Cugat and Company

Cuchi and Cugie.

Translation: Charo (let’s double that to "cuchi-cuchi") and Xavier Cugat ("Cugie" to family, friends and four wives), who occupy a pair of photos in the modest but striking "Viva Las Vegas: A Photographic Retrospective of Images of Latino Entertainers" at the Sahara West Library. The collection of mostly performance portraits is culled from archives of the Las Vegas News Bureau.

"It’s a wonderful history of Las Vegas entertainment, and Latinos have played a huge role in that," says Paco Alvarez, curator of the bureau’s archives. "There have been anthropologists at universities who have focused on Latin entertainers and their connection to Las Vegas history."

One image, snapped at the Tropicana in 1970, captures the frenetic singer-dancer and her husband/bandleader onstage, she in fine cuchi-cuchi form, hip swiveled in a shake-it groove, he behind her wearing a vaguely quizzical expression. Another shot, taken in 1966, poolside at the Flamingo — the hotel at which Cugat performed on opening night in 1946 — catches the couple in repose, he dapper in a white suite, she demure in a sundress, a bow in her big hair, nuzzling their Chihuahua.

Sabes que? (Know what?): The single-monikered Charo was born … Maria Rosario Pilar Martinez Molina Moquiere de les Esperades Santa Ana Romanguera y de las Najosa Rasten. Her trademark "cuchi-cuchi" derived from her nickname for her dog — Cuchillo. She has said her parents allowed her to falsify her age to wed the 66-year-old Cugat. She was, in fact, 15.

Luis Miguel, photographed at Caesars Palace in 2007, radiates Latino ring-a-ding-ding-ism — a tuxedo-clad swinger, red handkerchief tucked in the jacket pocket, leaning back in pure coolness, grasping the mic as if an extension of his body. Sabes que?: Given his musical style, personality, popularity and eye for the feminine figure, Miguel’s been called "The Latin Frank Sinatra." Among his comely companions: Salma Hayek, Mariah Carey and Princess Stephanie of Monaco.

Caught onstage at Caesars in 2003, Gloria Estefan is flanked by bandmates shaking shekeres (an Afro-Cuban percussion instrument), gazing skyward as if the rhythms are about to lift her off the stage. Sabes que?: Estefan will star as singer Connie Francis in the biopic, "Who’s Sorry Now?" She also appeared in "Music of the Heart" and had a cameo in the comedy "Marley & Me."

"King of the Rancheros" Vicente Fernandez, snapped at Mandalay Bay in 2004, is bedecked in a dazzling mariachi outfit and enormous sombrero that could double as a studio apartment. Sabes que?: Fernandez rose from singing for tips on the street to become a Mexican icon. When he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, more than 5,000 fans flocked to the ceremony — a record that still stands.

Like daddy, like sonny? Vicente’s son, Alejandro Fernandez, is also photographed in mariachi garb at the same hotel in 2007, performing for Mexican Independence Day weekend, arms outstretched, soaking in applause. Sabes que?: The younger Fernandez is a mainstay of Mexican gossip mags for his romantic liaisons. Also, his older brother, Vicente Jr., was kidnapped by organized crime figures.

At the Suncoast in 2004, "Light My Fire" crooner Jose Feliciano sports that laid-back look, perched on a stool, guitar in hand, dressed simply in orange shirt and blue jeans, just the man and the music. Sabes que?: Feliciano is renowned for his irreverent humor, poking fun at reactions to his blindness. At one show, he told the crowd, "I was going to dedicate this song to Jackie Kennedy, but I can’t see her anywhere in the audience."

Hair flowing onto his shoulders, Marco Antonio Solis, performing at the Las Vegas Hilton in 2007, is pictured in complete contentment where he clearly derives much of it — onstage. Sabes que?: Unlike some of his contemporaries, Solis avoids public exposure beyond his performances, logging no major scandals, no doubt causing consternation among tabloid editors.

Leaning back, mouth tight in concentration, nearly making love to his guitar, the consummate musician photographed at the Palms in 2002 is, of course … Carlos Santana. Sabes que?: A born-again Christian, Santana told Rolling Stone magazine last year that when he becomes suicidal, he hears the voice of Jesus.

Strikingly spotlighted in a white dress against a black backdrop at the Riviera in 1979, Rita Moreno sings wearing a smile as wide as the Vegas desert. Sabes que?: Moreno has been rewarded for being a quadruple threat, winning an Emmy, Grammy, Tony and Oscar. Recalling "West Side Story" in which she co-starred, Moreno bristled at the brown makeup used to portray the Puerto Rican characters, quipping that they looked as if they were "dipped in bronze."

The man knew how to pose — regally — as flamenco dancer Jose Greco rocks the South American gaucho look at the Sahara in 1954, riding crop in hand, hat tilted rakishly, expression serenely satisfied, an embodiment of elegance. Sabes que?: Greco was not Latin, though he did perform in a Latino style. Born in Italy to Italian parents and raised in Brooklyn, Greco eventually was knighted by the Spanish government.

Reveling in full-blown hipster glory is Tony Orlando, onstage at the Riviera in 1979, clad in tuxedo shirt, wide collar plunging into an ornate pattern, a mic in one hand, the other raised in an imminent finger snap. Sabes que?: A former general manager at Columbia Records, Orlando named his backup singers — Dawn — after a fellow record executive’s daughter.

"Latino entertainers have been coming to Las Vegas for many years," Alvarez says, "and one thing Latinos have always brought to the stage has been high energy shows."

Hot performers frozen in time? Pretty cool.

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@ or 702-383-0256.

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