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Bridges

Chapter 5: Mambonicks: The Palladium & its Dancers

[FOOTAGE: NEW YORK CITY TIMES SQUARE IN 50s AND MAMBO DANCERS]

The Big Three battled nightly for supremacy in NY... before legions of new fans.

LARRY HARLOW: (VO) We were called Mambonicks, with an n-i-c-k-s on the end. And we were like guys that liked to Mambo and liked to dance (OC) and really, the only place to go was the Palladium.

[FOOTAGE: COLOR ARCHIVE OF MIDTOWN MANHATTAN/ PALLADIUM MARQUEE]

In midtown Manhattan, the Palladium had once been a dance studio.

[FOOTAGE: MAMBO DANCERS / PALLADIUM]

Now it was the "Home of the Mambo."

BARBARA CRADDOCK: (VO) The first time (OC) I was at the Palladium I would say was one of the highlights of my life.

[STILLS: BARBARA CRADDOCK AND HER PARENTS]

CRADDOCK: (VO) I was just a teenager and I was out to dinner with my parents (OC) and they took me to the Palladium.

[FOOTAGE: MONTAGE PALLADIUM BANDS AND DANCERS — SLOWED]

CRADDOCK: (VO) And we sat down, and my mother was wearing a mink coat and jewelry, and here was this mixture of people. Every race, every color, every creed, all dancing together. (OC) The emcee came out and said, "here they are, the couple you've been waiting for, Cuban Pete and Millie." And the audience went crazy, absolutely crazy.

[FOOTAGE: CUBAN PETE AND MILLIE DOING THE MAMBO — SLOWED]

CRADDOCK: (VO) They came out and they did this wild Mambo. And you have to remember that he was tan — café con leche — and she was white. (OC) And in 1955 to have a mixed couple, dance on the stage, any stage, was... had never been done before.

[FOOTAGE: CUBAN PETE AND MILLIE DOING THE MAMBO — SLOWED]

CRADDOCK: (VO) And he took her in one of the steps and he put her between his legs and my mother went, "Oh, my God!"

[FOOTAGE: CUBAN PETE AND MILLIE DOING THE MAMBO — SLOWED]

CRADDOCK: (VO) It was like watching liquid velvet.

FADE OUT

DAVID RUBINSON: Going dancing at the Palladium was it. That was Madison Square Garden, you know? You went there to dress up and show off and to dance.

[FOOTAGE: MAMBO DANCERS]

WASHBURNE: (VO) What the music did was bring together a wide array of cultures: Jews, Italians, African-Americans, different Latino cultures. And the dance floor served as the meeting (OC) point that enabled people to coexist peacefully.

SANABRIA: It was the beginning of integration. True integration in New York City.

[FOOTAGE: MAMBO DANCERS]

The cosmopolitan scene of the Palladium struck a chord with many young Jews in New York, including some who would play key roles in popular music in the coming years.

[STILL: BILL GRAHAM PASSPORT]

Wolfgang Granjonca had been born in Berlin, and come to the United States an orphan, his mother killed in the Holocaust.

[STILL: YOUNG LOOKING BILL GRAHAM]

At the Palladium using the Americanized name "Bill Graham," the future Rock impresario would develop a lifelong passion for Latin music and dance, even once winning the ballroom's amateur dance contest. He later said "Why should I ever want to be President of the United States? I've accomplished something better."

RUBINSON: I have no idea. I wouldn't want to speculate on why Jewish people love Latin music or Chinese food, but it's just kind of the way it is.

ROBERT GREENFIELD: I think what Bill Graham and a lot of other people of his generation heard or got from the Latin music thing; I think it was sex!

[FOOTAGE: MAMBO DANCERS]

GREENFIELD: (VO) Sexual freedom had not yet come to America. And most people who were young were not having sex, OK? (OC) So, when you danced with somebody, wow.

[FOOTAGE: MAMBO DANCERS]

RUBINSON: Expatriate Jewish immigrants in the United States had nothing to dance to. You turn on the radio in the forties and fifties and it just couldn't be more alien to the experience they had come from.

[FOOTAGE AND MUSIC: PATTI PAGE "HOW MUCH IS THAT DOGGIE IN THE WINDOW?"]

RUBINSON: Gentile Music!

[FOOTAGE: AFRO CUBAN JAZZ BAND]

RUBINSON: But the Latin music — that wasn't Gentile music, that was soul music and I think they could really relate to it.

The ongoing fusion of Jazz and Latin music found a comfortable home at the Palladium as well. Located near the New York Jazz clubs, the ballroom attracted the leading players of the day. Soon, movie stars began making the scene.

[STILLS: CELEBRITIES AT PALLADIUM]

The Palladium had become a hipster's paradise.

[FOOTAGE: MAMBO DANCERS]

HARLOW: But the Palladium had one rule. They didn't care what color you were. They didn't care how old you were. They didn't care how fat you were, but you had to be able to dance.

[FOOTAGE: CUBAN PETE AND MILLIE DANCING]

The best of the Palladium dancers developed professional careers.

Millie Donay, an Italian-American and Pedro "Cuban Pete" Aguilar, a New York Puerto Rican set the standard.

[CONTEMPORARY FOOTAGE: CUBAN PETE DANCING SOLO]

Cuban Pete's Mambo evolved over time, shaped by friendships with the musicians, and invented in collaboration with Donay. She died in 2007.

CUBAN PETE: She taught me a whole lot.

[CONTEMPORARY FOOTAGE: CUBAN PETE DANCING SOLO]

CUBAN PETE: (VO) I used to flirt with her on the floor and they came out to be steps. (OC) I tripped once and fell...

[FOOTAGE: ARCHIVE CUBAN PETE DANCE STEP SUPER]

CUBAN PETE: (VO) You know what Millie said to me? (OC) "Do it again! That was great, do it again!" I said, "I'll kill you."

[CONTEMPORARY FOOTAGE: CUBAN PETE DANCING SOLO]

CUBAN PETE: She was the best. Really. She was the best.

[CONTEMPORARY FOOTAGE: CUBAN PETE DANCING SOLO, WALKS OFF, SUPERIMPOSED SHOT OF MILLIE]

[FOOTAGE: AUGGIE AND MARGO RODRIGUEZ PERFORMANCE]

Another team used the Palladium as a stepping-stone to a career that lasted decades.

[STILL: AUGIE ALONE]

Augustine "Augie" Rodríguez at first only watched.

AUGIE RODRIGUEZ: (VO) I used to study dancers. Cuban Pete was the best. (OC w/Margo) And I did six months of just looking and trying to study... I felt it but...

[STILL: MARGO ALONE]

He also kept an eye on a young Puerto Rican from East Harlem, Margo Bartolomei.

AUGIE: I used to try to be the first guy to go there but twenty guys were on her already to dance with her. She looked great — great tits.

[FOOTAGE: AUGIE AND MARGO ON ED SULLIVAN]

They finally met after Margo's sister approached her to enter a dance contest with Augie.

[FOOTAGE: AUGIE AND MARGO ON ED SULLIVAN]

MARGO: (VO) And we went in and we won the contest. The first time we ever danced together. Of course we weren't professional. We weren't trained, but we had IT.

[FOOTAGE: AUGIE AND MARGO ON ED SULLIVAN]

Bitten by the dance bug, they applied to schools on scholarship, which soon transformed their Mambo.

MARGO: (VO) We went to school, (OC) dance school, and whatever we learned that day, we used to come and put it into the Mambo.

AUGIE: (VO) Ballets

[FOOTAGE: AUGIE AND MARGO ON ED SULLIVAN]

MARGO: (VO) Unknowingly, we were creating a style.

AUGIE: (VO) Pum-pi-pim-pim-pim (OC) pi-pim-pim-pim... One, two, three...

[FOOTAGE: AUGIE DOING TURNS PERFORMING]

MARGO: (VO) And we were the first ones, really to put in turns, slides and tricks into the Mambo.

[FOOTAGE: AUGIE SPINNING MARGO DOWN TO FLOOR]

MARGO: I used to spin...

AUGIE: Ooooooo... And she'd go down to the floooooor.

[FOOTAGE: AUGIE SPINNING MARGO DOWN TO FLOOR]

MARGO: (VO) We always had to end with that.

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