S T A R R L I G H T
By Steve Starr
On November 28, 1990, the handsome icon of style wrote a letter to me after I sent him a photo of himself which appears in my book, Picture Perfect. It read, "Dear Steve, The 1930's and 40's was an era of elegance and refinement in this country.
Sad to say it is long gone, and we are faced with an era of great amorality. Many thanks for the picture. I am delighted to have it. My very kindest regards, Cesar Romero."
Cesar Julio Romero Jr. was born February 15, 1907 in New York City. His mother, Maria Maniela, was a concert singer whose father reportedly was famed Cuban poet and revolutionary, Jose Marti, and his father, Italian- born Senor Romero was an importer-exporter of sugar refining machinery.
Young Cesar attended the Collegiate School For Boys and later the beautiful Riverdale Country School, where he studied dance, art, and acting. He took a job at a New Jersey department store, and then at the National City Bank, but quickly learned that type of career was not for him.
The handsome youth formed a dance team with debutante Elizabeth Higgins, heiress to the Higgins Ink fortune. Soon, they were booked into New York's most exclusive nightclubs, including the Club Richman, the St. Regis Roof, and the Ambassador.
The popular pair made a Broadway debut in 1927 in Lady Do, in which they tangoed, waltzed, and foxtrotted through fifty-six performances at the Liberty Theatre. With his next dancing partner, Nita Vermill, Romero raised her high above his head and during a series of swirls suddenly experienced excruciating appendicitis.
Though he fulfilled his dancing contract, he decided to slow down, and sought acting roles. Romero landed parts in various Broadway plays, including Dinner At Eight and All Points West. In 1933, he was spotted by a talent scout who brought him to Hollywood for his first film, The Shadow Laughs (1933). Sometimes referred to as “The New Valentino,” the startlingly handsome, six-foot-two Romero, with a flashing smile and gleaming ebony hair appeared as a gigolo in his second film, The Thin Man (1934), a highly successful movie with Myrna Loy and William Powell which spawned many sequels.
Usually playing the "Latin Lover," Romero often depicted characters of indeterminate nationalities. Some of his other films include the elaborate The Devil Is A Woman (1935) with Marlene Dietrich, and Wee Willie Winkie (1937) with Shirley Temple. Equally at home in musical comedies, Romero appeared in Weekend In Havana (1941) with Alice Faye, Springtime In The Rockies (1942) with Betty Grable, Coney Island (1943), again with Betty Grable, and Wintertime (1943) with skating star Sonja Henie. From 1940-1941, Romero starred as the "Cisco Kid" in six western movies which included The Gay Caballero (1940). Coincidentally, in five different movies, he played a character named "Duke," one of which included the role of Duke Santos in the original Ocean's Eleven (1960).
Cesar, nicknamed "Butch," returned from military service with the Coast Guard in 1946, and Twentieth Century Fox decided to send him and his close friend, handsome Tyrone Power, with whom it was rumored he had an affair, on a good-will tour to Latin America. In Buenos Aires, Juan Peron presented Cesar with an elaborate scabbard holding a knife meant for use as a letter opener, and gave both actors a miniature sword.
Then, on October 1, Romero and Power lunched with Juan's soon-to-be immortalized wife, Eva. The actors returned to Hollywood together to film Captain From Castile, in which the still dazzling Romero gave his best performance as the ruthless Spanish explorer and conquerer, Hernando Cortes.
Famous, also, as a "confirmed bachelor," the "Latin from Manhattan" was Hollywood's most professional and popular escort. He always dove into the nightlife and the social world, and there was rarely an opening of a film or art gallery where the debonair, sensationally dressed man was not seen with a famous star on his arm, such as Joan Crawford, Linda Darnell, Barbara Stanwyck, Lucille Ball, Ann Sheridan, Jane Wyman, or Ginger Rogers. It was reported that Cesar's closets held 30 tuxedos, 200 sport coats, and 500 suits. Romero rarely spent an evening in his Brentwood home, which he shared with his sister Maria. It was well known in Hollywood that the likable Cesar was gay, and it was well assumed that after he dropped off his beautiful date, he would end up in the arms of a current male lover.
In 1953, Romero starred in a 39-episode television serial, Passport To Danger, and he continued to do guest spots on dozens of televised shows that include the special Lucy Takes A Cruise To Havana (1957), Zorro (1957), 77 Sunset Strip (1958), Fantasy Island (1978), and Murder She Wrote (1984). Once, Romero danced with Carmen Miranda on a live broadcast of The Milton Berle Show. Bedecked in glittering sequins and colorful fruits, Carmen forgot her panties while changing between acts, and when Cesar twirled her above his head, she exposed herself to millions of dumbfounded television viewers across the country.
Enduringly popular, Romero, though wealthy, continued to work steadily throughout the 1950's and 1960's, acting in films every single year. He appeared in five movies in 1965 alone. Romero had a great sense of humor. Once, after taping a talk show featuring him and a beauty queen, the technician began removing their clip-on microphones, Romero quipped, "You can do the young lady first. The young queen before the old queen."
In the 1960's, as most of Romero's contemporaries from Hollywood's golden era began to retire or die off, he became an idol to a whole new generation, reborn as the "Joker" in television's Batman series. Romero refused to shave his famous moustache for the role, and it was covered with white makeup. With his new popularity among a young crowd, he appeared in three successful Walt Disney comedy films: The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969), Now You See It, Now You Don't (1972), and The Strongest Man In The World (1975).
In 1968, Romero was named one of the “most beautiful men in the world" by T.V. Guide Magazine with "hair the color of stainless steel," an "alert, erect posture," and "charm to spare." Romero continued to appear in films almost yearly throughout the 1970's and 1980's. In 1985, the still handsome and popular man was cast as Peter Stavros, Jane Wyman's love interest on the popular television series, Falcon Crest.
Romero said of his many beautiful female co-stars, "They had individuality and a flair for glamour…years ago the gals were real stars. There was an excitement to the business then."
The elegant Cesar Romero, loved and adored by his friends and fans, fell ill with bronchitis and pneumonia and died of complications from a blood clot on New Year's Day, 1994.
Steve Starr is the author of "Picture Perfect-Deco Photo Frames 1926-1946," published by Rizzoli International Publications, 1991. A photographer, designer, artist, and movie star historian, he is the owner of Steve Starr Studios, specializing in original Art Deco artifacts and photo frames, and celebrating its 39th anniversary in 2006.
Starr's personal collection of over 950 gorgeous frames is filled with images of Hollywood's most elegant luminaries. His column, STARRLIGHT, on movie stars of the 1920's, 1930's, and 1940's, appears in various publications that include Entertainment Magazine Online, Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine, and the Windy City Times.
Visit www.SteveStarrStudios.com and enter THE STARRLIGHT ROOM where you can view some of his beautiful frame collection, read STARRLIGHT stories, and enjoy photographs, autographs and letters he has received from some of his favorite luminaries. Email Steve at SSSChicago@ameritech.net
STARRGAZERS-Radiant Photography by Steve Starr is available for portraits and events and at particular locations in Chicago. For further information phone 773-463-8017.
Photo of Steve Starr at the Whitehall Hotel, Chicago, January 28, 2006, taken by NBC News Director Harold “Sandy” Whiteley
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