Remembering Mexico's 'Mr. Theatre,' Manolo Fabregas

Remembering Mexico's 'Mr. Theatre,' Manolo Fabregas The name "Manolo Fabregas" is synonymous with great and magical theatre.

The name "Manolo Fabregas" is synonymous with great and magical theatre.

Fabregas (July 15, 1921-Feb. 4, 1996), the legendary Mexican actor/director/impresario who staged and starred hundreds of shows in more than 40 years of career, is considered one of the most important men in Mexico's theatre history. For his countless contributions and achievements in theatre, Fabregas received the title of "El Senor Teatro" (Mr. Theatre).

Fabregas, whose real name was Manolo Sanchez Navarro, came from a family of great actors; his mother was actress Fanny Schiller and his father, actor Manuel Sanchez Navarro. Fabregas grew up very close to his grandmother; famous stage actress/producer Virginia Fabregas (1871-1950), who was distinguished by her special care in presenting shows of the best quality. Virginia Fabregas was a perfectionist, she usually hired the best actors for her productions and in many occasions she brought costumes and sets from France and Italy. With this heritage, it's easy to understand why Manolo Fabregas made always his best effort to produce his shows with a world-class quality.

But the beginning was not easy for Fabregas, he began his career as an actor in films, and as master of ceremonies at Mexico City's most fancy nightclubs of that time, the "Sans Souci" and "El Patio"; but his real passion in life was theatre. Unfortunately, by that time (the late 40's), there were a few theatres in Mexico City and the theatrical activity was very slow.

In 1948, Fabregas joined to his grandmother's theatrical company in a tour throughout Spain. Seven months later, the Virginia Fabregas company returned to Mexico, while Manolo stayed in Spain to create his own theatrical company for which he hired Spanish actors. He spent almost two years touring in Spain. In 1950, Manolo Fabregas returned to Mexico to visit his grandmother, who was hospitalized as a result of an accident she suffered at home. He decided to stay in Mexico close to his beloved grandmother and invested all the money he made in Spain in his first production, a comedy called Celos del Aire, which opened Nov. 2, 1950 at the Teatro Ideal. Fabregas headed the cast along with two of Mexico's leading young actresses of that time: Silvia Pinal and Carmen Montejo. Critics and audiences lauded Manolo's debut as producer.

On Nov. 17, 1950, Virginia Fabregas died. It was a very painful experience for Manolo, but he was a professional and continued with the performances of Celos del Aire.

On May 15, 1951 Fabregas married his life-long love, Fela Salinas, who since those early days became the great woman behind the great man.

Fabregas continued to produce plays until 1952, when he was hired to direct and act a different play every Sunday for a live TV show, "La Telecomedia de Manolo Fabregas", which aired for more than three years. As usual, Mexico's top stars accompanied Fabregas in the plays.

A new chapter in Fabregas' career began when Jose Maria Davila, owner of the then-unknown and brand-new Teatro de Los Insurgentes, offered to rent it to Fabregas. The new theatre was considered too far from Mexico City and people used to say that it was "closer to Cuernavaca than to Mexico City". Today Mexico City has expanded so much that the Teatro de Los Insurgentes is located in the heart of the city. Taking the challenge, Fabregas accepted the offer and rented the theatre, which became very popular thanks to Fabregas' great productions.

Manolo's first production at the Insurgentes Theatre was Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution (Testigo de Cargo) in 1956. He directed and starred the British thriller and Mexico's top stars once again joined him in the cast, which included Andres Soler, Prudencia Grifell and Maria Teresa Rivas. Fela Fabregas took care of the opening night party. She invited critics, stars, intellectuals, politics and important personalities from Mexico City's society. After that, Fabregas' opening nights were considered top cultural and social events.

Other shows produced by Fabregas that played at the Insurgentes during the 1950s include The Desperate Hours, Divorciemonos, Arsenic and Old Lace, Noel Coward's Nude With Violin, Lindsey & Crouse's Life With Father and Patrick Hamilton's Gaslight, starring Spanish star Amparo Rivelles.

In 1959, Manolo Fabregas (in association with Robert W. Lerner) produced, directed and starred one of his biggest hits: Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady (Mi Bella Dama), which world premiered in Spanish in a tryout in Moterrey, Mexico. The show received such an enthusiastic response that was immediately transferred to Mexico City's most important theatre, The Palacio De Bellas Artes. Fabregas was praised for his charming portrayal of Henry Higgins opposite Cristina Rojas' Eliza Dolittle. A young singer named Placido Domingo was featured in the cast of this wonderful production, which fortunately was preserved by Columbia Records.

In 1961, Fabregas came up with the idea of forming a repertory company with Mexican actors for a Latin American tour. He brought the best of Mexico's theatre to ten Latin American countries. The critics called him "The Great Ambassador of Mexican Theatre", and most of the Presidents attended to the opening nights of his shows. The repertory included shows like El Baile by Edgar Neville, Trampa Para Un Hombre Solo by Robert Thomas and Divorciemonos by Victoriano Sardou.

Back in Mexico City, in 1963, Fabregas produced several plays at the Sala Chopin, including Neil Simon's Come Blow Your Horn and Marc Camoletti's Boeing, Boeing.

May 1963 marked Fabregas' historical New York City debut in the City Center's production of The King and I. Fabregas starred as the King in the Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic musical (which was performed in English) for 12 weeks. According to Fela Fabregas, audiences and critics loved Fabregas' New York performance, which is still proudly remembered in Mexico.

But it wasn't until Feb. 18, 1965 when Fabregas' "impossible dream" came true with the opening of the Teatro Manolo Fabregas, his first own theatre (with 1145 seats) which was inaugurated with a comedy called "Cualquier Miercoles". The all-star cast included Fabregas, Silvia Pinal, Fernando Soler and Marilu Elizaga. From now on, the multi-talented Fabregas was the owner of the theatre, the producer, the director and the star.

Some of the shows that Fabregas staged at the Teatro Manolo Fabregas include Barefoot in the Park (1965), The Odd Couple (1966), Murray Schigal's Luv (1967), Hello Dolly! (1968) with Argentine star Libertad Lamarque, Man of La Mancha (1969) starring Claudio Brook and Nati Mistral, Fiddler on the Roof (1970) with Fabregas as Tevye, Promises, Promises (1971), No, No, Nanette (1972), Kismet (1973), Godspell (1974), The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975) and Same Time, Next Year (1977).

On May 15, 1977, Fabregas opened his second theatre, the Teatro San Rafael, a 1389-seat venue designed especially to house big productions. The San Rafael opened with a revival of My Fair Lady (Mi Bella Dama) in which Fabregas repeated his critically acclaimed performance as Henry Higgins, this time opposite to Manoella Torres' Eliza.

Later in 1977, Fabregas directed and produced at the San Rafael the Mexican version of the hit Italian musical El Diluvio Que Viene, which starred Hector Bonilla and Fabregas' daughter, Monica Sanchez Navarro. The musical broke all the records in ticket sales and ran for almost five years.

In 1981, Fabregas shared the San Rafael's stage with his son, actor Rafael Sanchez Navarro, in the Mexican premiere of The Elephant Man. In 1982, he starred in Ira Levin's hit thriller Deathtrap with Magda Guzman, Humberto Zurita, Bertha Moss and Miguel Suarez. Then, in 1984, Fabregas returned to the stage in Amadeus, where he played Salieri opposite Rafael Sanchez Navarro's extraordinary portrayal of Mozart.

Fabregas repeated one of his signature roles in the 1985 revival of Fiddler on the Roof (Violinista en el Tejado), and once again, his performance as Tevye was praised by the critics and adored by audiences.

It was in March 1990, when Fabregas opened his third theatre, the Virginia Fabregas, named after his grandmother, with the Mexican premiere of Dan Goggin's Nunsense, which starred Marga Lopez, who starred in the Fabregas' production of No, No, Nanette

. The Fabregas family opened a 4-theatre complex in 1995 under the name of "Centro Teatral Manolo Fabregas" (Manolo Fabregas Theatrical Center) which houses four theatres: The Teatro Mexico, The Renacimiento, The Fernando Soler (named after the famous Mexican actor) and The Broadway.

Although Manolo Fabregas is not longer physically among us, his legacy will always be remembered by audiences, critics and new generations interested in Mexico's theatre history.

That's why he is called "El Senor Teatro".

-- By Claudio Carrera
Mexico Correspondent