Before Monster, a gay nightclub, had settled in Sheridan Square, the El Chico restaurant stood in its place. In a time where Broadway nightclubs set the norm, El Chico restaurant and nightclub stood out against the rest. Labelled “authentically Spanish” in cuisine, performance and ambience by local newspapers, El Chico became a pillar in New York’s “Latin Quarter.” And the man behind the magic, the man who brought this charm to the city, was Benito Collada.
Benito Collada (also often listed as Ben Collada) was born in Avilés, Asturias, Spain in 1897. He immigrated to the United States on May 25th, 1920, first going from Spain to Cuba before reaching the New York City ports. In the 1930s his mother, Donna Collada, would visit him in his new home; it is unknown, however, if her “extended visit” resulted in permanent relocation.
Apparently a colorful and larger-than-life character, Collada seemed to have travelled a great deal as a young man. The list highlights, amongst many other locations, the Philippines, Mexico, Cuba and several spots in South America. During this time Collada was involved in the opening of the Sevilla-Biltmore Hotel in Havana and the Hotel Gloria in Río de Janeiro. Once settled in New York, Collada housed some of the artifacts of his travels in his restaurant.
Coming to the US did not necessarily end of his adventures abroad. El Chico hosted latin artists from the city and beyond for its night-time shows; to make this happen, Collada worked as an impresario. He booked stage shows, reached out to performers he scouted from Spain, Argentina, Mexico and the Caribbean to complement the artists he came across in the city.
These artists would take part in the Spanish shows Collada crafted – the most well-known supposedly being his 1932 original play, La Compañia Dramatic Española. The end result of Collada’s works offered local crowds an interesting mixture of Spanish, Latin American and Filipino artistry. One of Collada’s flamencos, for instance, starred Mexican flamenco performer Antonio de Cordoba, who was accompanied on the guitars by the Padilla Sisters, a group of Mexican Indian rancero singers.
A journalist in the New York Post had once wrote, “Collada’s presentations are always distinguished and authentic, richly costumed and fast-moving.” This was a sentiment commonly shared throughout the city. Even if this sense Spanish “authenticity” bloomed through collaboration with non-Spanish artists, Collada’s efforts to visibilze traditional Spanish culture were well-received by all. Ultimately, Collada’s efforts transformed El Chico into a center for Hispanic and Latin art and culture.
El Chico marked not only one of Collada’s greatest accomplishments, but also the site where he met guitarist and singer, Rosita Berrios. James Aswell of the Syracuse NY Post Standard reflected on the encounter years later. Ashwell mentions how, on the night he visited, Berrio’s Flamenco performance mesmerized Collada. According to Ashwell Collada had even said, “She’s wonderful. She sings in six voices [bass, baritone, alto, tenor, contralto and soprano]. I am in love with her, but I dare not do more than speak to her. My wife is so jealous.” When Ashwell returned to visit Collada years later, Collada had news: “Rosita is Mrs. Collada now.” Indeed, El Chico became a spot for music, food, and also love. It interesting to note that, in this article, Rosita Berrios is said to be “newly imported from Spain;” while she may have been dancing flamenco that night, Berrios in truth is of Puerto Rican origins.
Collada continued spreading his creative vision to locations other than El Chico. In the mid-1930s he apparently branched out and produced shows at other venues, like the Teatro Cervantes in Spanish Harlem. According to contemporary reviews, he often served as the master of ceremonies at El Chico’s floor shows. Some credit Collada and El Chico with helping introduce the Afro-Cuban “rumba” into New York’s musical culture.
During the Spanish Civil War, pro-government Spaniards in New York blacklisted Collada as a Francoist supporter, and as a member of the Casa de España, a Francoist lobby in the city. However, in an 1939 article from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Collada apparently was quoted to say “it [the Spanish war] isn’t such a good war anyway.”
-AT (note that the featured image may not, in fact, be Benito Collada, see comments in link)