As part of Center Theatre Group’s 50th Anniversary celebration, playwright and theater director Luis Valdez is bringing his groundbreaking Zoot Suit back to the Mark Taper Forum, the venue where it premiered in 1978.
After running for a year in Los Angeles, the Center Theatre Group-commissioned play—whose story was inspired by the wrongful conviction of members of the East Los Angeles 38th Street Gang for the Sleepy Lagoon murders—moved to Broadway in 1979 and was adapted into a major motion picture by Universal in 1981.
The production not only transformed Edward James Olmos—who played El Pachuco, alter ego of the play’s protagonist—into a star, but more importantly, it shone a national spotlight on Chicano theater and inspired a generation of Chicano/Latino playwrights.
And there along for the ride was alumnus Ignacio Gomez (BFA 1970 Advertising), who painted the production’s poster—an image that not only captured the spirit of the play but which has also become an iconic symbol of Chicano/Latino pride.
According to Gomez, that image would have turned out far less iconic had he not been willing to lay his own money and reputation down on the line.
I told the Mark Taper, ‘No, it’s gotta be full color, even if I have to pay for it.’ Imelda, my wife, who was nearby holding one of my kids, heard me say that and her mouth dropped.”Ignacio Gomez
Sitting in the living room of his home in Glendale and surrounded by different versions of his Zoot Suit poster as well as maquettes of his Cesar Chavez public works he went on to create decades later—he explained how he was commissioned to create the work.
Somebody at the Mark Taper Forum had seen a cover I did for New West Magazine and called me and asked, ‘Are you Ignacio Gomez?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ ‘Are you a Chicano?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Have you heard of the play Zoot Suit?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘We want you to do the poster for the upcoming season,’” says Gomez. “I said, ‘Great’ and I got all excited.”
“But then they said, ‘We can only pay you $300 and we can only afford two colors: yellow and black,’” adds Gomez, with a laugh. “I told them, ‘No, it’s gotta be full color, even if I have to pay for it.’ Imelda, my wife, who was nearby holding one of my kids, heard me say that and her mouth dropped.”
Fortunately for art history, his offer spurred the Mark Taper into action. Not only were they able to renegotiate with their printer to do full-color printing, but they also upped his pay to $500, and let Gomez retain the image’s copyright.
Looking at the poster today, it’s hard to imagine it existing in any other format (though Gomez has since rendered El Pachuco both as a silhouette and, playfully, as a giant robot).
The poster, which is part of the Smithsonian’s collection and went on a national tour as part of the museum’s 2013 exhibition Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art, features El Pachuco in a heroic pose, wearing his defiantly oversized zoot suit and looming large over a 1940s Los Angeles skyline.
“I was given a description of the play and the script, but I was also familiar with the pachucos and the zoot suits because I would see them growing up,” said Gomez, who was born in East Los Angeles in 1941, when asked about what kind of direction he received for the artwork.
“I was going to have Edward James Olmos pose for me,” he adds. “He wanted to do it, but the Mark Taper said ‘No, we’re not trying to glorify the actor.’ But they did send me the jacket, the pants and the hat. I did end up using some of Eddie in there in the final poster, but his neck wasn’t that massive.”
Gomez says he rendered the figure of El Pachuco to be larger than life, and that his posture and the painting’s perspective were designed to evoke the ancient pyramids of Mexico. “The background is a subtle representation of the American flag,” adds Gomez, pointing to the red- and white-striped sunset, topped by a blue sky that gradually turns into a field of stars. “Originally I wanted to make much larger stars, but I decided that would take something away from the man himself.”
And in case you were wondering, no, City Hall was not meant to be a phallic symbol. “People were saying, ‘Oh my God! How could you do that?’” says Gomez with a laugh. “But how else would you symbolize Los Angeles without City Hall? And that’s the appropriate position for it! I didn’t design the building.”
Zoot Suit runs at the Mark Taper Forum from January 31 to March 19, 2017.