He left Cuba at age 11—but Tony Padilla remembers the Revolution.
“We were in Santiago, near Guantanamo,” he said. “We could see fighting in the hills where Fidel Castro was hiding. At first, we were all Fidel fans. Then he said, ‘Now we are Communists.’ Everybody said, ‘What?’”
Today, Padilla is one of the Coachella Valley’s most renowned playwrights. In March, his Desert Ensemble Theatre Company will produce one of his newest plays, comedy The Thespian Radio Hour.
“I have to tell you, I’m glad he’s dead now,” Padilla said about Castro. “We weren’t in real danger then. … My dad was a barber; my mom was a singer. She was stunning!
“I remember seeing Che Guevara in Santiago. When he spoke, he was like Hitler, so charismatic. You could see how thousands would follow.” Ironically enough, Padilla would years later audition for the role of Che Guevara in Evita on Broadway.
Padilla’s family later fled to the United States, where his father was immediately drafted into the Army. The family went to Germany for three years, where young Tony learned to speak German (which he has not used since, he adds dryly). When the family returned to the States, they wound up in Monterey.
“I come from a long line of macho Latino men,” Padilla said, “until they face a major decision—which is then made by their wives! My mother hated Miami; she thought it was too pretentious and materialistic.” So, off they went to California.
Padilla watched plays for the first time on a high school field trip. The Trojan Women and The Madwoman of Chaillot convinced him his calling was up on that stage. His first onstage role was in The Crucible.
“I don’t think I had an accent, but I probably did. I had a great teacher, who taught me how to listen,” he said. Today, there isn’t the slightest hint of any prior language in his speech.
In college, Padilla majored in theater arts, and was accepted into the prestigious San Francisco-based American Conservatory Theater on scholarship. “Within three days, I borrowed some money, packed and moved, and got a job. I knew how to sew because of my mom, so I wound up making costumes for the plays. I wore some of my own creations onstage! I was 19. My parents wanted us to be independent—not lazy, ever. It’s that immigrant work ethic.”
He later went to Chicago. “I loved it! Down-to-earth, but intelligent people,” he said. There, he met his partner, Jim, and they were there for more than 20 years. When they sold their business, Dover Metals, which made trays for caterers, they moved to the desert.
“We came to visit a friend who was doing detox alone in Palm Springs!” Padilla laughed. “I fell in love with the desert.” They bought a house, and sold large paintings and sculptures.
“It took a while to get into theater here,” he said. But in 2000, Padilla joined forces with Marilee Warner, who had founded Playwrights’ Circle. They did play readings, and created a festival featuring new playwrights, culminating in a full production of the winning play. Over 10 years, the company grew.
When Warner decamped from the desert, Padilla formed the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, or DETC. He is the founder and producing artistic director. The legendary Rosemary Mallett became artistic director; Shawn Abramowitz is executive director; and Jerome Elliott became communications director.
Padilla said DETC is different because it trains young talent for careers in theater—both onstage and behind the scenes. DETC was the first local company to offer student scholarships, he said, and recipients have gone on to notable success—teaching at Harvard University, lighting Broadway shows and late-night TV shows, and working with major Hollywood production companies.
Padilla was awarded the Desert Theatre League’s prestigious Joan Woodbury Mitchell Award for being a theater pioneer in the Coachella Valley.
“Theater now is 4,000 percent better than when I arrived,” he said. “We had the Top Hat Theatre on Arenas Road, and the Palm Canyon Theatre. That was all there was! I love the way it has grown. CV Rep and Coyote (Stageworks) are now doing really quality work.”
In its early days, DETC presented some plays at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, but now productions are housed at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, a space shared with Dezart Performs. Padilla directs (usually his own plays) with a “laidback” style, but writing remains his No. 1 passion. The playwright bug bit him when he saw Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story. He wondered if he could come up with an idea that was both compelling and relevant. The goal was achieved with Endangered Species, about the reactions of people when they find a live baby abandoned in a public park’s trashcan. It was produced here twice, then several times in Italy, where it won the “Best Play” award at a theater festival in Rome. “It is the best compliment I ever received as a playwright,” Padilla said with a smile.
Padilla said he plans to stay here in the valley he loves, though he and Jim flee the summer heat by holing up in their house in Carmel. In the future, Padilla would love to see our valley host a theater festival similar to the Palm Springs Film Festival—complete with classes, seminars, play readings and full productions. For DETC, he hopes to add formal classes and a board of directors.
Sounds like a happy man. “This is what you’re supposed to do,” Padilla said. “This is America!”
The Thespian Radio Comedy Hour, a production of Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, will be performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, from Friday, March 9, through Sunday, March 18, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $20. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.