THE EFFECT OF GAMMA RAYS
“A great humorist has died”, I told everyone at the 2011 Thanksgiving party in San Ramón. They all thought at first that I was talking about Horacio Olivo, another great Puerto Rican humorist who was at that time hospitalized and in critical condition. But to this day Olivo is alive and kicking, hanging on to dear life and recovering. The humorista who passed away that day was precisely a collaborator of Olivo, and both together were among the most important forefathers of Puerto Rican political satire as we know it today.
I am referring to my good friend, learned and erudite man, and merciless scourge and bane of right-wing pitiyanquis, who wrote under the pseudonym “Fernando Clemente”. For some twenty years he was the author of “Entrando por la Salida” (In Through the Out Door), the humor column of the pro-independence weekly newspaper Claridad. After his sad- and for me unexpected- departure I am now free to disclose his true identity. “Clemente” was none other than attorney Roberto Fernández-Coll, a prosecutor at the Puerto Rico Justice Department.
“Entrando por la Salida” had hordes of sincere lovers and admirers. And they were hordes! Not only did they enjoy Clemente's brand of humor but apparently all of them also shared his love for Medalla beer and deep fried beef (carne frita). The acerbic, sharp and witty column was not to everyone's liking. He had his detractors, who found his writing vulgar and in poor taste, who would look on with baffled disbelief at the joy of Clemente's fans when gobbling up his weekly rants, forever unable to understand the blockbuster popularity of the Clemente phenomenon.
In the 1980's when I was studying at the University of Puerto Rico, my friends and I enjoyed, celebrated and venerated those anonymous columns while we sat between classes in the Humanities faculty's big windy hallway. We wondered and speculated who could the author be. Who was this literary outlaw?, this Clark Kent of humor, whose identity was as secret as Machetero leader Filiberto Ojeda's whereabouts?
And finally in the following decade I learned the answer when I began working at Claridad. We were introduced by our mutual friend Carlos Gallisá, one of the top leaders of the Socialist Party during the 1970's and 80's, now a lawyer in private practice, enjoying celebrity status in the radio talk show circuit, and helping run the newspaper. I was assigned an article about governor Pedro Rosselló's plans to reshape the Puerto Rico judiciary for the advantage of the far-right New Progressive Party (PNP). Gallisá and I were eating at El Hamburger, that magnificent diet killer of an eatery in Puerta de Tierra that faces the Atlantic Ocean. He said he would introduce me to this confidential source for the inside scoop, and who, by the way, also happened to be “Fernando Clemente”. I felt like Bob Woodward breaking the Watergate story, or perhaps like Robert Redford playing Woodward in All the President's Men. Investigative journalism, sticking it to the governor, and the prospect of secret meetings with secret informers whose identities I would have to keep a secret to the grave- I was in the big leagues now!
My first meeting with my secret source “Clemente”, which took place a couple of days later, was not in a secluded location in the dead of night. He simply entered the Claridad building through the front door and came straight to my desk. Fernández-Coll “Clemente” was a short bald man who was bursting with raw energy and righteous indignation. Simply put, he was in a bad mood, an evil mood. He told me the inside story of Rosselló's impending coup against the judiciary as he angrily gestured with his arms, and cursed and raged against the mediocrity, ineptitude and outright stupidity of prosecutors and judges. Our friendship began later, in the following weeks during our casual conversations whenever he came over to deliver his handwritten column (no internet for him, no fax machines either, even typewriters were too high tech for him). Not only did he and I have the same politics, but he was most pleased to discover my warped sense of humor and to learn that I shared his love for cold Medallas and carne frita.
“Clemente” was not always an independentista. He came from a right-wing pro-statehood family, and during his years as a UPR student in the 1960's he was a member of the US Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) and the Pro-Statehood University Association (AUPE), both of them incubators for right-wing terrorists.
In those days the movements for free speech on campus, and against the military draft, against the ROTC presence on campus, and against the Vietnam war were in full swing. Members of ROTC and AUPE would rove around UPR, looking for violence, looking to prey on any independentista in their path, or anyone who looked like a hippie. And the university's lefties, independentistas and hippies were not of the gentle, non-violent kind, they did fight back whenever attacked. There was political strife both in and oustide the classroom. Back then Fernández-Coll was a hoodlum, a troublemaker, a rock thrower, always ready to attack any peace demonstration or student protest, or anything that had to do with the left or the independence movement.
And yet he changed his ideological stripes, he came to his senses, and turned his back on a promising career as a right-wing bomb-thrower. What happened? “With the passing of time, by way of reflections, readings, honesty and personal decency, he transformed himself into a respectable patriot, defender of all things national and Puerto Rican”, said our mutual friend José Enrique “Quique” Ayoroa, a respected independentista attorney and statesman from the city of Ponce.
He did a master's degree in education with a history major, studied law and became a lawyer for the people. Fernández-Coll “was always a lawyer at the service of the poor, in institutions such as Legal Services of Puerto Rico Inc. and the Society for Legal Assistance, and as solicitor at the Juvenile Court”, said Ayoroa. “That I know of, he never did a private law practice. On ocassions he was also a university professor.”
I interviewed “Clemente” in 2003 for a special Claridad issue devoted to comedy, and during the interview he referred over and over again to the late great humorista Manuel Eduardo “Eddie” López-Rolón. “Eddie López is my biggest inspiration”, “Clemente” told me.
The awesome legacy of Eddie López, outstanding humorist and incredibly prolific writer and journalist for the English-language daily San Juan Star, looms over all political satire in Puerto Rico even today, forty years after his death. Back in the 1960's no one dared make fun of politicians in Puerto Rico- even though our national literature has been graced by masters of parody and irreverence, like 19th century playwright Alejandro Tapia and early 20th century essayist Nemesio Canales. In the mid-twentieth century the political fauna of Puerto Rico was too hazardous and easily provoked into anger. If local politicos are fair game nowadays, we can thank Eddie.
Interestingly enough, the bulk of his journalistic and humoristic work was written in English. After a brief stint in El Mundo, López joined the staff of the San Juan Star in 1961, where over the years he rose through the ranks: assistant city editor, city editor and then full-time columnist. In the late 1960's he began writing his now famous humor columns for the Star.
In 1969 began the violent and repressive reign of governor Luis A. Ferré, founder of the PNP- even laughing out loud was a bit dangerous in those years. Decades later, while watching a cartoon show about the bizarre foibles of witless yellow characters, one could not be blamed for speculating that perhaps governor Ferré was the inspiration for the character Montgomery Burns.
Apart from his work at the Star, López was a screenwriter for Esto No Tiene Nombre, a comedy show on local station WAPA TV, modeled after the American television program “Rowan and Martin's Laugh In”. The producer was the much loved and esteemed Tommy Muñiz, perhaps the single most influential person in the development of locally produced television in Puerto Rico.
Esto No Tiene Nombre was my first contact with comedy, where I first saw Jacobo Morales, Shortie Castro, Dagmar Rivera, the aforementioned Horacio Olivo, Velda González- who went on to become senator for over twenty years- and many other great comedians who are dear to me. Watching that succession of brief skits on Friday night was a fitting end to the schoolweek. It was wholesome entertainment, with no vulgarity. It was the heyday not only of Don Tommy, as we all called him, but of Puerto Rican television in general. Starting in the 1980's, local TV production went into a steep decline and- with some glorious exceptions- turned into unwatchable, insufferable, low-grade crap. Tommy, we miss you!
López was once a guest in Don Tommy's talk show, and that's when Fernández-Coll first saw him. “It was a riotously funny interview”, he reminisced. "It was one of the finest televised interviews that I ever saw”.
Eddie López first became notorious in 1971 when he made in Esto No Tiene Nombre a fake broadcast about an uprising in the outlying islands of Culebra, Mona and Monito (the latter two are uninhabited), led by a mock veterinarian which he himself played, all in the spirit of Orson Welles' 1938 “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast. As was the case with Welles' fictional broadcast, López's parody worked too well. Station manager Norman Louveau was awakened late that night by law enforcement and by the folks at the US Navy base Roosevelt Roads demanding to know what the hell was going on.
Louveau and the rest of WAPA management were apparently not amused. They began to censor any politically sensitive gags in his scripts. But López would not quit. Later that year he got together with fellow Esto No Tiene Nombre collaborators Jacobo Morales and Horacio Olivo to put together an uncensored political satire live show to be presented in La Tea, a hideout for beatniks, poets and bohemians in Old San Juan's Sol street.
At about this time López was diagnosed with cancer and started undergoing gamma ray radiation treatment. And he would make fun of that too, his illness would be part of the comedy act. The show was called “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Eddie López” (El Efecto de los Rayos Gamma sobre Eddie López). The name, allegedly suggested by Bob McCoy of the San Juan Star, was not only a reference to his radiation therapy but was also a take-off on the name of a popular Paul Zindel play, “The Effect of Gamma Rays on the Man-in-the-Moon Marigold”, which would later be made into a movie directed by Paul Newman.
The “gamma rays” had an additional accomplice, the young guitarist Silverio Pérez, who accompanied Olivo in a few musical numbers in the show. He already knew the gang, he had frequently played guitar in Olivo's spoofy songs in Esto No Tiene Nombre. Also, Silverio used to host back then a weekly television show dedicated to local music, also produced by Don Tommy, called Borinquen Canta, for which Jacobo wrote and recited a poem every single week. Silverio had very recently met López, whom he described to me as “one of the most intelligent, generous and honest beings I ever met.”
The “Gamma Rays” show was a smashing success. It was supposed to be a one-night stand, but they had to do it over and over again. Word got around, and as the days and weeks passed, more and more people of the most diverse political creeds beat a path to La Tea to see these intrepid comedians who were not afraid to poke fun at political power.
Lopez's health deteriorated, but the show went on. By November he was in a wheelchair and breathing from an oxygen tank, but the gags and laughter went on all the way to the end. He did his last “gamma” show three days before his death; he passed away on November 26 1971. He was buried in the Old San Juan cemetery, which also houses the remains of patriots José De Diego and Pedro Albizu-Campos.
The following year Ediciones Puerto published an anthology of his funniest San Juan Star columns, The Best of Eddie López, with an introduction by celebrity political commentator Juan Manuel García-Passalacqua.
The “gammas” went their own separate ways after that. Jacobo went on to publish poems, act in theater, television and film (he appeared alongside Woody Allen in Bananas), and to become an acclaimed film director (nominated for an Oscar in 1990). Silverio has become most successful in hosting TV and radio shows, doing comedy in various forms (including a humor column in the short-lived El Reportero newspaper), advertising, and even motivational speaking. But most of all, he has become famous as a founding member of the trail-blazing nueva trova music group Haciendo Punto En Otro Son, whose first performances were in La Tea in 1975.
In 1980 the “gammas” got back together by Silverio's initiative, and continued Eddie López's legacy under the name “Los Rayos Gamma”. To fill López's shoes they brought in the young up-and-coming comedian Emmanuel “Sunshine” Logroño, who years later would reach super-stardom with his own television comedy show Sunshine's Café. The Rayos Gamma not only did countless live performances but also had a successful weekly television show which lasted well into the decade.
And that's when Fernández-Coll oficially entered the world of political humor and satire. In that Claridad interview, he proudly recalled his work during the 1980's as behind-the-scenes script writer for Los Rayos Gamma, continuing the work of Eddie López and introducing a new generation of young television viewers, too young to remember those crazy evenings in La Tea and perhaps just barely old enough to remember Esto No Tiene Nombre and Don Tommy's glory days, to intelligent politically charged comedy.
Many members of my generation, the high schoolers and college students of the 1980's, remember Los Rayos Gamma and Sunshine's Café as the only locally made television that was worth watching. Both shows were pulled from the air allegedly due to poor ratings, but most viewers- myself included- were convinced that the real reason for the cancellations was the programs' feisty political content and social critique. After that, most of us generation Xers stopped watching local TV for a long time. I, for one, never watched it again.
In the early 1980's Fernández-Coll developed his “Fernando Clemente” persona. It all started with a conversation he had with Gallisá. “He said Claridad needed a humor column. I told him yes, so that it stops looking like Pravda and Granma”. He would write his ranting column in La Borincana, a restaurant in Fernández Juncos avenue in Santurce, on the corner with Hipódromo street, while sipping a Medalla. And then he would walk over to Claridad's offices, which were back then in Santurce, on Ponce De León avenue's bus stop #26, and anonymously slide the manuscript under the entrance door. It was years before Gallisá introduced his secret friend to the staff at Claridad, which kept quiet about his true identity to the end of his days.
The last time I saw “Clemente” was around 2009 at a concert performance of his son Roberto in the Taller de Cantautores, a now-defunct musicians' co-op in Robles street in Río Piedras' urban center. Following his father's footsteps, Roberto is a part-time comedian with an alter ego: Robi Gris. A sort of post-modern singer-songwriter, Gris aims to do for nueva trova music what Spinal Tap has done for rock and roll. Although humorous, his lyrics betray his generation's bitterness in the face of an ever worsening social, economic and political outlook. It's sarcasm with a generous helping of barbed wire. If you are dating someone for the first time, you probably don't want to take that special person to a Robi Gris concert.
Mr. Gris is the subject of a confusing and amusing incident in which he got kicked out of a classy lounge bar in Río Piedras' Churchill avenue where Silverio performs often. I will not name the establishment here. I'll just call it The Pedantic Apostrophe (hint, hint!). Apparently, the owner or person in charge that evening did not appreciate Gris' fine sense of sarcasm. He found the lyrics somewhat offensive and kicked him out in the middle of his performance. There is more than one version of what happened. One of the versions places merengue star Melina León in the very middle of the controversy. The incident might become the subject of documentaries and sonnets in the future.
That evening in the Taller de Cantautores, Fernández-Coll “Clemente” was the person that enjoyed the show the most. It was not clear if he was already familiar with Gris' material, but he laughingly hung on every rhyme, gag and verse. I had no idea that it was the last time I would ever see him.
He passed away on Thanksgiving, November 24 2011, the day after his sixty-sixth birthday. He had been battling cancer for months. The last hospital he visited was Ashford Medical Center, where Albizu-Campos had also spent some of his last worldly days.
Within hours, the news of his passing spread like wildfire by word of mouth, iPhone, Facebook and Twitter. I was informed by phone by my friend José Emilio Román, frontman of the techno-postpunk band Descojón Urbano, which played often in La Tea in the early 1990's. The news caught me right in the middle of the traditional Thanksgiving party in the house of Alicia, my former neighbor and piano teacher, in the Río Piedras neighborhood of San Ramón where I grew up. After announcing the news to all those present, I realized that “Clemente” was not all that famous outside the independence movement, although everyone nodded in recognition when I said that he had had something to do with Los Rayos Gamma. Wine glass in hand, I walked to the dark backyard and silently toasted to the man.
His funeral in the Ehret funeral parlor was attended by patriots and good friends. National hero Rafael Cancel-Miranda was there, and so was the king of troubadours Antonio Cabán-Vale “El Topo” and his son Adeán, also a fine musician and singer himself who proved his worth in the Taller de Cantautores. Another musician present was Américo Boscetti, close friend of “Clemente” and veteran of unforgettable musical nights in La Tea. I was surprised to see Carmencita Lidin, daughter of the late peace activist, San Juan Star journalist and good friend Harold “The Great” Lidin. She told me she had once been a student of Fernández-Coll. Quique Ayoroa read a heartfelt message to the mourners. His children were there, two of whom I'm privileged to count as my friends, Roberto Jr. and Laura, whom I first met in El Boricua (What is it about El Boricua?).
In a Noticel piece by Melissa Solorzano, for which Roberto Jr. and I were interviewed, Ayoroa compared “Clemente” to “Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain and Puerto Rico's Nemesio Canales, all of them great philosophical humorists of humanity”. But he also described him as a very sad, melancholic and depressive person, much agrieved by the wrongs of the world.
After his body's cremation a group of us went, as was his wish, to have fun, Medallas and some fine food in the Placita de Santurce, a charming little square in the middle of the urban jungle, ringed by bars and restaurants, to celebrate his life and his work in promoting laughter and good humor. The restaurant we picked did not have carne frita, so I went for seafood. Laura, sitting next to me, pointed out that this day was the fortieth anniversary of the passing of Eddie López.
- December 27 2011