Wednesday, September 5, 1984
By Jim O’Connell, The Register
For skeptics who believe there is no glamour left in the world, a trip to 1502 N. Ross Street in Santa Ana, California could change their minds.
There, at the Pepito and Joanne Ballet Academy, Joanne Perez is continuing a tradition that was lost when the sun set on the era of pillbox hats and Packards.
The ornate, hand-lettered sign perched on the front gable of the green building recalls a time when a shingle over the doorway was the full extent of marketing efforts.
The strangely quiet estate, surrounded by a wrought-iron gate and dotted with pock-marked statues, is carefully tended. The construction that is occurring just two doors down dares not spread its dust on this remnant — yet still functioning part — of the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Inside, sitting lightly on an antique pink sofa is Joanne Perez, a former vaudeville star. She seems to be in a glamorous world of her own.
Perez founded the academy in 1950 with her husband, Pepito Perez, a former vaudeville clown, painter and movie star. Today, nine years after Pepito’s death, his wife and co-star continues to teach aspiring dancers and singes the fine points of show business.
Joanne Perez, although aging gracefully, still occasionally dons a tutu to teach ballet, one of the many performing arts taught at the academy.
Perez won’t reveal her age — it wouldn’t be glamorous. Her carefully curled blonde hair does not belie the years she spent touring the country with Pepito in a vaudeville variety show.
But the walls of her expansive home are decorated with photographic memories of years and shows past.
The home, built in 1892 and remodeled by Pepito during the early years of the academy, also is a museum. Pepito’s original paintings and sculptures are there, against walls covered with velvet embossed wallpaper and a houseful of antique, Victorian-era furniture.
Pepito’s bedroom remains exactly as it was the day he died, Perez said. Small, dark, and decorated with paintings on black velvet, the room reflects Pepito’s Spanish heritage, his wife said.
His suits still hang in the closet; his socks still sit in the dresser.
“I’ll never accept that he’s gone,” Perez said. “I keep waiting for him to come through the door.
“It’s a comfort knowing that his clothes are still the way he left them,” she said. “I guess I’m living in a world of my own.”
While the front rooms of the home are a memorial to the past, the back, which houses a dance studio and singing room, is dedicated to the future. Students, from 3 to 40 years old who range in talent as much as they do in age, take lessons in ballet, jazz and Polynesian dance and song styling.
The school boasts several former students who have gone on to entertainment fame, including two Miss Californias and one former Miss U.S.A. as well as actress Rosalind Chao, who stars in the television series “AfterM.A.S.H.”
While many parents and adult students invest in lessons as a first step toward show business — and fame and fortune — others use the lessons to overcome natural shyness, Perez said.
Currently, about 200 students are enrolled in classes, but the school is not as active as it once was, she said.
“People just don’t seem as interested in this kind of thing as they once were,” Perez said. “It used to be that all the parents would get involved, building sets and making costumes. Now they just drop the kids off at the door.”
The academy has four instructors.
Perez said up to 400 people used to attend recitals presented on the raised concrete platform on the side of the main house. Older students now are usually more interested in making money than in the glamour of show business, she said.
“But the glamour is starting to come back,” she said. “I’m trying to preserve a little bit of it. Maybe I’m living in a fantasy world all by myself, but I’m going to keep it that way.”
This article originally appeared in the Santa Ana Community Edition section of The Register (now the Orange County Register), pages 1 and 3, on September 5, 1984.
Thursday, October 7, 2010 – 07:23 AM
Melani, that’s just fascinating! Did you sense the greatness of Joanne and Pepito when you were a child? All your research just really blows me away! Truly, you have a special gift. Thanks for sharing your good work with all who enjoy these great artists of days gone by. Little did Joanne know, that her finest student would be a journalist rather than a dancer! We are so proud of you, Melani…..and I think Joanne and Pepito would be too! Thanks for keeping us posted. We are always taking extra steps to screen for Pepito/Joanne information. We don’t have a nose like you Melani, but always hope we can just trip across something important for you. Thanks for keeping us updated. Hope you know how special we think you are! Send our best to your family as well. I’m sure the children are growing like weeds!
Best wishes always, Roger
Tuesday, October 19, 2010 – 02:53 AM
Melani I posted pictures of my daughter and Ms Joanne with the same girls in this article. Facebook Lisann Martinez photo album Pepito & Joanne. I will be adding more pics soon.