February 19, 2006

He Keeps the Eastside Rock Scene Rolling
Richard Duran has no idea how many watch his cable music show. But on the streets of East Los Angeles, he's a homegrown celebrity.

By Daniel Hernandez, Times Staff Writer

Live from Hacienda Heights, on public access television, we now bring you "Thee Mr. Richard Duran Show." (Cue intro music.)

Three cameras swing around to Richard Duran, the host, who is looking sharp in a tuxedo.

"Mr. Duran," as he is known, bends his right knee and dips into a classic lean-back pachuco pose before screaming: "San Gabriel Valley! We're back with a vengeance! That's right!"

The audience, seated in two rows of metal folding chairs, breaks into cheers and applause. The visiting band, Xposure, starts up.

Clearly, everyone in the room is glad to hear that "Mr. Duran" is back after more than a month off the air. (He needed a break.) Non-fans, though, can be forgiven for having never heard of him.

"Thee Mr. Richard Duran Show" can be seen only by certain cable subscribers in the San Gabriel Valley — and only every other Wednesday evening. Duran and the studio manager say they have no idea how many actually watch. Other than that, Duran counts a few hundred loyal Internet viewers as fans of his show.

But on the streets of East Los Angeles, where he lives, and among some big-name Latino politicians and entertainers, Duran is a homegrown celebrity. He is recognized as the big, bearded, brown-skinned showman who lives and breathes old-school Eastside rock 'n' roll from the 1960s and '70s.

Bands such as Thee Midniters. The Jaguars. The Impalas. And Tierra, whose two most famous sibling members, Rudy and Steve Salas, are in the house on a Wednesday night for a special reunion.

"My focus is live entertainment, bands, oldie-but-goodie Latin rock," Duran said before the show as someone moussed and blow-dried his hair, a little gray here and there.

"They are legends, Latin legends," he added, describing the significance of the Salas brothers, who before the other night hadn't played together in years. "This is the only group from East L.A. that played at Carnegie Hall."

The show is a variety-like program of live music, interviews and public announcements. Duran said his goal is to keep alive the rock traditions of the Eastside, which includes creating venues for newer acts to perform. He also features less exposed local bands, as well as ska and heavy-metal acts.

No one makes any money on "Thee Mr. Richard Duran Show," which is taped at a public access studio on a residential street near Wilson High School. Duran said all the staffers are volunteers. On their own time, he and his team do the publicity, fundraising and production work.

Every element of it is a throwback. Each show features a live band, a celebrity guest and an assistant who, in a bygone era, might have been described as a "lovely co-host."

At the end, the audience is asked to get under the studio lights and dance to the music as the credits roll. Duran speaks the distinctive dialect of 1950s and '60s pachucos, the era's young, streetwise Mexican American men.

The operatic "Thee" in the show's title is intentional.

"People my age will understand," said Duran, 51. "Right off the bat they tell me, they know we're from the era of Thee Midniters, the Impalas, the Jaguars."

Born in El Paso and raised in East Los Angeles, Duran remembers accompanying his sister to see bands at the Golden Gate Theater at Whittier and Atlantic boulevards. Their mother wouldn't allow Duran's older sister to see her favorite acts alone or with a date.

"I would sit there and look at these people performing and go, 'Oh my god, these guys are my idols,' " Duran recalled. "As I got older, back in the now '70s, I was caught up in the Whittier Boulevard low-riding [scene], and that's all the music I would play on my eight-track."

A printer by trade, Duran entered the public access TV game when he sought it out in 2000 as a community service activity for his teenage son. Someone at the public access studios in East Los Angeles suggested that Duran pick up a camera himself and start taping high school sports. Soon, he pitched a show.

"All of a sudden, I became this character. I let loose," Duran said.

On the show, he has interviewed actors Cheech Marin and Danny Trejo, comedian George Lopez, boxer Mia St. John, old-school L.A. radio personality Huggy Boy and, during his first run for L.A. mayor in 2001, Antonio Villaraigosa.

"For a simple man like myself to meet people of this caliber — it makes me feel fortunate," Duran said. "When I started my show, I was already a middle-aged man."

Today, most of the remaining rockers from the Eastside scene are retired or doing other things in the music industry. But every now and then, Duran coaxes them onto his show. Having the Salas brothers on was a big deal.

"You know what, mija? We have a heck of a show today, a most firme show," Duran says to his co-host, Sandra Marrujo, who wears a little black dress and red heels with ankle-wrapping straps. Marrujo agrees.

Audience member Judy Bustamante — "Cousin Judy, they call me," she says by way of an introduction — whispers: "It's a special night because the Salas brothers are getting together again. I listened to these bands growing up. Especially Tierra; I grew up with them."

The Salas brothers pick up their acoustic guitars and play the classic ballad "Gema." "Mr. Duran" then interviews the brothers before they join Xposure for a jamming version of the 1964 Righteous Brothers hit "My Babe."

After the show, Duran wipes a few beads of sweat from his forehead and greets audience members. He, the Salas brothers and members of Xposure pose for pictures. The brothers, known as much for their feuding as for their harmonies, say they are grateful for Duran's enthusiasm at getting them on the show.

"He's really kept the music going," Rudy Salas said.

Duran, meanwhile, is his own toughest critic. "It was a little rusty in a few places," he says.

A few minutes earlier, the show had closed with another number from Xposure. When the credits rolled, the audience got up. It might as well have been an Eastside dance party, circa 1969.


The article, as published at LATimes.com on 02.19.06