November 11, 2011

Xavier Cugat Meets Frankenstein

Francisco de Asis Javier Cugat Mingall de Brue y Deulofeo was a Spanish-born Cuban violin prodigy who first came to America in the mid-1910s as a teenage accompanist to the legendary opera singer Enrico Caruso. The boy would go on to become the Big Band era’s most flamboyant orchestra leader, known worldwide as Xavier Cugat.

It was Caruso who taught the young musician how to draw, and by the mid-twenties, Cugat had quit music for a job as a cartoonist for the Los Angeles Times and the King Features Syndicate. Though he soon returned to his first love, Cugat continued drawing, providing humorous covers for several of his own record albums, publishing collections of his star caricatures and even producing an illustrated curtain for Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.

Cugat famously played New York’s Waldorf-Astoria and The Coconut Grove in Los Angeles, rising to national fame through radio and a string of Latin-flavored hits, notably Perfidia (1940) and Brazil (1943). Along the way, Cugat helped fellow Cuban Desi Arnaz get started in American showbiz.

Cugat’s extravagant style — his band members wore flaming red and gold outfits — suited Hollywood and he appeared in numerous musicals, leading the orchestra with a violin bow in one hand while holding a miniature chihuahua in the other. The Cugat Show was known for its sexy female singers — and Cugat wives — that included Rita Montaner, Carmen Castillo, Lorraine Allen, Abbe Lane and Charo.

In brush outline and charcoal tones, Cugat’s caricature of Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein Monster features a dark background and a lightning flash. The figure’s elegant, sweeping strokes suggest both The Monster’s awkward gait and a dancer’s grace. Perhaps this Frankenstein moves to Cugat’s trademark rhumba. The piece, undated, could have been drawn as early as the Thirties. Cugat produced his Hollywood caricatures in the same style well into the Sixties.

In the early Seventies, in declining health, Cugat returned to his native Spain where he passed away at 90, in 1990.

Xavie Cugat on Space Age Pop.

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