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With fanfare, a landmark closes

Times Staff Writer

The lobby at La Fonda restaurant Sunday was packed with people waiting for a chance to take their seats and hear the famed mariachi group Los Camperos de Nati Cano one more time.

The first of the day’s final four shows was coming to a close in the restaurant that was booked solid -- not with camera-toting tourists seeking to taste mariachi music for the first time, but with longtime enthusiasts wanting to savor a musical moment in a historic place.

“How much longer [will they play]?” the restaurant’s owner, Natividad Cano, was asked.

“About 20 minutes,” he said, adding with a smile: “That’s 20 Mexican minutes.”

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The music continued for 45 minutes with no one anxious to pull the plug. That’s because on Sunday, La Fonda, the celebrated Mexican restaurant at 2501 Wilshire Blvd., closed its doors for good.

Those final moments presented Cano, the 74-year-old owner who nurtured the eatery for half his life, with an embarrassment of riches. “It is chaos right now,” he said nervously. “Everybody is coming to say goodbye, and we only have so much space.”

The closing of La Fonda marks the end of a cultural landmark in Los Angeles. It was home to Los Camperos, a nationally known group that toured and recorded with singer Linda Ronstadt. In the audience, mariachi musicians from around the state gathered to pay their respects to a place that is considered a mecca for Mexico’s foremost style of folk, or country, music, which uses trumpets, violins and guitars to create background music for powerful vocalists.

“This is history for us,” said Samuel Yanez, a 24-year-old violinist and third-generation mariachi musician from Sacramento. “La Fonda is to mariachi music what the early clubs in New Orleans or the Cotton Club [in New York] was to jazz.”

Cano and his group Los Camperos lost the restaurant after a four-year legal battle to block the building’s new owners from evicting the tenants.

“It is painful and so sad, but that’s the past,” Cano said, sitting at the bar sipping a margarita.

On Sunday, the signs of the pending move were evident. The wooden chandeliers were gone, and some of the decorations had already been removed. But Cano vows to reopen in another location, preferably downtown. “This is not about Nati Cano; it’s about a tradition,” he said.

A mariachi group is like a good baseball team, he continued. “The Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. We will take our name with us. People know us and hopefully they will follow. We can’t just throw away this idea.”

Cano, a Jalisco, Mexico-born, classically trained musician, came to Los Angeles in 1957 as a member of a mariachi group. In 1961, he joined a mariachi ensemble that played at the Million Dollar Theater in downtown Los Angeles. He became musical director and changed the group’s name to Los Camperos.

After touring with the group, he opened La Fonda as a permanent home in 1969. His mariachi band would have its own stage and wouldn’t have to hustle for tips in cheap cantinas. Soon, Cano would be a part of Linda Ronstadt’s return to her Mexican American roots. Los Camperos played on Ronstadt’s recordings of traditional songs, “Canciones de Mi Padre” in 1987 and a sequel in 1991.

“She came to learn mariachi music here,” Cano said. “She was sitting right in the middle over there. She fell in love with the music and said, ‘I want to make a record.’ ”

Over the years, Los Camperos has recorded numerous albums and was nominated for a Grammy in 2005 for “Llegaron Los Camperos.” The group will perform Nov. 1 at UCLA’s Royce Hall.

“It’s a great place and some of the most incredible mariachi music around,” said Maria Elena Durazo, who heads the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

In the audience, Talia Zapien, 27, said she had been coming to the restaurant to hear the music since she was 10. “This is music that makes my heart beat faster,” she said. “The restaurant may be closing but the music will live on.”

“It’s the music of my home,” said Maria de Lourdes, who was born in Mexico. “When I’m here, I feel like home.”

Musician Jesus Guzman said the new La Fonda will be better.

“All of us will be happy. The pain will be finished,” said Guzman, 43, who has performed with the group for 18 years and is expected to be Cano’s successor.

When the group finishes the last song, he said he won’t worry.

“The music will stay here,” Guzman said. “The sound will stay here in this old building. I don’t know how long, but it will be right here.”

john.mitchell@latimes.com


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