Bandleader Xavier Cugat was the "Rumba King," a prime mover of the Latin American rhythm craze of the 1930s and '40s. Known for his musical genius and glitzy persona as the king of the posh nightclub scene with his signature tuxedo, ear-to-ear smile, pencil thin mustache, large South American hat and violin bow and chihuahua in hand, Cugat reigned over the party in film, radio and in live nightclub performances.
The zesty Cugat was a natural life of the party who considered himself more an entertainer and showman than a musician — and he made no apology for it. "I play music," he said, "make an atmosphere that people enjoy. It makes them happy. They smile. They dance. Feel good — who be sorry for that?"
That happy atmosphere set the scene for numerous films and Cugat's acting career, where he usually played himself, beginning with "Go West Young Man" (1936), starring Mae West, followed by "You Were Never Lovelier" (1942), starring Rita Hayworth.
A string of feel-good hits followed including "Stage Door Canteen" (1943), starring Tallulah Bankhead; "Two Girls and a Sailor" (1944), starring June Allyson; "Week-End at the Waldorf" (1945), starring Ginger Rogers and Lana Turner; "No Leave, No Love" (1946), starring Van Johnson; "Luxury Liner" (1948) and a "A Date With Judy" (1948), starring Jane Powell, among others. Cugat's frequent pairing with Esther Williams was an audience favorite and included "Bathing Beauty" (1944), "This Time for Keeps" (1947), "On an Island With You" (1948) and "Neptune's Daughter" (1949).
Even after death, Cugat's musical gems twinkled into the hearts of audiences, transcending generations. His song "Cui Cui" was featured in the animated feature film "Happy Feet" (2006), about a tap-dancing penguin who can't sing a love song. "My Shawl," featured in the film "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl" (2008), starring Abigail Breslin, acquainted tweens to Cugat's music.
Music and childhood were a natural pairing for Cugat, who began playing the violin at age 4 when a neighbor, who was a violin-maker, gave him a violin as a Christmas present. The instrument was almost never out of young Xavier's hand. He became a musical prodigy and classical violinist playing in a symphony orchestra at the age of 10.
A few years later, tenor Enrico Caruso performed with the orchestra and developed a close friendship with the child. Caruso arranged for Cugat to accompany him on a tour of America. Shortly after arriving in New York Caruso died, leaving Cugat on his own without money or knowledge of the English language. Carrying his violin case, the young man wandered around the city until he found a restaurant with a Spanish name and someone inside who spoke the language. He got a job there playing 14 hours a day for meals and a place to sleep. "But no money," he said. "And it went on for quite a while."
Finally, Cugat toured with a symphony orchestra, becoming one of the first solo musicians to play on radio and was a featured soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the 1920s. Later, he formed a Latin music combo whose rhythms were considered "gigolo music." Demand was limited but he stuck with it.
Cugat's big break came when he was booked into the Starlight Roof of the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City. His music was a hit there, and became a fixture in what became known as the "Cugat Room" of the Waldorf for nearly a decade.
Never forgetting the hard times, Cugat would help new talent get their careers started, including Dinah Shore and Desi Arnaz, who both acknowledged their debt to "Cugie."
Thinking back years later, Cugat reminisced, "I'm still glad ... that the man across the street was a violin-maker. Lucky! Sure. Think of it: What if that man across the street had been a maker of shoes?"