel.

“God has a road ahead of me,” Armando told me later. “So if this doesn’t work out, I’m sure something else is in store.”

Sounds a little mature for Menudo to me.

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Beyonce brings more to the party

Bing Crosby did it. Nat King Cole did it. Now even Beyonce is doing it.

There’s a long tradition of American pop stars recording in Spanish, what today is being called a reverse crossover. (Nothing new for Spanish-speaking fans who tend to embrace the effort, even with imperfect pronunciation, as they did with Jackie Kennedy, who didn’t sing but charmed crowds with her Spanish speeches.)

Beyonce, though, is the latest to go bilingual, with the release this week of a revised version of last year’s “B’Day” CD, now with several new songs in Spanish. How does she do? Better than Bing, not as good as J-Lo, who also had to learn Spanish for her latest album, “Como Ama Una Mujer,” which made an impressive debut this week at No. 10 on Billboard’s Top 200 album chart.

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You can learn the lyrics, but alma, Latin soul, is in the blood.

Last chance to see Marin’s collection

This week is the last opportunity for art lovers to see Cheech Marin’s “The Chicano Collection/La Coleccion Chicana,” showcasing items from his private collection of paintings by Chicano artists. The exhibit at the Pico House Gallery at Placita Olvera features 26 fine art giclee prints depicting images of the Chicano urban experience.

The free exhibit ends April 13.

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Pico House Gallery, El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, 424 N. Main St. (213) 485-8432.

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Gurza covers Latino music, arts and culture. E-mail agustin.gurza@latimes.com with comments, events and ideas for this new weekly feature.


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