Interview with Izzy Sanabria, album cover designer, cartoonist, emcee, televison host, magazine publisher, journalist, stand-up comedian.
The Return of Izzy Sanabria, or A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Rumba / Interview by David Carp (David_Carp@descarga.com) , with Bruce Polin
Latino renaissance man, Izzy Sanabria, who has been an album cover designer, cartoonist, emcee, televison host, magazine publisher, journalist, stand-up comedian, etc. "My son is studying at the Police Academy, right? So they take him to one of the jails for something or other. The first thing is that you do not in any way fraternize with any prisoner or you'll be written up. So right away this guy comes up to my son, 'Hey, vaya, man, are you Izzy Sanabria's son?' Now, Sanabria is not a very common name. 'Vaya! What's with your father, man? Is he dead? Is he in jail? What's happening with him?' He's trying not to talk to the guy and the guy turns around, 'Dig it, this is Izzy Sanabria's son!' Now he's surrounded by prisoners asking him all kinds of questions about me, so right away he gets written up. Now he has to face a Board of Inquiry. To show you where the Police Department is at, here's the question he had to answer. 'How come your father knows these criminals?' Not, 'How come these criminals know your father?'"
As the cliché goes, Izzy Sanabria's reputation has preceded him. Rather than ask what he's done, it might be simpler to ask what he hasn't done. He has been a cartoonist, illustrator, designer, television host, emcee, magazine publisher (Latin New York), editor, journalist, stand-up comedian, bon vivantbut this is beginning to sound like bragging and Izzy will not stand for bragging. Verdad! Descarga Newsletter is disregarding his wishes that his story be told in the third person. You see, he feels that the usual first person-oriented interview format would be somewhat less than modest. Nevertheless, Izzy's actions do speak louder than his words (although his words speak pretty loudly). Said words were recently recorded by David Carp and Bruce Polin.
David Carp: Can you tell us how you got your first album cover assignment?
Izzy Sanabria: Johnny Pacheco and I had gone to the same junior high school in the Bronx. When he started working as a sideman at the Palladium, I came up to him, "Hey, how are you?" He was glad that somebody recognized him and I felt great knowing somebody on stage. I used to run into him at the Tritons, a club in the Bronx where I was a waiter, at times a bartender, and I also emceed there. Well, Johnny Pacheco would actually pick me up at my house. I traveled around with Pacheco different places, they thought I was a singer or something. So one day I told him about this idea for an album cover. He says, "I just recorded for Al Santiago." And then he tells me that the album cover had already been ordered. Most people would have said, "OK, maybe next time," but I said, "Give me the guy's name anyway, let me present it to him." So he gave me Al Santiago's number and I called him up. I went to see him and I showed him the piece of art and he said, "THAT'S IT! I LOVE IT!" I said, "What about the other album cover?" "Forget it!" This is still one of my best covers because it captured Johnny Pacheco and all that energy that he had as a flute player in those days. Now, he was hot as a pistol, he was funny, he would move, he was dynamic. So I came up with this African figure playing the flute as a woodcut, black against yellow, which is really a one-color job except you put yellow in the background and with all the little imperfections of a woodcut you get that movement. So I created that imagery for Pacheco.
Bruce Polin: What was your most controversial album cover?
IS: Willie Colon's Wanted by the F.B.I. By saying "Wanted," by putting out a cover that says "F.B.I.," Fania was giving the impression that this production was sanctioned by the F.B.I. What happened was that the F.B.I. became aware of it because a bunch of people were turning Willie in (laughs). That's why it's a collectors' item. The only ones on the market now are the ones that just say "Wanted!" The [edited] cover still says "Wanted!" but "by the F.B.I." is taken out and also the part where it says "Freaks Bureau of Investigation" and signed by J. Edgar Gonzalez. This was the cheapest photograph that I ever put on an album cover. I took Willie to a machine and the photographs were four for a quarter. So I spent fifty cents 'cause I wanted it to be a bad quality photograph, you know? I used it on the back and I imitated a Daily News headline, you know, with the big dots and everything. His prison number was really his previous LP numbers and the fingerprints are who knows whose. I went to the post office and picked up a "Wanted" poster and cut out some criminal's fingerprints and pasted them down. See, what happened is, I was influenced by the hippie movement from the '60s. They were selling posters, you know, F.B.I. "Wanted" posters of Bobby Seale and people like that. Now those are real posters so they were only helping the F.B.I. perpetuate their publicity. But if you put anything on the market that isn't true then, yeah, it's against the law. So in Puerto Rico they made them turn the albums around [so that only the back cover was displayed] in all the stores and all that kind of stuff. And then there was a story about Willie Colon's grandmother getting hysterical because people were calling and telling her that the F.B.I. was after Willie. Because the posters that came inside the album were being plastered throughout the city, the promotion was really funny.
DC: How often did you have conflicts about basic concepts with producers or record company operatives?
IS: All the time. I'll tell you about one. I've never said this publicly because I never wanted to put Jerry Masucci downbut it was a Pupi Legarreta album where I did an illustration with him playing the flute and it used very hot colors and a very tropical green background. Now the colors in my work are very bold, I've never been very subtle. I remember interviewing Ann Saxon on my television show and I asked her how she felt as an Anglo-Saxon editing this Latin thing and she's talking about what she's learned. She said that, for example, the way Latinos look..."I went in with a beige outfit and I was trying belts with different shades of brown. I went to a salesgirl who happened to be Hispanic and I said, 'Which of these do you think I should have?' and she goes, 'Oh, none of them, you need a little color!'" So there's an example of the Anglo-American taste being more subtle. Back to the album cover [record producer] Jerry Masucci wanted a Gatsby look, so the end result is that he's paying for it and the final fight is I had to walk out of there and eat the illustrations I had already finished or make the changes he wanted. So I had to change the background to a subtle green. OK, so it didn't have the same impact, but it didn't look that terrible. But the problem there was that he said to me, "It looks too Puerto Rican," or something to that effect and I told him, "Fuck you!" Now that was another problem with me in this business, I have never been an ass-kisser. I've never been very subtle or diplomatic and I just told Masucci, "Fuck you, how dare you? You're selling to Hispanics and you're telling me that it's too Puerto Rican?" But Jerry Masucci called me up a few days later to apologize. I still did what he wanted, but he also realized that at that time I had a certain amount of power as publisher of Latin New York magazine. But, again, he had his own particular way of seeing things. He may have thought that looking "too Latin" was a problem. But I really felt that you could still design well and make it look Latin, make it look authentic, and yet be sophisticated. That's what I always try to do, you know?
DC: You began your career emceeing big shows during the 1960s period of Spanish variety theater. Anything that you remember about this period?
IS: I don't remember where, it may have been El Teatro Puerto Rico, but one of my greatest moments as a performer was getting a standing ovation in a theater after doing a whole comedy monologue. They had never really seen that in Spanish theater. During this period I was wearing my hair long, for lack of a better word, in the Afro style. I was influenced by the blacks, you know, "Black is beautiful." They're wearing Afros, so I was saying, "Well, why can't Hispanics be doing something?" I was working with Joe Quijano, who always had a classy-type band, all the guys were dressed up. His band goes onstage, then he brings me on and I'm supposed to dance with this girl and everything else. But the minute I came on the audience went into this disarray, you know? Quijanoagain, he's got this imagehe tried to get me off the stage and he's telling me, "Izzy, get off, get off!' and I insisted on getting in front of that microphone. Coming from the audience are comments like, "You look like a broom," you know, "the barber's gotta eat," all of this stuff because of the way my hair was, you see, they had never seen this! So I got up there and I knew instinctively that if you stand up there long enough they've got to quiet down sooner or later. When the crowd quieted down a little, I found an old lady in the front that I related to like my mother and I would direct my comments to her. "You see, ma'am, bald people are always attacking me." So, immediately I got a laugh. Somebody in the balcony would make another comment and my next thing was, "Shut up, baldy," another laugh. Then I would come back and say, "Ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you the reason my hair's like this. You see, for many years I've been trying to be white Anglo-Saxon. But I finally realized that, hey, I am a Puerto Rican and if I got curly hair, let it be shown." The audience applauded me like crazy and after that I had the audience in my back pocket and no matter what I did after that, it went over great. Ralphie Mercado has used me as a pivot man, to introduce the other Masters of Ceremonies. He knew that people would boo me and everything else and I would play with that and, you know, all of these things that nobody else could really deal with.
BP: How do you write comedy?
IS: I haven't written comedy. I do characters, you know, certain things that I observe, ironies. I'll start with something like, "Ladies and gentlemen, do you realize that bartenders are getting away with an unconstitutional act and yet they're within the law to do it?" I say, "If you walk into a bar and you've had one too many he can refuse to serve you. We have to stop this because it could spread to other professions." I say, "What happens if you're a little bit overweight and and you walk into a restaurant'I'm sorry, sir, you're too fat, we can't serve you.' What happens if you're a woman, you're not too attractive and you walk into a beauty salon'Lady, with that face ain't shit we can do for you.'" Then I do little things like, "Every Puerto Rican neighborhood's got a junkie by the name of Tito, you know, the kind of guy that walks up and says, 'Hey, babe, what's happenin', man? Dig it, you got a dollar?' 'No.' 'Oh, man, what you mean, you ain't got no dollarshit, you got a job.' 'I'm sorry, I don't give money to junkies.' 'Oh, man, I ain't no junkie, I'm on Methadone.' 'What do you want a dollar for?' "I'm gonna get some bottled water, you don't expect me to put tap water in my system, do you?'" I mean, with the tap water, if you see a company that's gonna start selling air, buy in, because who would have thought ten years ago that anybody has to buy water? So I thought that was great, a junkie not wanting to put tap water in his system, it's ironic. That's what I like about comedyit's like Oriental writing. A symbol gives you a whole story. A symbol could mean "a house burned down," so you put "Joe" in front of it, it says "Joe's house burned down." When I say, "I'm not a junkie, I'm on Methadone," for me to explain why that's funny, I have to go into paragraphs to explain that [taking Methadone] is just a damn substitute, and the establishment's making money, that you're still a drug addict and that it's worse than heroin.
DC: Your magazine, Latin New York, had an unmistakable impact in the Latino community and beyond from its founding in 1973 until folding in 1985. How is Latin New York remembered today and how would you like it to be remembered?
IS: You know, there are Hispanics here who went through the world as empty shells. I was like that myself to a certain point. You go into the world to be white American and you get out in white America and then you find that you're an empty shell without substance, and then some of them start finding themselves. And so I get some of these letters, people are telling me, "I read Latin New York magazine. Then all of a sudden I started to find myself reading other people's letters, reading those articles, things I wasn't even aware of and yet I was either missing or I suddenly connected to." Here's onea woman writes to say that her mother always tried to keep her away from being a Puerto Rican and she should marry a white guy. So she married a white guy who moves to a white suburb, has children, and now she discovers her roots and she starts reading Latin New York. And it blows her mind away and now she is stuffing rice and beans down the throats of her kids and her husband and driving them crazy playing salsa music, and she's not gonna stop until they accept her for what she is because now she doesn't want her children to be deprived of the culture she was deprived of. It's stuff like that, you know, the doubts, the rediscovery. All those things that appeared in Latin New York are indicative of that.The other thing that Latin New York has is its uniqueness as documentation of the '70s and '80s. There's the photographs, there's all this stuff that could be made into several books. Like these letters I told you about. These letters should be compiled even if it's only on microfilm and made available for college students or other people to do research. None of this stuff is even on microfilm and if it's destroyed, then it's destroyed forever. I mean, first of all, it's printed on shitty paper. It's only gonna last a certain amount of time and then if I'm gone somebody's gonna throw all this stuff in the garbage. In the meantime, every now and then, every now and then somebody calls me, "Oh, man, you have no idea how I reached you, how many phone calls I made around the country until somebody told me that you're the source of this." And right now I can't help anybody 'cause I'm not gonna send them originals. "Are you willing to come to New York and read through my stuff?" And why should I even have some stranger come to my house and read through all my stuff?