Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Olga San Juan, the Puerto Rican Pepper Pot

Before Héctor Elizondo and Raul Julia, even before Rita Moreno, there was Olga San Juan. Olga San Juan was one of the earliest Puerto Rican stars to appear in American movies. What is more, she was a true triple threat. She could sing, she could dance, and she could act. When Olga San Juan appeared in a movie, one couldn't help but take notice of her.

Olga San Juan was born on March 16 1927 in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Her father was Luis San Juan, a World War I veteran whose regiment guarded the Panama Canal. After the war he returned to Puerto Rico and got married. He and his wife Mercedes later moved to New York City. The family moved back to Puerto Rico when Olga San Juan was three. When she was five they moved to Spanish Harlem in New York City. Olga San Juan's talent manifested when she was still very young. She began taking dance lessons when she was only three years old. When she was was only eleven she and other schoolchildren performed for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the White House. Growing up she was part of a Puerto Rican children's club called Infancia Hispania, of which future musician and bandleader Tito Puente was also a member. Olga San Juan and Tito Puente's mother would put together shows for the children to perform.

Olga San Juan's father fell ill when she was in the ninth grade, and she was forced to leave high school to pursue work. She found it performing at such places as the Hotel Astor and the El Morocco. She was only sixteen when she became a "Copa Girl" at the famed Copacabana. She eventually formed her own act, Olga San Juan and Her Rumba Band. She caught the eye of Paramount Pictures, who signed her to a contract in 1943. Olga San Juan made her film debut in the short subject "Caribbean Romance" in 1943. She made her feature film debut the following year in a small role in Rainbow Island (1944). She had the lead role in the short "Bombalera" (1945), where she was dubbed "the Cuban Cyclone" despite being Puerto Rican. "Bombalera" was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Short Subject, Two-reel.

Olga San Juan appeared in the movie adaptation of the popular radio show Duffy's Tavern (1945) before appearing in what could be considered her breakthrough role. Blue Skies (1946) starred Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. Olga San Juan played nightclub singer Nita Nova, and there was no way anyone could not take notice of her in the film. She performed the number "You'd Be Surprised," as well as the duet "I'll See You in C-U-B-A" with Bing Crosby. She performed the song "Heat Wave," during which she also danced with Fred Astaire.

Miss San Juan followed Blue Skies as one of the leads in the film Variety Girl (1947), in which she performed the song "He Can Waltz." She also has what may be the best scene in the film, in which she causes a ruckus in a restaurant to draw attention to herself. In Are You With It? (1948) she played the female lead opposite Donald O'Connor. In the movie she got to perform the numbers "Daddy, Surprise Me" and I'm Looking for a Prince of a Fella."  Olga San Juan would also have significant roles in One Touch of Venus (1948), The Countess of Monte Cristo (1948) and The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949). In One Touch of Venus she performed "Don't Look Now My Heart is Showing" and "That's Him." In "The Countess of Monte Cristo" she performed "Count Your Blessings," "Who Believes in Santa Claus," and "The Friendly Polka." Surprisingly, she had no songs in The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend.

Like other musical comedy stars, such as Ann Miller, Betty Grable, and Rita Hayworth, Olga San Juan was a popular pinup girl. Given her looks, this should come as no  surprise. Even a cursory search on Google Images reveals that Miss San Juan did pinup pictures for such holidays as Christmas, New Year's Day, Halloween, and even St. Patrick's Day. Of course, what set Olga San Juan apart from other pinup girls is that she was Puerto Rican. Quite simply, she was one of the first Latina pinups, not to mention one of the earliest Latina sex symbols.

Olga San Juan also appeared on radio in the Forties and Fifties. She appeared on both Command Performance and Lux Radio Theatre. In 1951 she guest starred on Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

Sadly, The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend would be Olga San Juan's last appearance in a major motion picture. Following her marriage to Edmond O'Brien in 1948, she largely retired from movies. That is not to say that Miss San Juan disappeared from the public eye. She played Jennifer Rumson on Broadway in Paint Your Wagon in 1951 and 1952. She also made several appearances on television in the late Forties and in the Fifties, on the shows The Ed Wynn Show, The Peter Lind Hayes Show, The Paul Whiteman's Goodyear Revue, The Kate Smith Evening Hour, Texaco Star Theatre Starring Milton Berle, The Rosemary Clooney Show, The Lux Show, and The George Jessel Show. She made a rare dramatic appearance on television in the syndicated crime drama Johnny Midnight, on which her husband Edmond O'Brien was the star, in 1960. She made one last appearance on television in 1964 on The Mike Douglas Show.

Olga San Juan was nicknamed "the Puerto Rican Pepper Pot," and it easy to understand how she earned that nickname when seeing her on screen. In her tiny frame Olga San Juan seemed to contain an abundance of energy, not to mention a forceful personality. When combined with her incredible voice and her talent as a dancer, it was impossible to take one's eyes off her when she was on the screen.

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