El Matador Jaime Bravo
"NO BLOOD, SOME TEARS,
A SWEAT OF MONEY"
March 7, 1966
In their new pop art form, the Brothers Feld have yet to harm a bull. Aficionados may mourn, but both Texans and 'toreros' think that La Corrida Americana is as much fun as striking oil
By Liz Smith
I do not love thee, Dr. Fell;
The reason why I cannot tell;
But this I know, and know full well:
I do not love thee, Dr. Fell.
That was Schoolboy Tom Brown's off-the-cuff answer to the demand by Dr. Fell, Dean of Christ Church, that he translate the 32nd epigram of Martial. Now there is a new version of this famous rhyme, which you are likely to hear before the sun rises over the yardarm, before the moon shines over the cow shed and before that enlarging dot of dust on the horizon grows bigger than a bull's horn. It goes something like this:
We do not love thee, Irvin Feld;
The reason why we sure can tell;
You've sent the bullfight straight to hell:
We do not love thee, Irvin Feld.
Of course, there is a chance you might hear the other version—the one made up by the 100,000-odd new fans of Irvin Feld. It goes:
We do adore thee, Irvin Feld;
You treat the toros so damn well;
Who cares if all the purists yell:
We do adore thee, Irvin Feld.
P.S. We like your brother Israel, too.
These conflicting variations on Tom's rhyme should persuade you that the Brothers Feld of Washington, D.C. are controversial. Well, they sure are, because any two men who call themselves Super Enterprises, Incorporated and can turn, in one—you should pardon it—Feld swoop, from presenting the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Ella, the Duke and Peter, Paul and Mary, not to mention the New York City Center Ballet, and become International Bullfights, Inc. in order to dream up something called "Modified Portuguese-style New American Bloodless Bullfighting" are not just out to be quietly accepted. They want to make noise. And they're making it—a noise that has seldom been heard inside the borders of the U.S.
"Olé!" it goes. Or "Olé!" it went down in Houston last month. And "Olé!" it will go again in the Houston Astrodome in July, with the famous and/or notorious El Cordobés promised on the bill for the box-office punch. And, possibly even before then, it may be heard in Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Miami and other places we all know and love. It might even make itself heard above the despairing, ghostly laughter in Shea Stadium.
Now, most of what the average yanqui knows about the corrida he learned from seeing Tyrone Power in Blood and Sand or from reading Ernest Hemingway. He knows that Papa acclaimed bullfighting as the only violent event outside of war offering man the opportunity to see life and death. Maybe he even remembers that Papa made a classic understatement when he wrote: "The bullfight is not a sport in the Anglo-Saxon sense of the word...."
Well, Papa never knew the Brothers Feld. They are determined to make bullfighting an Anglo-Saxon sport if it breaks the heart of every true aficionado ever to fly Iberia or Aeronaves. After their recent $315,000 gamble in Houston's Astrodome, which paid off with a total attendance of 107,257 people and a gate of $409,185, the Felds are snorting like Miura bulls.
"We hope to hold these fights in many cities. Every major city, I'd say, has inquired about them. I think this new American version of the bloodless fight can be even more exciting than traditional bullfighting. We have studied the corrida in every country, you see, and this is a tremendous spectator sport. We think the American people will like it. And we intend always to present it up-holding the great traditions of true bullfighting, with all the pomp and ceremony it deserves." Thus spoke Israel Feld.
Brother Irvin is equally enthusiastic, but his remarks are tinged with care. "Let's face it," says Irvin. "We have problems." But the problems faced by the Fr√®res Feld today are happy ones compared to those they wrestled with before the Houston debut. First they had to get their extravaganza into the Astrodome, one of the few U.S. arenas where they could put on a big show and make a profit. Then they had to overcome the Texas law against a man fighting a bull, narrowly squeaking out a favorable decision in a Harris County court. Of course, they had to contend with the wary Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the American Humane Association, assuring these eagle-eyed organizations that no bull or horse would be hurt. (They carefully abjured making any guarantees for the matadors, and no initialed society spoke up in behalf of homo sapiens.)
When they had sweated out their cartel of stars (one would have to attend Plaza México all season in order to see as many excellent matadors as the Texans were to be offered in just one night), Irvin Feld knew he had reached the zenith of his career as an entrepreneur. "I want to tell you that bullfighters are the kind of people you can't negotiate with," he says. "I've presented stars like Danny Kaye and Jerry Lewis, but I never met such inflexible artists as matadors in my life. Their idea of a compromise is to come down from a fee of $105,000 to $100,000."
But people were only part of the problem. International Bullfights, Inc. also had to contend with ridicule, skepticism and uncertainty as to just how a matador could fight (or even exist) with a bull minus any of the teaching aids they employ in Spain, Mexico and Peru. While in the true Portuguese-style fight the bull is not killed, he is nagged quite a bit. In this Portuguese-American version no one dared even scratch el toro—or the SPCA would spank. The Feld presentation was to be minus picadors on vulnerable horses, minus the gory act of breaking down the bull's neck muscles with a lance to make its head drop, minus the prick of the colorful banderillas and, most important, minus the moment of truth.
But, as in the mysteries of algebra, these minuses ended up as pluses. First, for skeptical Texans who came to scoff and stayed to yell "Olé!" prompted by the frequent appearance of the word, 30 feet high, on the Dome's electronic scoreboard. Second, for the promoters, who actually hadn't had a clue whether rodeo-oriented Southwesterners would settle for the lesser mayhem of stylized bloodless bullfighting. Third, for Judge Roy Hofheinz, prime mover, creator and hero-villain of the Astrodome, who needs bigger and better events to fill up his sometimes empty "eighth wonder of the world." And last, for the world's millionaire matadors, who never before have been able to add any U.S. dollars to their collections of pesos, pesetas, sols and escudos.
Houston had been properly suspicious of the bullfights at first. Suspicious despite the high-powered publicity job done out of New York to promote the event, despite the signing of some of the world's top matadors, including Spain's Paco Camino and Gabriel Espa√±a and Mexico's Jaime Bravo, José Ramón Tirado and Humberto Moro, plus the picturesque added attraction of such rejoneadores (bullfighters on horseback) as the dashing Mexican brothers Felipe and Evaristo Zambrano, Portugal's José Brilha de Matos and Mexico's Mauricio Izaguirre. Suspicious despite the steam put on by the Hofheinz hustling team in Houston.
Men in expensive Stetsons and Borsalinos rocked back on their walking-boot heels before the blond wood panels imported from the Palais Murat for the $12 million Warwick Hotel and snorted: "Hell, I done seen this fighting where they don't kill the bull before, over in San Antone [San Antonio], and it don't amount to a hill of beans." Out at the bright, new, orange, fully enclosed pens set up near the Astrodome there was sarcastic good humor quivering in the crisp sunny air. True aficionados first apologized for being there at all and then explained to initiates that the bulls must be kept from seeing people on foot to preserve their ignorance of man's movements for the bullring. So people peered at the bulls through tiny slots in the wall, inhaling the pungent odor of alfalfa and manure and listening to the Mexican and Spanish handlers arguing with the straw boss, a big, friendly Texan named Red Dozier.
Mr. Dozier came equipped with an electric cattle prod, which, he carefully explained, was only a mild DC, not the stronger variety favored in some communities for use on people. He had built the corral and also the 180-foot $15,000 bullring inside the Dome. "Yep, I'm the vice-president in charge of bulls," he said. "Putting them in these boxes makes them mad. Once you pen 'em and let 'em loose, it's Katy bar the door."
It was already understood that these bulls would have to be killed eventually, for no bull can be allowed to live after he has faced a matador. The Kay Packing Company already had bid for them, and after the fights they were to be taken to the slaughter pens and killed, humanely, of course, with sledgehammers, out of sight and mind of the spectators.
A powder-blue pickup truck marked "SPCA Animal Rescue" stood near the corral, evidence of the formidable presence of retired Army Major Jerrol Lowe of the Houston Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and his colleague, John O. Marston of the American Humane Association of Denver. They were there to see that the bulls had food and water and to check the pads that would go on the bulls' backs—half an inch of polyurethane foam and half an inch of carpet into which the banderillas could be stuck but which would prevent them from even touching the bull's skin. "Ridiculous," said one aficionado. "They'd do better to try suction cups on the banderillas." Quite a discussion ensued on how to glue the pads onto the bulls with rubber cement and then secure them with baling wire, something like the talk that must have first occurred when those mice decided to bell the cat.
The bulls were slightly undersize (360 to 400 kilos as compared to 500 kilos in Spanish bullfighting), but their handlers took pains to point out that they would not be slowed down or injured by either picador lances or banderillero barbs. As Architect and Bullring Designer José Manuel Gomez explained: "When the matador has to simulate the moment of truth, by touching the bull over the horns symbolically, you must remember that the bull will still be in excellent condition, his head up, his spirit high, his murderous intent the same as ever. This kind of fight is the most dangerous for the matador, because the entire point of the various phases is to bring the bull to a condition where the matador can dominate and then kill him. Here he will only be killed symbolically."
In short, the bulls would escape the moment of truth and the bullfighters would take the consequences.
That night the largest crowd ever to see a bullfight in the U.S. or Spain crammed into the Dome. Glamour slopped all over the place. Flags of Texas, the U.S., Portugal, Spain and Mexico hung over the sides of the arena. Pretty girls in mantillas sat at ringside. After a blast of Tijuana Brass on the loudspeakers, the people listened as Announcer Constantine Hassalevris told them the significance of what they were about to see. Down in the Domeskeller the toreros said their prayers before an altar hastily installed between a couple of Judge Hofheinz' decorative beer-barrel wall friezes.
The crowd was enthusiastic over the first event—the horseback bullfighting of Mauricio Izaguirre and José Brilha de Matos—but women were still commenting that the bull was "cute." Even when the rejoneadores stuck their lances into the foam pads of the bull and broke them away in fluttering flags, it all seemed terribly tame and toothless for folks raised on the ranch life of branding, castrating and ear clipping, not to mention rodeo's calf roping, bulldogging, Brahma bull riding—and that mean old bronc-bucking strap. Then Matador Humberto Moro came out and the announcer instructed the audience to say "Olé!" if it liked something. The Dome resounded with an "Olé!" that drowned out the music.
But it was the next matador, Jaime Bravo, billed to his own delight as the "Rubirosa of the Ring," who made the audience decide it would rather watch the bullfight than switch. To begin with, the onlookers heard the Mexican charmer dedicate his bull to International Bullfights Impresario Irvin Feld and to Lyndon B. Johnson—our leader's worst billing since he was Vice-President. Then Bravo embarked on the course of action for which he is famous, the kind of foolhardy bull-baiting that has gotten him gored 14 times. In a moment he had been brutally tossed twice by the bull, only to get up, wave off his rescuers and then, running, place his own banderillas after first breaking them down to less than half size. He was tossed once more, completely over the bull's back, got up again and symbolically "dispatched" the bull. From that moment on, the spectators were hooked.
They watched with enthusiasm the more restrained passes of José Ramón Tirado as a wildly erratic bull ripped his cape into two pieces. His work with the muleta caused the announcer to say, solemnly, "This is art, ladies and gentlemen." Everyone said "Olé!" solemnly.
Gabriel Espa√±a, who worked in a red-and-gold suit of lights, addressed the audience before addressing his bull. He said into the mike, "I am so much happy to be in Texas." Everyone said "Olé!" joyfully. The great Paco Camino said nothing, but his bull added to the excitement by jumping the 4½-foot barrera and landing in the callejón between the ring's two fences. After dominating the bull to the point of mesmerization, Camino gave it a disdainful pat on the nose, as befits an entertainer who is receiving $100,000 for three days' work.
The next day word came down from Judge Hofheinz' Oriental gilt office that he and the Felds were jubilant. Seven bulls had performed as if on cue and nine toreros had given their individual styles their all. The perfectionists, the carpers and the doubting Thomases were hushed. The second-night crowd was 2,500 larger than the first, and on Sunday afternoon there was another gratifying assemblage. Eighteen of the Astronauts were there, plus a former First Lady of Mexico, Se√±ora Ruiz Cortines.
Bravo wore his bad-luck blue suit of lights twice. "I do not believe in bad luck," he said, though his hip had required novocain to kill the pain of the bruise. Asked if he felt the Houston fights lacked finesse, he shrugged, "When I decide to come here, I completely give myself a wash brain, you know, I say, 'Forget classicism, Madrid, Mexico, all that. This is America and it's entertainment, so go, go, go, be spectacular, show off—like, you know, show business.' "
Then he went out and did it all over again with an even more bravura performance than the night before. Not everybody liked it. An old Madrid hand said: "You take your average North American sentimentalist with all that stuff in his mind about loving animals. Well, it takes a real silly thing like Bravo's behavior to get to them. They don't even understand how good the other matadors are, how they control the bulls, correct their faults, dominate them."
The promoters answered: "Bravo may not be pure but we could use a few more like him." They were shaking their heads a bit as if to brush away the gnats of doubt propagated by people who kept telling them that Texans just love the Astrodome and will go there to see anything. "Kid," one know-it-all said, "a Texan will go to the Astrodome to see a trained armadillo knit. They've paid $450,000 in the past 10 months just to see this joint when nothing is even happening in it. Take those fights out of Houston and you're a flop."
The promoters refused to believe it. They were talking about forming The American Taurine Association, with its own set of rules and regulations. American Matador John Fulton, who was on the scene but not on the bill, said he would fight in the future for the Felds and also would form a union of U.S. matadors. Vincent J-R Kehoe, a bullfight photographer with several books to his credit on Spain's second favorite diversion (soccer is first), was hired on the spot to help form the rules and write a book on American bullfighting.
Jaime Bravo, serene from his triumphs before the totally undemanding americano audience, committed a final blasphemy in keeping with his death-wish behavior in the bullring. He came right out and said, "This kind of bullfighting could even replace the other in Spain and Mexico. It would improve relations between our nations and then tourists who hate to see the horse injured or can't stand the kill would patronize the bullfights."
"Just think," sighed Irvin Feld, "we could have made $100,000 more here in Houston just by leaving Paco Camino home. But by having him—the world's greatest bullfighter—we proved our point. This is the way we want to go in every city, strictly first-class. My chief fear is some cheap-jack group will try to imitate us in a get-rich-quick scheme."
First-class or no, some people were still aghast that top matadors had been a party to the Feld venture. In Houston's smart El Cid Club a Mexican waiter sniffed, "I used to be a novillero in Mexico, so I have feeling, sí? A bullfight is an art. I was surprised at the men coming here to fight in this—this joke. How can it be a bullfight without killing the bull?"
Well, whatever it was, it had delighted more than 100,000 people. It had even converted a few diehards to the pleasures of something that had the look, sound, smell and pageantry of an old art—while obviously being only pop art. And it had bent one of the well-known pillars of the true corrida, namely, that a bull must be "weakened" by pic-ing and disoriented by the placing of banderillas in his skin in order to be fought at all.
Last week 20 of the bulls' heads and one whole bull were at the taxidermist's being prepared for enshrinement in the Astrodome, while the Felds sought an agreement from El Cordobés' manager, Chopera, that the beatnik matador would definitely grace the mid-July return engagement. But the real question was: Would Americans come to see this new "sport-entertainment" outside the Astrodome? Perhaps the show would build, for it had the lure that draws some people to a boxing match—the unspoken hope of seeing a bloody knockout, with the tacit understanding that one might have to settle for just 15 rounds of skillful boxing. American bullfighting patrons could count on that same itchy half-fear, half-hope that they might see a matador gored or tossed, and it would make for life at the box office if not necessarily death in the afternoon.
But there was still the question of what would happen on the day the first torero in the U.S. got eight inches of horn in his belly. Would the SPCA and the American Humane Association raise a cry? Would anyone besides Ava Gardner say a good word for toreros?
Of course, nobody had yet gotten around to discussing the ultimate possibilities that lie before the Brothers Feld and their Bullfight Extravaganzas. For if dancing girls aren't the answer to La Corrida Americana, then the answer may be Corrida by Computer. Experiments have already been made with electrodes implanted in a bull's brain. When he charges, if someone presses a button, he will stop on a dime, turn away from the matador and, perhaps, sniff daisies.
The American Taurine Association's next step may be IBM. And I don't mean International Bullfighters, Mother.