Stockton, CA -This month the Spanish-speaking world remembers one of its most beloved comedians and film actors of all time. Mario Moreno —known to most as Cantinflas— would be a 100 this August if he was still among us.
I met Cantinflas, here, in Stockton. The year was 1983 and on that warm September night the Stockton Metropolitan Airport was full of life like never before —and probably never after. Thousands of local residents —most of them Mexican and Mexican Americans— arrived to see up-close the arrival of a legend they had seen only projected on the screen.
After a brief ceremony that included receiving the Keys to the City from the mayor, Arnold Rue, Cantinflas started his three-day stay in the city-by-the-tules.
Cantinflas had not come to Stockton to work in the fields, but to share the stage with Mexican ballad singer Jose Maria Napoleon on a fundraiser benefitting Catholic Charities’ local programs. Cantinflas was the only —out of a long list of stars that were approached— to come for free.
At the many receptions Moreno attended in those two feverish days, he signed autographs and posed for photos with everyone who succeeded on breaking through a weak barrier of volunteers. Opposed to his well-known character, Moreno wore an expensive suit most of the time… but the back of his shirt was always hanging out.
Cantinflas was a pious man and was not to miss his Sunday’s mass, so St. Mary’s Parish Father Fernando Villalobos had to resort to every chair available in the Diocese to accommodate attendees— who overflowed the church across Washington Street and way under the Crosstown Freeway.
The final event at the Stockton Civic Auditorium on September 4th was more than sold-out; people ringed the building just to hear or get a glimpse of Cantinflas… Napoleon’s $10K show was an expensive intro for the one who everyone wanted to see and hear. Then the whole thing bombed: the tapes Moreno had brought to playback his singing did not match the Auditorium’s sound system… the music started and no voice came out. Moreno couldn’t sing, but Cantinflas came to his rescue: with humor and charisma he improvised the show —that included a sampling of his trademark nonsense speeches— and the people just loved it! It was a long night, for Moreno never left without obliging to his fans.
When he finally boarded the plane to exit the county forever, Cantinflas had drawn a smile on the face of thousands of local Hispanics who —for at least a couple days—felt they were part of a movie. Amongst those whom were able to enjoy his visit up-close, he left a difficult-to-explain “good-feeling” that lasted days after his departure.
It could be that Mario Moreno “Cantinflas” was the genius so many claim he was, or maybe he was just a good actor playing a routine that guaranteed him the laughs, only time will tell. What is certain is that everyone I know in Stockton who experienced that iconic visit in 1983 has never forgotten the smallest details.