By Michael E. Miller
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In 1959 he began working with legendary producer Gaspar Pumarejo and performed the first comedy sketch ever broadcast on Cuban television. But it was his "little drunkard" character on a show called Casino de la Alegria that made him famous in Cuba. "It became very popular," Alvarez Guedes says, while sitting on a black reclining chair at the Clasica 92 (WCMQ-FM 92.3) studio, where every weekday from noon to 2:00 p.m. he hosts a show called Aquí Esta Alvarez Quedes with Adrian Mesa. The original character of the drunkard, from La Vida Es Así, a radio soap, Alvarez Guedes relates, was a mean and mischievous young man who would steal from his mother and cheated his way through life. "He was cruel," the comedian says, expressing abhorrence by furrowing his face. So he transformed the character by keeping him inebriated most of the time, smoothing out his hard edges, and giving him the ability to make others laugh. "Everybody in Cuba loved him."
In October of 1960, more than a year after the triumph of Fidel Castro, Alvarez Guedes and his wife boarded a National Airlines plane and headed for New York. Legendary salsa queen Celia Cruz and her husband, Pedro, were on the same flight. The moment Castro and his barbudos stomped through the streets of Havana, Alvarez Guedes says it smelled of communism, and he didn't like it. But like most Cubans who left at the beginning of the revolution, he believed life in exile would be short-lived. "We thought we wouldn't be gone for long," he says in a low voice. "But we're still here," he adds after a short pause. Alvarez Guedes, who in 1957 had begun producing records for other artists under his own label, Gema, took his company to New York and Puerto Rico. But he soon tired of New York winters. "The winter of 1961 in New York was cruel," he says, wrinkling his forehead. "As soon as it got up to 23 inches of snow, I left." He headed for Puerto Rico and from there jumped to Miami in 1964. He began doing stand-up comedy at the Flagler Theater, where Cuban artists in exile tended to regroup and fine-tune their talent after the 1959 revolution. In 1965 Alvarez Guedes produced and directed his first film, which also was the first Cuban made in exile, Dios te Salve Siquíatra (God Save the Psychiatrist).
In 1971 he moved to Madrid. "Franco [the right-wing Spanish dictator] was in power, and it was great," he recalls. "The streets were safe. My teenage daughters could go out at night, and I had no worries." In 1973 he reached a turning point in his career when in Madrid he premiered a routine using malas palabras, bad words, during a private dinner in honor of Spanish diva Pastora Imperio. Alvarez Guedes had found the style that would mark the rest of his career. Shortly thereafter he recorded his first album, Alvarez Guedes 1; another 29 would follow. "The other day," the comedian says "a Spaniard stopped to talk to me and said, “I have the entire collection of your CDs.' I said, “Oh, really.'
"“Yes, I have all five.' I told him: “Well you're missing 25, because there are 30.'"
In the following joke from Alvarez Guedes 1, a barbershop interaction between two Cuban men in Miami is a window into how Cuban men relate to one another. In this joke, as Roman de la Campa suggests, vulgarity and religion naturally go hand in hand, a humoristic device often used by Alvarez Guedes:
A Miami Cuban goes to the barbershop for a haircut. He sits down and when the barber, also Cuban, begins cutting the man's hair, he says to him: "Give me a good cut, hermano, because I'm going to Europe."
"Which country in Europe are you visiting?" the barber asks.
"Italy," the man responds.
"Italy! Why go to Italy, chico. You're leaving Miami to travel to Italy, to spend money for nothing, pa que chico."
"It's not for nothing, hermano. I've spent my life planning for this trip, and I have much desire to see Italy. Don't try to talk me out of it."
"And what about Italy has caught your attention?" the barber asks.
"Mainly the Vatican, because I'm very religious. First I want to visit the Vatican. Then I want to see the Sistine Chapel. And finally I want to pay a visit to the pope."
"I've been to Italy, hermano, and I tell you that the women are ugly, the men are rude, you're not going to see the pope. You think you're going to see him, you're not, and the Sistine Chapel is never open. I tell you this because I've been there."
"Bueno, mi hermano, let me be, I've spent a lot of time planning this. I've always wanted to go to Italy so don't try to ruin my trip. Shut up and cut my hair."
"Bueno, I'll cut your hair but I warn you, you're not going to have a good time."
The guy goes to Italy, and two months later he walks into the barbershop. The same barber starts cutting his hair and recognizes the man. "How was your trip?" he asks.