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Heartbreak and triumph at the lingerie-model tryouts for 'Alamo Heights S.A.' TV pilot

It was 5 in the afternoon and I was on Highway 281, stuck in peak-hour traffic, cursing myself for not having fixed the air conditioning in my car. The humidity had crept back into San Antonio and even though all the windows were open I knew I was doomed. My flesh gleamed like meaty flypaper.

click to enlarge screens-alamohts-fin_330jpg
Actors and models audition for Alamo Heights S.A.,
a local television pilot about a lingerie dynasty.
Second from left, the new "family" gets to know each other.


Summer is mean in South Texas. This is one of the reasons why San Antonio is not a destination for the jet-set crowd. High rollers live in New York or Los Angeles and fly to exotic locations in the Caribbean. The jewel of South Texas caters to a different vacation crowd, mostly families from Oklahoma and Arkansas who tuck their holiday T-shirts neatly into their shorts and come to pay respects at the Alamo.

I was thinking of these things as I weaved slowly through traffic toward the North Broadway Performing Arts Center, where auditions for a TV pilot were being held. The show, a local production titled Alamo Heights S.A, has lofty aspirations. "For years, Hispanics have been portrayed on television as maids, gardeners, gang members, and drug dealers," states the promotional packet. "Things are slowly changing. ALAMO HEIGHTS S.A. is going to do for Hispanics what Bill Cosby did for African Americans."

Alamo Heights follows two super-rich Latino families as they preside over a lingerie and swimsuit empire. The corporate headquarters for their high-dollar, fast-action world is in the San Antonio district of Alamo Heights. Since it involves the lingerie industry, the drama promises to be "The sexiest show on television."

I don't remember seeing much T&A on The Cosby Show, and I have no memory of Heathcliff Huxtable strolling around in Speedos. What The Cosby Show did was portray an intelligent and wise black family, a rare sight in the media until then. Sadly, Alamo Heights believes that a drama showing contrived, sexy Mexican Americans behaving badly with wads of money is noble because it's broadening the Hispanic presence on TV.

"Must be attractive, physically fit 'Baywatch' types with lots of sex appeal," the casting open call demanded of potential actors. This ruled me out. I bring a Maori rugby-player look to the table, a type of beauty that is too raw for Alamo Heights. Plus, they were looking for people who don't sweat, even in severe humidity.

I arrived a few minutes late to the auditions. I knocked on the door and a guy in a shirt and tie answered. "I'm here for Alamo Heights," I said. He assumed I was auditioning and noticed that I didn't look like David Hasselhoff. My T-shirt, bought used from Texas Thrift, had a painting on the front showing a kitten playing with a flower. I had hoped it would take the edge off my mean rugby looks and I would come across as a harmless geek that could be trusted. He looked puzzled for a few seconds. "We are not ready," he finally said, and I had just enough time to say, "That's cool, but ..." when he closed the door.

Minutes later, members of the production crew arrived and I introduced myself to executive producer and creator Rick Cuéllar. He led me into the audition room where he showed me headshots of prospective cast members, all of them beautiful, with manicured eyebrows and chiseled profiles. With more than 250 cast hopefuls and local media already celebrating the hometown production, Cuéllar is a man on a roll, and he swaggers like one. He is confident that the show will be a success because he has studied the mass market and knows what it wants: Each episode begins with a runway show segment in which models sport lingerie and swimsuits. "We plan to sell the lingerie line featured in the show," says Cuéllar.

I watched a group of models audition. They performed a runway strut and exposed their midriffs to the casting directors. After a few soft questions about modesty, the casting directors got down to brass knuckles: "Are you working on your abs at the gym?" The models would inevitably touch their sleek stomachs and answer weakly, as if wounded. After the fifth set of abs I left the audition room to see what the atmosphere was like in the waiting area next door.

I was expecting tension, with actors doing warm-up exercises and eyeing their competition, but the waiting area was a huge ballroom approaching the size of a football field. Dance lessons were scheduled at the same time as the auditions and on the floor smiling dancers were twirling grandly in full pirouettes. The models and actors auditioning for Alamo Heights had gathered near the front of the ballroom. A large number had turned out and, recognizing an opportunity to make a buck, the building's operators had opened the bar. It was a surreal gathering, "Baywatch types" chitchatting with one another while dancers leapt across the dance floor in time with the music. The only evidence that an audition might be underway was a lone actor going over his lines on the other side of the room.

In addition to looking hot, Alamo Heights actors must be bilingual. The show has two sets of scripts, one in English, the other in Spanish. The producers promote this as a unique marketing twist, through which both Anglo and Latin audiences can unite and experience the same show. But it also means if Alamo Heights isn't picked up in the English-speaking market, there's still a chance that a Spanish-language network will buy it.

Auditioning actors performed the same scene from each script, many of them with difficulty, stumbling over lines and concentrating too much on reading verbatim rather than acting. The only one who made a show of the audition was Jorge Ortiz, the lone actor I noticed preparing in the ballroom. But his chances were ruined when a casting director noticed Ortiz' Puerto Rican accent and then asked the torpedo question, "How tall are you?"

The most striking and stylized actors won the major roles that night, each looking as if he or she had fallen out of the pages of a Spanish supermarket tabloid. They were ushered into the audition room and introduced to one another. One of the young actresses was ecstatic, bouncing up and down on her toes with a goofy smile. "I'm going to be interviewed on KENS-5!" she exclaimed.

I drove through the real Alamo Heights later on that night, keeping an eye out for a lingerie store, but I didn't see one. The streets were dead, no sign of high life, just police cars monitoring my speed. The reality is a stark contrast to the Alamo Heights script, but reinventing a location to fit a plot is no crime, simply artistic license. What Alamo Heights does reveal, however, is that it's easier to sow a weed than a truly novel idea.

By Ricardo Perin


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