April 14, 2021

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The immortal footprint of the Ponce-born comedian Edwin Gutiérrez Franco

On January 5, 1959, an extremely premature and unexpected death deprived us of what may very well have become the greatest radio and TV comedian in our history.

(Marble bust photo: Gary Gutiérrez)

“The gestures of the clown have a sacramental solemnity.” Peter Ludwig Berger

In memory of the most original and ingenious radio presenter of music and excellent friend, Sergio Negrón Collazo, rightly baptized by the singer Chaguín García as “El Gran Genio de Machuelo”, the person who most revered the mythical figure of the clown and what more images of clowns he collected. And to the great producer from Ponce, an excellent Puerto Rican and personal friend of the biographer and of whom he writes, Don Tommy Muñiz, whose centenary will be commemorated on February 4, 2022.

On January 5, 1959, an extremely premature and unexpected death – at the age of 22 – deprived us of what could very well have become the best radio and TV comedian in our history, Edwin Gutiérrez Franco from Ponce.

He was born on August 14, 1936, in the Segundo neighborhood of Ponce, in the second house, just where Calle Mayor Cantera begins, on the corner of Calle Tricoche.
His best-known character in comedy was called “Genovevo,” the incarnation of a tall, skinny boy with slow reactions, faint talk and driven, whose accelerated career to fame in a sense
it resembled the life of James Dean, in the case of the big screen of American cinema.

The James Dean life slogan says a lot about this that I want to show: “live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse.”

He filmed three consecrating films that made him a myth, East of Eden, especially Rebel Without a Cause, and just after finishing the third, Giant, was killed in a traffic accident at the age of 24.

In just two years of public performance under the tutelage of Don Tommy Muñiz, also from Ponce, in the WAPA-TV programs Show del Mediodía and Telefiesta de la Tarde, Genovevo won the hearts of the Puerto Rican people, as well as the Agüeybaná de Oro al Comediante of the Year in 1958.

In that same installment of the Codazos or Agüeybanás de Oro produced by the Cuban presenter Osvaldo Agüero, his double-bond brother, Freddy Gutiérrez Franco -who for several years sang successfully as a soloist, in trios, in groups and with the famous Orquesta de César Concepción- won the award for Revelation Singer of the year.

What pride for his parents, Petra María Franco Santiago and the professional photographer, Pedro Gutiérrez Morales!

All his dizzying career towards fame and sadly towards death, he went through coincidentally with my first two years of residence in the city of Ponce.

As soon as he graduated from Ponce High, he entered the Colegio de Mayagüez, today RUM, but soon after he left, moved to New York City, enrolled in the American Radio and Television Arts Workshop and graduated as a cameraman , technician and TV director. He knew what he wanted and was in a hurry to get it.

As soon as I began my first year of studies at the now Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico, I noticed the strong influence of the comedian Genovevo, especially in the manner of speaking and body language brought by fellow Ponceño students, especially graduates of the Ponce High. The Doctor Pila High School had only been founded three years earlier, in 1954.

Of my fellow students from Ponce High, the ones who best and most frequently imitated him, according to my best memory, were Domingo “Papo” Rodríguez and Rafael “Felo” Alfonso Díaz who imitated him very faithfully, with great grace.

Traditionally, at the Ponce High theater, a range of talented students with artistic vocation would gather, especially at noon recess, from which some of the most notorious Puerto Rican artists of the twentieth century rose to fame. They were not only young people from Ponce, but from practically all the neighboring towns.

The list is so long that it would be anti-literary to try to reproduce it here, taking up practically the whole of this article.

In his rapid start, Edwin, like his brother Freddy, preferred to sing and do some imitations, although he was neither unaware nor concealed his comic vision.

It was as an amateur singer that he came to the company of Don Tommy Muñiz, who always had a clinical eye as a recruiter and recruiter of talents.

There are very few sources of data available on the life and work of this talented comedian. The broadest and most complete source that exists is provided by the Pepinian celebrity journalist, Mickey López Ortiz, who was director of the Artists Magazine, in a publication for the important National Foundation for Popular Culture, entitled Genovevo in the Memory of the People, fruit of the information provided to him by the brothers who were still alive for the year 2010, when he wrote and published it.

López Ortiz relates, directly quoting his brother, the singer Freddy Gutiérrez that “One day Don Tommy Muñiz, who already had references from him, called him to supposedly sing on ‘El Show del Mediodía’, but it was a trap that Don Tommy had prepared; because when he started singing, he ‘hung up’ him to impose the punishment of exhibiting himself carrying a poster in the Plaza de Colón in Old San Juan ”.

“He himself,” he continues, “would say something like ‘I’m Punished for The Midday Show.’ The reality was that Don Tommy was interested in having him on his programs, but as a comedian, and Edwin took advantage of that experience to show his talent for comedy ”.

From among his “Piña” (so called) of talents, Don Tommy assigned Shorty Castro as librettist, Carlos Rubén Ortiz from Ponce, and Raúl Delgado Cué from Cuba as counter-figures.

Rising to the top of fame – along the way an invitation from a film producer who saw him perform in a Hispanic theater in New York City, to make films in Mexico – and getting severely ill were the same thing.

He was attacked by severe nephritis, which at that time had no cure, and he was admitted to the hospital that was then called Presbyterian and today is known as the Ashford Medical Center in El Condado.

José Miguel Agrelot “don Cholito” and don Tommy Muñiz, they went to see him at the Hospital every afternoon.

Don Tommy, who had grown very fond of him in the two years he worked for his company (1956-1958), continued to pay him his salary and expressed his willingness to donate a kidney to him.

The Gutiérrez family, as a collective, expresses it as follows in the plausible work of Mickey López Ortiz: “Don Tommy loved him very much and he behaved wonderfully with him. He never stopped paying his salary and even expressed his willingness to donate a kidney. They are things that one, as a family, cannot forget ”.

That is the Don Tommy Muñiz that I knew and that I remember with so much affection!

Sadly, on January 5, 1959, the eve of the Three Kings Day, the extraordinary artistic prospectus that Don Tommy Muñiz anticipated gave his soul to the Almighty, who flashed through our artistic firmament, as if he knew of the nearness of his death.

His fellow artists -among them Norma Candal and Don Tommy- made an economic spill with which they paid for the tomb and commissioned the marble sculpture that is in the central nave, at the back, of the Ponce Civil Cemetery.

In preparation for this column, I turned to Rafo Muñiz, don Tommy’s son and, separately, to my epistolary friend Osvaldo Rivera Soto, custodian of Don Tommy’s memorabilia at the UPR Audiovisual Media Archive, attached to the Escuela de Communications from the UPR, Río Piedras Campus.

Rafo even communicated with the Executive Secretary of the ICP, trying to find an answer to my curiosity to know who was the sculptor who sculpted in marble the magnificent head of the actor who is in his tomb and who illustrates this column in a photograph of his nephew, Gary Gutiérrez, the person who most collaborated with me for this writing and whom I thank publicly.

Until today, no one has been able to tell me who is the author of that sculpture that is now 52 years old.

Freddy Gutiérrez told his nephew Gary that he thinks he remembers being a sculptor who was called “Compostela”.

If so, this would be a great cultural discovery for the city of Ponce. Compostela is Don Francisco Vázquez, a Spanish exile who can well be described as the Father of Modern Sculpture in Puerto Rico, husband of the great Puerto Rican intellectual, Mrs. Margot Arce de Vázquez.

I have known a daughter of both of them for many years, Carmen M. Vázquez Arce, and I contacted her by phone.

Carmen explained that she just published a book-catalog about her father’s work, and that she does not remember that one.

He also indicated the place of the works where his father signed them, but this is not signed in any of its contours, which, in my opinion, makes the matter more intriguing.

Doña Gladys Tormes, director of the Municipal Archive of Ponce, suggests to us the possibility that it could be the sculptor Víctor Cott, who sculpted in marble one of the lions in the fountain in Plaza Degetau, in front of the Mayor’s Office, and the bronze sculpture of the slave who breaks his chains in the Abolition Park, next to the Concha Acústica de Ponce.

A discovery of this nature, if it were to occur, is so important that it warrants that we modestly continue the search. We will do it.

Osvaldo Rivera Soto, for his part, sent me three exhibits that they just rescued from the archives. Not even their immediate family knows them.
Two of them are only sound, the third is a video.

The sonorous ones are two comic sketches, entitled “El toast of the bohemian”, and “Los Pollos”, where Genovevo shows his ability to improvise, clearly leaving the libretto, with great mental agility, as is typical of the great comedians of all times.

The video is a recreation of a criminal jury trial. In it, Genovevo acts as a defense attorney, with the particularity that the president of the jury, who ultimately finds his client guilty, is the trumpeter, composer and director of the Mayarí Quartet, Plácido Acevedo, another historical glory of our show business.

Undoubtedly, in his fleeting tour of our media, the Ponce-born artist Edwin Gutiérrez left an everlasting mark.

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