Cast members from ‘¿Qué Pasa, USA?’ are upset about new stage show
Juana and Pepe Peña want to know qué pasa, Miami?
New York actress Ana Margarita Martínez Casado was surprised when a Miami cousin called to congratulate her on reprising her role as Juana in a stage production of “¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.?,” the 1970s sitcom that made Martínez Casado famous.
One problem: Martínez Casado knew nothing about it. “Niña, what are you talking about?” she answered.
In West Miami, retired actor Manolo Villaverde is angry enough to start thumping cocotazos to the head.
For the last month, his neighbors have been asking him about “¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.? Today…40 Years Later.” After seeing the pictures used to promote the play, they assumed he’s returning to his TV role as Pepe Peña, the patriarch of the first bilingual family on television.
If that’s what they thought when they paid as much as $200 for tickets to one of nine shows at the Adrienne Arsht Center in May then they are going to be disappointed, he tells them.
“What happens when the theme song plays, the curtain goes up and then come the questions, ‘Where is Juana? Where is Pepe?’ ” Villaverde said. “It’s not a bitterness I feel but a hurt. What hurts is they’re using our images and making it seem like we’re the ones that are going to be in it.”
The actors — along with writers and creators of “¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.?” — say this stage production is the latest indignity from WPBT-2, the South Florida public television station that co-produced the original series with a federal grant from 1977-1980.
“¿Qué Pasa, USA?” was supposed to be a sort-of after-school special to help recently arrived Cubans and their first-generation children adapt to life in a new country with a bit of levity. Instead it became the “Modern Family” of South Florida on a fraction of a Hollywood budget. It was the first bilingual sitcom on television, built on a cast of professional Cuban writers and actors in exile, and it launched the careers of several new ones, including Steven Bauer, who went on to co-star in “Scarface.” The show also featured the screen debut of Andy Garcia.
By the time its four-year, 39-episode run was up, it had won six regional Emmys and was being broadcast on 121 different stations across the country. The New York Times wrote that the show “puts many commercial productions in the genre to shame,” and the Los Angeles Times praised it as “genuinely funny, though it treats generational and cultural problems with respect and dignity.”
Meanwhile, the cast and crew signed government contracts with the Department of Education that ensured the show would be free for educational purposes — and forfeited their rights to royalties. But that has not prevented WPBT-2 from using the show over the last 40 years to promote its station, sell thousands of DVD box sets, and now, to co-produce a stage show at Miami’s premier venue.
Over the years, the station told donors that contributions would help them create more shows like “¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.?” But the station has never produced another series like it. And the cast never saw another dime.
“What I would like for people to know is that because of contracts signed 40 years ago, the actual, original talent hasn’t gotten a penny more,” said Luis Santeiro, the show’s head writer. “Something that was supposed to be a not-for-profit production has ended up making money for quite a few others that had nothing to do with the show’s success.”
Three Facebook pages and two Instagram handles create daily memes of the Peñas and pitch box sets. WPBT-2 manages one of those Facebook accounts, where you can buy the series for $100 with an annual station membership. Video clips of the family — Pepe smacking son Joe over the head, Abuela rolling her eyes, daughter Carmen going out on a date with a “super chaperone” — keep the Peñas alive for another generation of Cuban Americans.
But for the cast, those clips are bittersweet reminders that they don’t control their fates.
WPBT-2 says it uses the show — and any proceeds from it — to advance the public station’s mission of serving the arts in South Florida.
“We’re well within our rights to do anything we want with it [the show],” said Jeff Huff, COO of South Florida PBS, which owns WPBT-2 and WXEL. “We’re well within our rights to work with this theater company or any other company.”
Those who wrote the show and brought the characters to life aren’t so sure Huff is right. They say WPBT-2 owes the original cast a debt of gratitude, at least, and, at most, a cut of the money the station has made over the years.
“It’s just wrong,” said Bernard Lechowick, who directed all but one episode of “¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A?” and went on to a career writing and directing shows such as “Knots Landing.” “It’s wrong not to give some kind of acknowledgment for their contribution. And the way you acknowledge that in this business is with money.”
“I gave birth to them!”
“¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.?” might never have happened if not for the free money.
Jose “Pepe” Bahamonde was the director of bilingual programs at Miami-Dade Community College’s downtown campus when he got a call from a colleague who was writing a grant proposal for a government-funded television show at WPBT-2.
What was then called the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare wanted to fund a series of television shows — local and national — to address issues minorities faced in public schools, especially so soon after the end of segregation.
Television could be used for more than entertainment. It could be used to educate children and help them grow up without prejudice, Sen. Walter Mondale testified as he introduced legislation to create a program under the Emergency School Aid Act called ESAA-TV. He pointed to the success of public television show “Sesame Street,” which research showed had helped children learn and connect socially with others of different backgrounds.
This is the sort of show the late Manny Mendoza, a professor of social science at Miami-Dade Community College, wanted to create when he co-wrote a proposal with his partner, Julio Avello, and WPBT-2. He approached Bahamonde about making the show happen as executive producer.
The show, Mendoza wrote in his proposal to the government, would be bilingual and involve three generations of a Cuban-American family in Miami. He loved “All in the Family,” and thought a sitcom was a great way to broach serious topics with a smile.
The fictional family would face issues that South Florida families were facing in real life: the language barrier, race, changing cultural norms for their children, dating, teenage pregnancy, religion, sexuality. In short, what many South Florida recent arrivals — and the locals who received them — were facing in a changing Miami.
Bahamonde, who had a master’s in comparative linguistics, had worked on several local shows, including the first show that Channel 23 produced in Miami. He set about finding a head writer to write a pilot. He landed on Luis Santeiro, who had just left another ESAA-TV produced show, “Carrascolendas,” shot in Texas.
When Santeiro, who fled Cuba as a child and grew up in Coral Gables, spoke with Bahamonde, he was overcome by this story of a family much like his own.
With his house full of brothers and sisters and extended family, he walked to the Coral Gables library and spent the next week writing the pilot on a yellow legal pad. It was the story of a girl, Carmen, coming of age and turning 15 — torn by her parents and abuelos’ desire for her to have a big debutant ball, and her own, more American desires. Santeiro called the episode “Fiesta de Quince.”
“I knew right away, ‘This is the guy,’” Bahamonde said.
All the characters were named after Bahamonde’s own family and hailed from his family’s home of Guanabacoa, Cuba.
“I gave birth to them!” Bahamonde said. “People forget with time.”
When his secretary, Rita Perez, said, “Ay, qué pasa that we can’t come up with a name for this show?” Bahamonde knew he had a title.
“ ‘Qué Pasa’ was a phrase Americans knew,” he said.
Miami was ripe with talent to cast the Peñas. Most of the show’s older actors had worked at CMQ, the major radio and television broadcasting station in Cuba before the revolution.
Villaverde, who played Pepe Peña, had learned at the heel of the late Luis Oquendo, the show’s abuelo, whom he called a friend and mentor. Martínez Casado, who played mother Juana, was stage-trained in opera and zarzuelas. And Velia Martínez, who played the Spanish-speaking, holier-than-thou grandmother set in her ways, was born in Tampa, fluent in English and a longtime actress in Mexico and Cuba.
“Qué Pasa” was a chance for Rocky Echevarría to put his film school instruction at the University of Miami to work as young Joe Peña before changing his name to Steven Bauer to pursue Hollywood. And for Ana Margo, who grew up in her parents’ theater production company, it was a paying pastime while she attended UM.
A lot of shows had tried to get off the ground in Miami before “Qué Pasa” took off. For the actors, it was welcome work.
“We used to say Miami is the city of pilots, because a lot of pilots got made but no shows,” Martínez Casado recalled during a phone call from her home in New York, where she has continued to work for the Spanish Repertory Theater for almost 30 years.
Working on a budget
The entire first and second season — 20 episodes — were made with ESAA-TV’s grant of $250,000 a year. That’s $25,000 an episode to pay writers, actors, the director, makeup and hair artists, prop masters and secretaries. The next two seasons, the grants rose to $300,000 a season.
By comparison, Carroll O’Connor in the lead role of Archie Bunker in “All in the Family” was making $200,000 an episode.
“The contracts were una miseria, a pittance,” Martínez Casado recalled. “But the series brought us a lot of joy and positivity. I was happy to have done it.”
Bahamonde stretched the budget. WPBT’s employee lounge, with a vending machine, was the green room. Props came from Bahamonde’s house and wardrobe from his closets. Villaverde remembers sitting on the sink in the men’s bathroom while someone did his makeup. He convinced musician Dennis Alonso Brito to write the theme song for pennies. And the artwork, from the photography of the cast to title graphics, a friend kicked in for free.
Santeiro’s pilot aired in May 1977 and by January of the next year, the show had gone national — and the country loved it. It was reviewed in dozens of publications across the country.
“The acting is as good as, and often better than, you’ll find on any sitcom on the air,” the Houston Post wrote that January.
“Juana and Pepe Peña may become the next Ozzie and Harriet — Latin style,” People magazine wrote.
The show even sparked think pieces about a changing America in The New York Times and Newsday — but there was a catch.
Because the series was for ESAA-TV, the government mandated that the cast’s contracts include a buyout for all future royalties. This way, ESAA-TV could make the shows available free to any public or commercial television stations without the stations having to pay royalties. The only cost was copying and delivering the tapes.
No one expected a government-funded PBS show to become a runaway success — and that may have been the fatal flaw for “¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.?”
Finding a new life
The reason “Qué Pasa” went off the air is mundane. Head writer Santeiro joined the writer’s guild in 1978, and a contract dispute with WPBT meant he could not return to write the final six episodes. He went on to become one of the longest running writers for “Sesame Street,” sharing in 14 daytime Emmys.
In the meantime, ESAA-TV changed the rules. A show could no longer simply reapply for a grant; it had to apply as a new project.
Either WPBT could apply for another regional grant and continue “Qué Pasa,” or it could apply for a national grant, with payouts in the millions of dollars — but with a completely different show. “Qué Pasa’s” premise didn’t fulfill the grant’s requirements for a national audience.
WPBT and Mendoza’s Community Action & Research decided to go for the big money — effectively killing “¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.?” They took a shot with two new projects, with Bahamonde as the executive for both. Lechowick collaborated on a pilot for “Hot Stuff,” centered around college kids in a campus cafeteria. Santeiro returned to write a treatment for “South Side,” involving teenagers of different races and backgrounds in a public high school.
Neither won the grant. “¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.?” went off the air — and no one noticed.
WPBT continued to play reruns, but in a time before the internet, there was no public outcry.
“If there had been more people asking, ‘Where is ‘Qué Pasa?’ We want it back,’ if there had been a Twitter storm, it would’ve helped. But there were no calls to the station,” said Shep Morgan, a former WPBT-2 executive who helped produce the show. “The Cuban-American community, at least publicly, seemed to let it fade away. To me, that was always surprising.”
The show might simply have faded into a footnote in television history if not for advances in technology.
In 1997, Galavision, the international cable arm of Univision with more than 10 million viewers on 528 cable systems, used “¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.?” as a way to introduce new, prime-time television programming focused on English-speaking and bilingual audiences.
Back-to-back reruns of “¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.?” ran as a lead-in to “Funny is Funny,” an in-house produced bilingual comedy series starring comedian Carlos Mencía that went on to amass critical acclaim, and the talk show “Cafe Ole with Giselle Fernandez,” a veteran journalist on English television.
In effect, “Qué Pasa” — which Galavision got for free as part of the decades-old agreement with ESAA-TV — became an unpaid commercial for the new shows.
In fact, a Galavision executive Michelle Bella, director of marketing and communications for Galavision, all but took ownership of the program on the press release distributed widely.
“The success of our bilingual comedy program ‘¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.’ on Galavision has enabled the network to segue into a bilingual programming block,” she wrote at the time. “Galavision’s Spanish-language programming appeals to every member of the U.S. Hispanic family.
“By offering a bilingual programming block, Galavision will now tap into the English-speaking bilingual Hispanics who encompass the remainder of the U.S. Hispanic family.”
Writer Santeiro was hosting a get-together at his New York City apartment when a guest who worked for Galavision at the time noted, “Boy, your show is making tons of money for us,” Santeiro recalled him saying. “I calmly replied, ‘I’m the last person you should be saying that to because I’m not making any money from it — and neither should anyone else.’ ”
Networks couldn’t show ads during the show, but they could show them before and after. And the stars of “Qué Pasa” weren’t entitled contractually to any money.
“Qué Pasa was used and abused in ways not foreseen by ESAA,” Bahamonde said. “The example from Galavision is a clear illustration of ‘Qué Pasa’ being used to make money indirectly.”
Who owns the show?
And that led to a new question: Who owned the rights to the show?
The shows were, in a sense, a property of the U.S government, which controlled their distribution. But they were also a co-production of WPBT-2 and Mendoza’s nonprofit, Community Action & Research.
Santeiro remembers getting a call one day from the actress and singer Maria Conchita Alonso saying she had bought the rights to “¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.?” from the late Manny Mendoza.
“But what exactly did you buy?” Santeiro recalls asking her.
The show’s original director, Lechowick, says he was paid $5,000 to buy out his rights to the show. But neither Santeiro nor Bahamonde — nor anyone else that was part of the cast — received that buyout offer.
Then came the DVDs.
Since 2004, WPBT has been selling five-disc box sets of “¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.?” for $100 with an annual station membership. And another internet company, Nostalgia Entertainment, which WPBT-2’s legal team has been trying to shut down, has been selling box sets online for $39.
The actors don’t see any of that money. They say they never even received copies of their own from the station.They understood that the contracts they signed kept them from seeing royalties, but the DVD sales struck them as a for-profit venture outside of their daytime educational contract.
“I don’t like to be exploited. And as an actor, it happens all the time,” Martínez Casado said.
And now, there’s the stage show.
The original cast and crew say the upcoming show, “¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.? Today … 40 Years Later,” exploits their work. They say the rights they may have given up shouldn’t extend to this new work.
The show is being promoted through a new website, Instagram handle and Facebook page.
“Today, the abuelos are gone, the parents have become grandparents, and the kids have kids of their own,” reads the summary on the Arsht Center’s ticket site. “Now, it’s up to the next generation to continue the Peña legacy, facing new challenges and forging a new future for the Peña household.”
However, of the original actors, only two ancillary characters, who played daughter Carmen’s high school friends, have signed on to the show. The actress who played Carmen, Ana Margo, is said to be making a cameo. Villaverde and Martínez Casado were not asked to be part of the show. And the actors who played the grandparents have died.
WPBT-2 maintains that it has the rights to the show. Huff, who was a graphic designer on “Qué Pasa,” said he had no comment on how the station resolved the issues of ownership.
“We are a nonprofit. Whatever proceeds we receive through the theater are going to further our mission,” Huff said. “What we do is use the proceeds … to create more quality programming.”
How the station is able to do so is a mystery to Julio Avello, who co-wrote the original grant as a Community Action & Research partner. The former Miami Dade College professor, living in Miami, said he also was left out of the loop by WPBT-2 and his late colleague, Mendoza, about who owns the show.
“You ask me and I ask you: How did this happen? This wasn’t supposed to be like this,” Avello said. “They want to steal the whole thing and not share the acknowledgment with Pepe and Luis who were the genius behind the show.”
Bahamonde said he called years ago to get copies of the original contracts only to be told by an official at the Department of Education that the ESAA-TV files had been destroyed in a fire. The Miami Herald contacted several government archives, none of which had copies of the original contract the station and its co-producer signed with ESAA.
“Although we have 2.5 million metadata records in our collection, we do not have ownership information on many of these programs, including ‘Qué Pasa, USA,’ ” wrote Alan Gevinson, Library of Congress Project Director at the American Archive of Public Broadcasting.
Nelson Albareda, the stage show’s co-director and executive producer with Loud and Live, said he approached Santeiro and Bahamonde about helping to put on the new show.
“I did this as a passion project. I wanted to bring it back and pay homage to it,” said Albareda, a Cuban-American who grew up watching the show on reruns. “This was about inclusion instead of exclusiveness.”
But the original creators said too many years of WPBT-2 merchandising “¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.?” without acknowledging the original cast and actors made the idea unpalatable.
What show the audience will see when the play opens in the spring is a mystery to them. Bahamonde, who recommended a former student to write the script, said he didn’t want to know anything about the story.
Villaverde and Martínez Casado have tried to put the past behind them. Villaverde continued to act after the show ended, most notably as abuelo on the Nickelodeon children’s show “Gullah Gullah Island.” They have vivid memories of their days on set and have kept in touch occasionally over the years. But they have buried Pepe and Juana Peña.
“How can I not feel resentment?” Villaverde said. “I don’t need the money. What I would like is some kind of acknowledgment.”