José Miguel Agrelot
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|José Miguel Agrelot|
Agrelot portraying his iconic character Don Cholito
|Born||Giuseppe Michael Agrelot
April 21, 1927
Santurce, Puerto Rico
|Died||January 28, 2004(aged 76)|
|Occupation||Radio show host and comedian.|
Giuseppe Michael Agrelot (April 21, 1927 – January 28, 2004), better known as José Miguel Agrelot, was a comedian, radio and television host and media icon in Puerto Rico. Agrelot was better known as Don Cholito, one of the more than 200 different characterizations he developed -and his best known one- during his lifetime.
Agrelot was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico of Italian descent. He was the third of four children by Felipe Agrelot and Ana Luisa Vilá; his sister Ana Luisa, a teacher, later became a part-time comedic actress as well. He started working on radio stations when he was 14. At that time, he was employed by radio impresario Tomás Muñiz, then the general manager of WIAC-AM and the father of later producer and actor Tommy Muñiz. During this period Agrelot developed his first comedic character, Torito Fuertes, the mischievous eight year-old of a family comedy show sponsored by Borden, Inc. and its evaporated milk (the name Torito Fuertes was a pun on "strong calf", a desirable consequence of drinking good milk). The character later took a life of his own on a radio show first named El Profesor Colgate (sponsored by Colgate-Palmolive's flagship toothpaste) and later called El Colegio de la Alegría (The School of Joy). This program featured Tommy Muñiz as the schoolteacher of a rather dysfunctional classroom.
After Angel Ramos procured WIAC-AM from its original owners, and WKAQ-AM took on its former frequency, Agrelot and his Torito character moved to WKAQ, where he starred alongside then-radio producer and announcer (and future best friend) Luis Vigoreaux in a show named Torito & Company. In 1949, he received a Bachelors Degree in Arts and Political Science and Economy from the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras, where he joined the Phi Sigma Alpha fraternity. To support himself during college, he served as station master control technician, foley artist, spot announcer and comedy and dramatic voice talent. At the time he starred in a few dramatizations of Tarzan, and his Tarzan yell was remarkable enough that sound effect technicians from Metro Goldwyn Mayer visited Puerto Rico and recorded Agrelot doing the yell. It is unclear whether MGM ever used Agrelot's recording on any Tarzan movie. Faced with the dilemma of studying to become a lawyer, or becoming a full-time radio personality, he opted for the latter.
At this time he started developing multiple comedic and dramatic characters; he disliked serious roles and expanded his by-then evident talent as a radio comedian by starring in live comedy shows with Vigoreaux, where he became renowned for his talents performing physical comedy and parody. At a later time in his life Agrelot would be called "The Puerto Rican Bob Hope" by journalists (or they could say Bob Hope was the British José Miguel Agrelot), perhaps because of his stand-up comedic style and media longevity, but his aptitude for physical comedy, straight face for risqué material and physical girth at the time predated -and would be quite comparable with- that of John Belushi's, rather toned-down for the conservative Puerto Rican audiences of the time.
Agrelot's show with Vigoreaux was considerably successful, and they toured cities with large Latin American population in the United States. Torito later returned to El Colegio de la Alegría when that show made its transition to television. The show's time span, in its various inceptions, covered almost four decades (not accounting for breaks). Agrelot was part of a small cast of Puerto Rican actors who appeared in the first television test broadcast in the island, on May 17,1952.
Soon before finishing college Agrelot started what would eventually became the longest running program in Puerto Rican radio history, the morning show "Su (later Tu) Alegre Despertar" (Your Joyful Awakening). Agrelot was the constant voice behind the program for over 54 years. Most of the program's run had two constant players, actor (and one-time voice talent) Orlando Rodríguez and journalist Aurora Previdi. Rodríguez would be another constant behind the program until his death from cancer in 1991; Previdi joined the program nine years after its start and remained a part of the program's alloted time slot until her retirement (the program dropped its name after Agrelot's death).
Agrelot married his wife Yolanda Peña (whom he occasionally nicknamed "Doña Chola") on October 20, 1949; their 55-year marriage was one of the longest among Puerto Rico media personalities.
Agrelot also performed in shows in Spain, Mexico and Argentina. He had extended tours of the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. In 1969, he recorded a comedy album with Latin American record label Velvet Records. The album's title was El Sabor de la Vida (The Flavor of Life).
Agrelot was the spokesperson for the "Liga Puertorriqueña Contra el Cáncer", the Puerto Rican Cancer League (his mother was a cancer patient). As such, he was tempted to invite Cantinflas for a local cancer telethon, and eventually visited him in Mexico City. Unbeknownst to Agrelot, Cantinflas' wife had died of cancer and had never overcome his grief; he later claimed that Agrelot's invitation was cathartic to him, and he enthusiastically visited Puerto Rico (his first appearance was highly emotional to both, and had the rare public spectacle of Cantinflas, one of the most renowned comedians in the world, dropping tears on a stage) and participated in two league telethons. They made their mutual admiration well known during Cantinflas' visits to the island, and made plans to start in a film together, but Cantinflas died soon after, ironically, from lung cancer. Not being able to make a movie along Cantinflas was one of Agrelot's lifetime regrets.
Another personal regret was that of the murder of his dearest friend, Luis Vigoreaux, in 1983. They had been friends since they were both teenagers, and even had children born to their respective wives within hours of each other. As fate would have it, when Agrelot died in 2004 he was buried in Carolina, Puerto Rico, just a few meters near Vigoreaux's tomb. Roberto Vigoreaux would joke about this: "Giuseppe and Papi were so close together they were buried almost next to each other. They'll probably be trading jokes for eternity."
Apart from appearances in numerous commercials, Agrelot's credits in Puerto Rican television included:
- La Criada Malcriada (The Rude Maid)
- El Especial de Corona (The Corona Special)
- Desafiando a los Genios (Challenging The Geniuses), a personal favorite of Pablo Casals
- Haciendo Historia (Making History)
- El Show del Mediodia (The Midday show, as Don Cholito, another legendary character of his)
- Parece Increible (It Seems Incredible)
- Ja ja, Ji ji, Jo jo con Agrelot
Most of these programs were produced by long-time producer and friend Tommy Muñiz.
Agrelot claimed to have invented more than 200 characters during his lifetime. Over a dozen of these endured the test of time, and became famous. Besides "Torito Fuertes", an 8 year-old who is also the class clown at his school, and his alter ego, "Don Cholito", an everyday man native to Puerto Rico, he created the following:
- "Don Pulula", a mild mannered evangelical pastor with a proclivity for mild double entendres (he modeled his voice after that of Rafael Quiñones Vidal, a Puerto Rican television host),
- "Mario Trauma", a crazed mental patient who constantly screamed in falsetto and was in reality saner than the people around him (he modeled his voice after a floor coordinator at WAPA-TV),
- "Pasión", an old maid desperately looking for male company,
- "Serafín Sin Fin y Sin Meta", an effeminate man with a heart-shaped birthmark in his cheek (while claiming that Serafín was not a homosexual and never made a pass to anyone during the character's run, Agrelot faced protests from the local chapter of GLAAD and discontinued the character)
- "Soldado Manteca", an inept Beetle Bailey-like character who was part of the United States Army (Agrelot described him once as Torito Fuertes, all grown up)
- "Cerebrito Ligón", a man who claimed to be a peeping Tom but wouldn't dare to peep. A famous episode had a young Alida Arizmendi, later a Puerto Rican legislator, confronting him while he tried to sneak into an all-female gym;
- "Speedy González", an extremely fast gibberish-talking handyman, who would always charge US$10.00 for his services (later increased to US$20.00 because of inflation). This character was a favorite of Benicio del Toro's.
- "Don Remigio Rodríguez y Rodriguez", an almost catatonic, extremely frank businessman (and the owner of Rodríguez y Rodriguez Sociedad en Comandita) who had a proclivity for face gestures and sticking out his tongue. He had a standing feud with Joaquín, the Spanish-born store owner across the street (played by Spanish actor Ricardo Fabregues), to whom he constantly insulted ("¡Joaquín, pillo!") Don Rodríguez later starred in Sunshine Logroño's film, "Chona, La Puerca Asesina"
- El Juez, a character modeled after Pigmeat Markham and Sammy Davis, Jr.'s "Here Come Da Judge" character (more Davis' than Markham's) who had a huge mallet and would use it against a defendant's head if necessary during trials
- Don Segismundo, the mayor of Trujillo Bajo, a fictional municipality in Puerto Rico (Agrelot said once that Segismundo was actually Don Rodríguez y Rodríguez turned public servant)
- "Pancho Matanzas", a Cuban immigrant that, as many did at the time, would sell anything to support himself and his family.
- "Juan Macana", a not-very-bright police officer, PRPD badge number 13,378 who popularized in Puerto Rico a phrase Agrelot constantly heard in Mexico during one of his tours: "Sí, ¿cómo no?" ("Yeah, why not?")
Agrelot would also parody famous characters from film and cinema in his comedy program, "Ja Ja, Ji Ji, Jo Jo Con Agrelot". His most famous parody was that of Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone in The Godfather movie trilogy.
Agrelot appeared as Padre Ambrosio, a priest, in Jacobo Morales's Dios Los Cria II. He also played a serious dramatic role in a television miniseries, Nadie lo va a saber, in 1991.
Agrelot has an area of the Parque De Las Ciencias public theme park in Bayamón named after his Torito character. La Ciudad de Torito, or Torito's City was inaugurated in 1995. It features memorabilia from Agrelot's extensive media career; each of the "city's" various buildings are dedicated to a specific Agrelot characterization. When Agrelot suddenly died in 2004, his remains were taken to the park for a public wake.
In 2003 his radio show Su Alegre Despertar was awarded the world record for the longest running still active radio show, after running non-stop for 53 years (Rambling With Gambling ran on New York City's WOR Radio for 75 years but ceased in 2000). This made Agrelot the second Puerto Rican-born person, after Wilfred Benítez, to earn a world record certified by the Guinness Book of World Records (The late local children television host Joaquin Montserrat would be the third were he not a native of Barcelona).
Agrelot received various honoris causa awards: a Doctorate in Arts by the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico (1992), a Doctorate in Behavioral Sciences by the Center for Advanced Studies on Puerto Rico and the Caribbean (then called the Caribbean Center for Post-Graduate Studies; 1998, along with Tommy Muñiz), a Doctorate in Arts by Dallas Christian College, and another by Universidad Mundial.
This avid collector and autograph signer had also written comedy books and performed comedy bits in a ring with Muhammad Ali for TV and both posed for the cover of one of his publications. He was also an avid sports fan, particularly of the Criollos de Caguas baseball team. Although people named José are commonly nicknamed Cheo, it was after he began calling baseball player José Cruz Cheo Cruz on television, that the general public began to know Cruz as Cheo Cruz. Agrelot and Cruz sustained a friendship until Agrelot died.
Agrelot and a group of fellow Puerto Rican travelers happened to be visiting Israel, in a trip coinciding with the Lod Airport massacre, which occurred on May 30, 1972. In this massacre, seventeen Puerto Ricans traveling in another group were killed, and several others were wounded. Agrelot -whose traveling party was not affected- was asked to visit the wounded, provide moral support, and collaborate with the Israeli government in providing assistance to the families of the victims. He received a personal commendation by David Ben-Gurion (already retired from public office but appointed as a liaison by the Israeli government to manage the massacre's aftermath) for his efforts.
The Coliseum of Puerto Rico was renamed the Coliseo de Puerto Rico José Miguel Agrelot (José Miguel Agrelot Coliseum) in his honor, shortly after he died. Puerto Ricans have popularized a nickname for the facility that integrates the Spanish word "coliseo" with the name of Don Cholito; the arena is now commonly called "El Choliseo" by most locals, and the nickname is sometimes used in formal advertisements of events staged there.
There is a civic movement in Puerto Rico that has requested the Puerto Rico Legislature to declare Agrelot's birthday, April 21, as the country's Comedic Actor's Day.
One of Agrelot's characterizations, "Don Cholito", deserves particular mention. As mentioned above, Agrelot was an adamant fan of the Criollos de Caguas baseball team of the Puerto Rican Professional Baseball League (LBPPR). A tradition of any Criollos game was to play the Panamanian tamborito song "¿Qué te parece, cholito?" (a social commentary song that attained hit status in Puerto Rico when one of its authors, Panamanian organ player Avelino Muñoz, moved to the island) through the stadium's public announcements system between innings or at the seventh inning stretch during Caguas games. By the 1960 season the Caguas team was in poor economic shape, and asked Agrelot to attend some games, stand up and dance (a la Cantinflas) whenever the song was played (since Agrelot had spontaneously done it once), as a crowd booster. The year Agrelot did this Caguas won the LBPPR championship series.
Soon after (1962) Agrelot was offered a small section within WAPA-TV's variety show, "El Show del Mediodía", in which he could comment on daily news and events giving them a comic spin. Agrelot adopted the moniker "Don Cholito", based on the song he was being associated with. This name did not make sense as a cultural reference, since "cholito", the diminutive of "cholo" (a rather common and sometimes derogatory term to refer to the indigenous peoples of Latin America), could not be associated to Agrelot, in this case. To differentiate himself from what eventually became a character of its own, Agrelot used a pava (peasant straw hat) whenever he was on the air, to represent Don Cholito as an "urban jíbaro", a Puerto Rican peasant that had moved to the city and was sightly more sophisticated than the average country dweller.
For almost three decades the Don Cholito section was a consistent favorite of the Puerto Rican television audience. Don Cholito became Agrelot's alter ego, despite his mock protests that Agrelot and Don Cholito were not the same person (a tactic later used by Sunshine Logroño when referring to his own comedic characters). Agrelot claimed that Don Cholito was more opinionated, more daring, and more vocal in his social commentary than he was; to quote Agrelot, "somehow wearing that pava hat gave me the courage to do things that I would normally not dare to do."
Encabuya y Vuelve y Tira
Agrelot's section, "Encabuya y Vuelve y Tira" (the way to throw a spinning top) had a rather simple format. Agrelot would make a fast dash around the studio, shouting "¡Ajaaa!" (Aha!) and pumping up the audience. He would exaggerate the studio crowd's count for comic effect, describing how the studio had an audience of, say, "54,534, plus a bald guy at the front door". He would then read a memorable quote from a celebrity or an inspiring thought, and then comment on the daily news, using physical comedy to exaggerate or punctuate on a news item's absurd or unusual characteristics. Sometimes he would scat sing famous music to set up ambience for a joke: particular favorites were the gladiator's entrance theme from Ben Hur, the "And the Monkey Wrapped His Tail Around the Flagpole" section of the National Emblem march, and "Llegaron los Reyes", a Puerto Rican Christmas song (his version was titled "Friqui-tiqui-tiqui, Ay-ya-ya-ya-yayyy", and performed to illustrate the bittersweet feeling of being broke after giving away too many gifts for Christmas).
If a joke fell flat, he'd gesture accordingly (and sometimes a cow's moo would be played in the background as to not let him continue); if a studio crewmember (the stage crew were unofficial participants of the show) would make a flat joke, he would expel them from the studio in mock anger. At times he would comment on a serious news item giving a mock political speech; in quite a few of these his own political views would flare up (Agrelot was a proud member of the Popular Democratic Party of Puerto Rico, and would occasionally host some of its public functions).
Don Cholito would later bring in audience members who would announce civic functions (meetings, fundraisers, sports events and the like), sometimes intervening in the announcement for comic effect A famous episode had Don Cholito wear cossack garb and dance when a Russian folk dance group visited Puerto Rico; in yet another he staged a shouting match with Muhammad Ali. People would bring him fruits and vegetables with unusual shapes, and Don Cholito would comment on them, particularly those with anthropomorphic or phallic shapes. Whenever the LBPPR season came about, had his beloved Caguas team win a championship, he'd bring in the team members for a recognition; at one, however, when Caguas was eliminated from the tournament, he did a mock funeral for the "Yeguita", the team's mascot, complete with Chopin's Funeral March playing in the background.
Agrelot claimed to have only uttered a single expletive onstage during his entire career (when a stagehand accidentally dropped a prop on his head during a stage show in Fajardo, Puerto Rico), and his comedy style tried not to incorporate vulgarity, but Don Cholito constantly used code words and euphemisms as to not use double entendres in his Encabulla broadcasts. The most common used reference was that of "el dribbleo", which likened foreplay and sexual intercourse to a fastbreak and slam dunk in basketball. He dramatized this so often that, when news of his sudden death were covered by Puerto Rican daily newspaper El Nuevo Dia, a photo of Don Cholito doing "el dribbleo" was used in the front page.
El Tubo Que Chupa
However, Don Cholito's best remembered cultural reference was that for "El Tubo Que Chupa" ("The Tube That Sucks").
Puerto Rico was somehow fortunate between 1956 and 1988 for never having been hit directly by a hurricane during that period. The island's location in the Central Caribbean does not allow many of the storms to develop to catastrophic size before nearing it, and those that do strike are relatively infrequent. The country had a close call with powerful Hurricane David in 1979, which devastated the nearby island of Hispaniola. At the time, Don Cholito joked that he had invented a contraption, under contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) (which in reality does not do meteorological work), what reportedly took the wind out of major hurricanes and either deflated them or veered them off course as to not hit Puerto Rico. That contraption, "El Tubo Que Chupa", he claimed, had allowed the storm to go past Puerto Rico without striking the island directly. The fact that Hurricane Frederic entered the island disorganized and did relatively little damage soon after to later reform and become a Category 4 storm, gave some credibility to the "Tubo Que Chupa"'s effectiveness.
Don Cholito would describe the inner workings of the Tubo Que Chupa in his television program whenever a hurricane approached the Caribbean Sea. Essentially he would describe a piston-like artifact that, he claimed, he stored near Fort San Felipe del Morro in San Juan and whose tip he would dip in the water when the storm neared. The piston would then suck air away from the storm and neutralize it. Most of the tube's parts were made-up words (cococlaino, bompó, mecipersi), but two of them deserve mention. The "simiñoco", a term that he later extended to represent any gadget, became popular enough to deserve dictionary treatment in the Spanish language elsewhere. The "popeta" was actually a thinly-veiled Puerto Rican slang reference to the glans penis. Most often he did not elaborate on this last reference, but at times he risked the ire of WAPA-TV's standards and practices people for claiming that he would not allow anyone to maintain the Tubo, since he was the only person knowledgeable enough on how to lubricate it.
Puerto Rico had a few close calls with tropical storms during the 1980s, and coincidentally, Don Cholito claimed that the Tubo had been responsible for steering the storms away. Since Encabulla was a popular community board of sorts, and since NASA did some community work in Puerto Rico, the occasional NASA astronaut or community liaison person would visit Don Cholito and follow the joke (sometimes with puzzled looks in their faces). A viewer contest for designing a working model of the Tubo had over 60 Rube Goldberg machine-like contributions.
Agrelot was an avid world traveller, and in 1989 decided to take a cruise around the Alaskan coast. Don Cholito, as a consequence, left Sunshine Logroño as a substitute, and reluctantly "gave him custody" of the Tubo while he took a two-week break. Unbeknownst to Don Cholito, his vacation coincided with Hurricane Hugo. Damage to Puerto Rico was such that the metropolitan area of San Juan (including Guaynabo where the WAPA-TV studios sit) lost power for at least two weeks and the station's antenna was knocked off its foundations. Working at low power, the station aired a mock trial where Don Cholito accused Logroño of partying too hard before the hurricane and, by being intoxicated, neglecting his duty to lubricate the Tubo. Logroño was consequently convicted of his "crime" during the trial.
- Exponen restos de Agrelot en funeraria Buxeda. San Juan, Puerto Rico: El Nuevo Día. January 29, 2004.
- Biografia de Jose Miguel Agrelot, El Nuevo Día, January 29, 2004
- Biografías: José Miguel Agrelot, Fundación Nacional para la Cultura Popular
- "Capitulo Eterno". fisigmaalfa.org. Retrieved 2008-04-27.
- García, Beba, ¡Juan, Juan, Juan! Crónica de la televisión puertorriqueña en tiempos de don Tommy, p. 192
- Agrelot, José M., and LaTorre, Jossy, Encabuya y Vuelve y Tira (autobiography), 2005
- Zonai.com Biographies: José Miguel Agrelot (in Spanish)
- Excerpt from documentary about Agrelot's career and death
- Online Discography