Gilda Rorro Baldassari
It was my second day as an interpreter at the 1960 Acapulco Film Festival and I was spellbound. Movie stars from around the world were streaming into this renowned resort. Dolores Del Rio chatted with me in Spanish as did other Mexican celebrities like songstress Mona Bel and the legendary Emilio Fernandez. I was overwhelmed to be introduced to the Russian icon Sergei Bonderchuk and his beautiful wife, actress Helena Bonderchuk. I had seen the film idols in the classic Voyna y Mir (War and Peace), in a Philadelphia art cinema and was mesmerized by their performances in Tolstoy’s masterpiece. Helena touched my cheek affectionately and said I was (krasivaya) pretty.
I will never forget this elegant, lovely lady and her bigger-than-life husband.
That evening, cinema greats were singled out at the Fort, where their international films were screened before thousands of adoring fans. The following afternoon, several of the photographers I had met at the airport in Mexico City approached me in the event office. They told me to prepare for a big surprise the next day. They were sworn to secrecy, so I would have to wait to find out what it was. I plied them with questions, begging the nature of their cryptic remarks. Worn down by my persistence, they revealed something which rendered me speechless.
“Every year we select the Queen of Press Photographers. Tomorrow you will be our new Queen of Photographers of the Acapulco Film Festival. The movie star Linda Cristal reigned last year.”
I just saw her portraying Cleopatra in a movie in the capital city. Could this be real?
“Wear your best dress,” they chuckled. “The program will be televised throughout Mexico.”
Oh, no! I don’t have a best dress—just a ten-dollar outfit a Mexican designer made for me from local, red cotton cloth. It is form fitting, but plain.
On the third day of the festival, I was instructed to escort the famous German director Josef van Sternberg, Marlene Dietrich’s former husband, on a short tour of downtown Acapulco. I rode in the back of a limousine with him, once again awed by the magnitude of opportunities this dream job afforded me. The vehicle turned onto the main square in the city. Suddenly, I saw a large kiosk strewn with Impacto magazines, the equivalent of Life in the U.S.
No! No! It can’t be! My eyes are playing tricks on me.
But as we neared, there was no mistake. I was on the cover of the national publication wearing my ten-dollar red cotton dress. A photographer had snapped my picture at the University of Mexico after I went to receive a scholarship for summer school. How was it put on the cover of the leading national journal? Herr Von Sternberg noticed my image on the magazines. Registering genuine surprise and admiration, he took my hand, kissed it and congratulated me.
“Wunderbar, Gilda, how wonderful.”
Oh, my gosh! If this was the photographers’ surprise, what was in store for me tonight? Could what they laughed about be true after all? I’d better iron the red dress.
When evening came, I was escorted by a handsome gentleman into the San Diego Fort where throngs of fans assembled to see the popular movie, The Apartment, starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. My guide seated me on the end of a center row near the front of the stage. I was alone and surprisingly calm in this sea of people, strangers who did not know or care about me. Anonymity felt safe. Hopefully I would be left alone, unnoticed in my modest attire. I just wanted to see the movie and then retire to my hotel room.
Royal palms surrounded the Fort, swaying gently in the velvet tropical air. Dazzling light filled the stadium, illuminating countless spectators. There was a full orchestra and a stage as big as Carnegie Hall’s on which a tuxedoed Master of Ceremonies appeared to thunderous applause. Ornate ebony cages were wheeled onto the proscenium. With a dramatic flourish, the host unlocked them, releasing flocks of white doves fluttering and shimmering in the light as they flew into the onyx sky.
A timpani roll signaled the start of the spectacle. Famous stars, directors and producers paraded onto the stage. The crowd went wild as cameras flashed, capturing the beautiful people bedecked in their fine couture.
“And now,” the moderator said, in a deliberate voice, “it gives me great pleasure to present the highlight of tonight’s gala, the selection of la Reina de los Fotógrafos de la Prensa (the Queen of Photographers of the Press). This year it is not a woman from our country, but an Italian American from Philadelphia, Señorita Gilda Battaglia. Remember Rita Hayworth’s film, Gilda? This is the real Gilda. La verdadera Gilda! Señores y señoras, I present to you the Queen of Photographers of the Press of the Acapulco Film Festival!”
I never saw the movie Gilda with Rita Hayworth. With all this fuss, she must have been quite a bombshell. I feel like an imposter up here. I’m totally unprepared for all the attention. It’s like playing a part without a script. I’m simultaneously thrilled and scared to death.
Spotlights overhead blinded me. I felt paralyzed. The ceremony was being televised nationally. I was too terrified to move! Two guards came to my aid, literally lifting me under my arms and dragging me onstage where more glaring lights obliterated the thousands of onlookers who were clapping wildly. The Master of Ceremonies made more public remarks, but I did not pay attention because my knees were knocking uncontrollably.
Oh, my gosh! Now I know what it means to be so scared one’s knees knock. I wonder if everyone can see them?
“Do you want to say something?” he asked softly, into my ear.
Noticing my nervous state, he did not insist.
“Our Queen will appear later tonight at the Sportsmen’s Club,” the announcer exclaimed.
Oh no! There’s more to come? I’m trying hard not to faint.
Admiring faces greeted me as I was led from the stage.
They like me. All I have to do is smile and people seem pleased. I must compose my nerves. If only I had a mentor to advise me what to do. Drama classes at Beaver never prepared me for anything like this.
“Before the movie is shown, we are to take you to your next assignment,” said my two escorts. En route, they told me I did muy bien, and that I looked muy bonita in my basic local outfit. Their comments put me more at ease.
On arriving at the Sportsmen’s Club, I was led to a large azure pool where circular pedestals floated. I was directed to stand in the center of one while swimsuit clad beauties surrounded me on the moving spheres. A water show extravaganza ensued as incandescent aqueous streams swirled around our pedestals. VIP guests filed in. The glare of camera lights was unrelenting, yet I became increasingly comfortable posing with each flash. My new title and the excessive attention emboldened me.
If only Mom and Dad could see me here. They would be spellbound. This is one of the grandest moments in my life. I feel sad there is no one I can share it with. No one in my family would care except for them. What would the blue-eyed blondes at Beaver say? It’s hard to believe this is really happening.
The best part of being the Photographers’ Queen during the remainder of the festival was that the public treated me like a real celebrity. Owners of upscale restaurants called my hotel, inviting me to be a guest at their elegant eateries. My sole obligation was to appear and be wined and dined. Cab drivers did not charge me a fare if I would only sign my autograph on the Impacto magazine cover bearing my image. I was in a motorcade with star Robert Cummings where cheering crowds lined the streets.
I understand now the lure this glamorous world holds for actors lucky to be part of it. It’s intoxicating, and I am becoming addicted—dazzled as though in a dream. But I must always be cognizant of the fact that dreams can end abruptly.
Radio announcers’ Queen
The day after I received the title of Queen of Photographers of the Acapulco Film Festival, everything reversed. No longer was I sent on an assignment as an interpreter or interviewer, but I became an interviewee. Cameras flashed, capturing my every move. The press was anxious to know about my artistic background, but my experience was limited. In high school, like my sister Gloria, I belonged to the Germantown Theater Guild, a local company with high quality and low budget productions. My parts were minor like playing a slave girl walking across the stage balancing a water jar on my head. I had joined the Drama Club in Beaver College.
“There are no small parts, only small actors,” our drama teacher often told us and I took those words to heart.
At the end of my junior year, the theater instructor gave me the lead of Hera in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. This was worth mentioning, but hardly the stuff to make headlines.
When the press at the festival wanted more substantive material they did not hesitate to invent it. An article was published claiming that I, like Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita style, climbed into the fountain in the Square in Cuernavaca (a charming colonial town outside of Mexico City). I hadn’t been to that locale nor had I ever stepped into a public fountain. When I protested the inaccuracy in the article which appeared in Cine Mundial, a national paper, I was told it was standard procedure to get the public’s attention, and it worked!
The famous Mexican star, Emilio Fernandez, sent a four-foot bouquet of flowers and a telegram saying he was in love with me. Could he be serious?
I never answered him but secretly kept the yellow page in a small box under my bed. At every interview, I was queried about the fountain caper. Not wanting to fabricate yet another story, I just smiled and remained silent.
Let me try to look mysterious. They can write whatever they want.
One day an event organizer handed me an invitation to a breakfast at the Presidente Hotel with American celebrities. Actor Jack Lemmon was to be among them. His latest film, The Apartment, was going to be shown in the San Diego Fort that evening.
Would a star of his magnitude want to speak with me over a drink of papaya juice? Most likely not. I am an imposter and Mr. Lemmon will confirm it at a glance. This is all make-believe, but I intend to have fun while it lasts.
On arriving at the Presidente, an employee led me to a poolside table where the breakfast was being served. As always, the ambiance was lovely. The azure sky was free of clouds and the bougainvillea bloomed in vibrant colors. It felt again like paradise in December 1960. Mom had called my hotel telling me the winter in Germantown was very harsh and bleak. It was so delicious to be in Acapulco. What a lucky lady I was.
My breakfast companions greeted me politely. One was the son of Luis Buñuel, the renowned Spanish movie director of La Joven and Nazarín. Another was a young French filmmaker whose documentary on Rangoon, Burma, was to be aired that night at the festival.
Jack Lemmon soon arrived being propped up under an arm by a gentleman from the hotel who saved the star from falling into the pool. It was 10:30 a.m. and Mr. Lemmon was obviously inebriated and staggering. He was assisted to a seat at my table and the conversation turned to The Apartment. Despite his current condition, the actor spoke lucidly and long about several aspects of the film’s production. It was impressive to see how the artist’s passion for his craft overcame the influence of alcohol.
When the gathering ended, I was approached by a festival agent wearing a white suit. I thought he came to see Jack Lemmon. This time it was a representative of Mexican Radio Announcers and he stopped in front of me.
“Señorita Battaglia,” he said formally. “It is a pleasure for me to inform you that the Radio Announcers of the Acapulco Film Festival select you as their Queen. Tomorrow evening, at the Sportsmen’s Club, the event will be televised nationally. Award-winning actor Jack Lemmon will present the crown. You must prepare remarks for this important occasion, which will be shown on national television and in all cinemas of Mexico. Do you accept?”
Of course, I accepted and with pleasure as I no longer suffered from paralyzing nerves. The fantasy continued. This time I knew it was not a joke and I was swept along. A staff member of the hotel brought me a telegram at the breakfast. My sister Vicki heard of my exciting adventures from Mom and Dad and flew to Acapulco to join me at my hotel. I was happy to have an eyewitness at the festival because who at home would envision all this? My family always accused me of having a vivid imagination and describing my recent experiences would be met with disbelief.
No sooner had I read the message than a telephone was brought to the table.
“Gilda, Mom and Dad said you were having a great time here. I flew in from my trip to Japan and I’m in the lobby of your hotel.”
“What a surprise! I’m so glad you are here. You won’t believe what is happening. Nobody could. Come by the pool at the Presidente Hotel. It’s within walking distance. We’ll have lunch and toast your arrival.”
Having Vicki with me will surely add to the excitement. I need to have someone I can share my insecurities with.
Soon my sister arrived. We were giddy as we sat at a table, hugging each other. Our chatter soon ceased when two tall men passed close by.
“Did you see those guys?” Vicki said. “They’re gorgeous.” I turned discreetly, but could not control blurting, “Oh, my God, it’s Rock Hudson!”
Rock Hudson was seated at a table behind me, smiling at a male companion.
“He’s the most handsome man I have ever seen. He looks like a statue of a Greek god! What an initiation to the festival for you, Vicki!”
During the rest of the day, we hobnobbed at poolside with Ernest Borgnine and his Mexican wife Katie Jurado, where I raved about his award-winning movie Marty. Karl Malden also joined the group, promoting The Apartment.
The glamorous people we saw on the big screen at the Walton Theater had come alive and we were in their midst. The dream continued.
That evening was spent writing my acceptance speech for the Radio Announcers gala. The following morning, I was asked to report to the office of Licenciado Miguel Alemán. He was the most eligible bachelor in Mexico and the scion of the former President of Mexico, Miguel Alemán, purportedly the 5th richest man in the world. A life-sized statue of his father stood at the center of the National University in Mexico City, where I was studying. The father purportedly owned the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City and his son hosted the Acapulco Film Festival and served on the selection panel which had hired me as an interpreter. I entered the attorney’s office and found him conversing with the international idol, Dolores Del Rio.
He rushed to greet me with an outstretched hand.
“So, you’ve been singled out to receive another significant title tomorrow. After the ceremony, if you are not tired, I would like to invite you to a party at my family home here in Acapulco. I will be waiting for you at the Sportsmen’s Club.”
Dolores Del Rio looked closely to see my reaction at such a tempting offer.
An invitation to go anywhere with ‘Miguelito’ Alemán would be prized. The handsome young bachelor was a national heart throb. His fair, European features, beguiling smile and impeccable manners were admired nationally and internationally.
Why would he want to go out with me? Daily newspapers are full of his romance with Cristiane Martel. Who could compete with Miss World? Besides, she’s got to have a better wardrobe.
“Thank you. I’ll be waiting,” I said, glancing at Dolores Del Rio who was still scrutinizing me intently.
Vicki took no time in getting acclimated to the beautiful surroundings, wonderful food and the excitement that filled the air.
“This is going to be a big night for me, Vicki.”
That evening, The Sportsmen’s Club was decorated with dazzling lights and potted palms. More celebrities poured in from around the world to join the festivities. When my big moment arrived, an escort motioned for me to sit on a rococo throne strategically placed under a flower-strewn arch on a circular pedestal. A familiar drumroll heralded Jack Lemmon’s appearance. My heart beat so loud I thought everyone could hear it and see it thumping in my chest. I tried looking composed and smiled demurely as the versatile star stood before me, holding up a glistening crown.
“The Radio Announcers of Acapulco have chosen their Queen of the Third Annual Film Festival this year. Ladies and gentlemen, it is my distinct pleasure to place this crown on the head of Señorita Gilda Battaglia.”
My remarks were uttered perfectly in Spanish and on national TV.
“Gracias por este honor inmerecida.” (Thank you for this honor for which I am unworthy…). Simultaneously, I felt both elation and an unexpected sadness that I was enjoying this incredible experience alone. Vicki had wandered off somewhere and I longed to share the moment with someone from home.
Real movie stars must get this feeling at times. It’s both exhilarating and isolating. Despite all the attention, I feel lonely.
That emotion was fleeting because at the end of the ceremony a well-known film producer approached me.
“When you return to the capital, come to my office; I may have work for you in a movie.” I’ll always remember his last remark—”Porque tu vales.” (Because you are worth it).
As planned, when the ceremony ended Miguel Alemán came for me. All eyes were on us as he extended his arm and assisted me into his convertible Mercedes Benz sports car. I felt proud to be at his side as we drove off.
He is the number one bachelor in the country and I am sitting beside him. What would the folks at Beaver College say if they saw me in this gorgeous setting with the most sought-after bachelor? What should I say to him? I’m tongue tied. This is my big chance to impress him. Don’t ruin it.
My date did not initiate any conversation. Without either of us uttering a word, the young attorney veered the car onto an exclusive road off the highway. We rode for more than a mile before arriving at the entrance of his house built into a mountain overlooking Acapulco Bay.
“We have to take a funicular to the lower level. President Eisenhower and Gina Lollobridgida are house guests this weekend. I have to attend to them shortly.”
Exiting the nearby cable car, we arrived at the main entrance where we entered a room filled with guests. Miguelito took my arm and led me to a bar area where Buñuel’s son and the French Burmese documentary producer were enjoying tropical drinks. He had me sit with them. Excusing himself, he left me with the two outgoing filmmakers.
“Viridiana is a fascinating movie,” I said, trying to appear worldly. “Your father is a brilliant director. He must be pleased you are following in his footsteps.”
“Yes and no. What are you interested in doing, theater, film?”
“I’m going to be a teacher of Spanish.”
“What! We thought you were enamored with the farándula” (show business).
They laughed good-naturedly and our conversation began to flow. My nerves and feelings of inadequacy dissipated for a while, but soon returned when Miguel re-appeared, gesturing for us to leave.
Why does he want to go so soon? I’ve been here less than an hour.
As he drove in the direction of my hotel, I was hoping he would comment about the crowning ceremony and my flawless performance in his mother tongue. Instead, he asked the unexpected.
“Would you like to go for an ice cream? Do you like chocolate or vanilla?”
“Vanilla is fine but it is too late for ice cream right now, if you don’t mind.”
Ice cream! I was wishing he would tell me he changed his mind about Miss World.
We rode on for 10 minutes when he pulled off the highway and stopped the engine of the car.
Is he going to get romantic? He is attractive. It might be nice, but I am beginning to feel nervous. Is his attention what I really want or am I only flattered to be in his company?
Looking directly into my eyes, he spoke deliberately.
“Gilda, you are a nice girl. You don’t belong here. Being in the movies is not the place for someone like you.”
His words stung, deflating my elation at the wondrous evening.
“I’ll only be here for a little while. My parents expect me to become a teacher.”
“Good. Listen to them. Go home.”
El licenciado drove back and saw me to the door of my hotel room. He took my hand and gave me a serious smile.
“Good night, Gilda. Remember what I told you.” He turned and left.
How can I forget? This is not what I wanted to hear, but he’s probably right. I am flattered he showed me respect, but I’m going to stay and try a little longer. This kind of experience may come only once in my lifetime. I want to see what I am capable of doing. If I leave now, I’ll never know.
Dr. Gilda Rorro Baldassari is an educator and writer actively dedicated to all aspects of her Italian-American heritage. Her memoir will be published in Spring, 2018.