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Mr. Smits Goes to Washington

Jimmy Smits talks softly and without a big shtick about the education of Hollywood, his love of cigars and a possible (scripted) move to the West Wing.
Betsy Model
From the Print Edition:
Jimmy Smits, May/June 2005

(continued from page 1)

That different culture—especially food, music and dance—was to play, 40 years later, a big role in why he chose to invest in The Conga Room, a Los Angeles-area nightclub that features live Latin music four nights a week. Although the music industry's term for much of what plays there might be called "world music," it is, primarily, Latin, and the dance primarily salsa.

A few days after the initial interview, Smits suggests having dinner that Saturday night at the club's restaurant, Boca. Part of the meal is spent reminiscing with the club's majority owner, Brad Gluckstein, about how they'd met and how Smits (as well as others like Jennifer Lopez, Paul Rodriguez and Sheila E.) had become an investor.

Gluckstein, a former real estate executive, admits that it was a tough sell. Throwing his arms wide to indicate the two-story building that is now, on a Saturday night, packed to the rafters with people, Gluckstein says, "This was a Jack LaLanne health club when we first saw it…an abandoned Jack LaLanne health club. Jimmy and I had met [at an event] featuring Latin music, salsa, so I knew that he got the music part of the idea, but it's hard to pitch a concept or investment in a dirty, abandoned building that's got pigeons flying around."

Fortunately, Smits saw what Gluckstein saw, and The Conga Room, with its restaurant, bar area, dance floor, smoking room and myriad little meeting areas, was born in 1998. This was, Smits says, "well before the explosion of popular interest in Latin music that came with Ricky Martin and Marc Anthony." The concept went over big, not only with the heavily Latino population that lives in Los Angeles, but with the jaded, high-brow Hollywood crowd that began to pack the place for the chance to dance to everyone from the Buena Vista Social Club and Tito Puente to Celia Cruz, Carlos Santana and José Feliciano.

Smits admits that looking back on the years when he was a transplanted Brooklyn boy suddenly spending his "wonder years," as he calls them, in Puerto Rico, it would have been tough imagining that the strangely different rhythms and language he was hearing on the radio—a far cry from the Beatles tunes playing back home—would have led to a fierce pride in the music, cuisine and culture that's now such a part of his life as an adult.

The move to Puerto Rico with his mom and sisters, Smits says, was a life-altering one for him, not just physically but in terms of helping to define the man he's become. "Looking back now as an adult? It was the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me, because it really kind of formed the identity that I have and developed my 'Latino-ness' in so many ways—my appreciation of our music, our history, the island's history—in a way that I probably never would have, had we not gone."

Smits took that newly developed "Latino-ness" (including the ability to speak Spanish fluently) to an area known as East New York, a neighborhood that he refers to as, simply, "a tough part of Brooklyn."

Smits began taking drama classes in junior high, as much for the camaraderie among the young fellow thespians and set builders as for the opportunity to appear in Guys and Dolls and Damn Yankees.

By the time Smits got to Brooklyn's Thomas Jefferson High, though, tough choices at a tough school awaited. He played varsity football but, because there was a conflict between being on both an athletic team and in the drama club, Smits had to make a choice between a letterman's jacket and the opportunity to inflict pain, or multiple wardrobe changes and the opportunity to emote.

He smiles as he describes making the decision. "We were in a tough neighborhood and I'd made varsity on a [championship] football team, and the team was equally known around the city as being sort of tough," says Smits, who at 49 and 6 feet 3 inches still has the long, lean body of a natural athlete. "But you couldn't be in the drama club and [on] the football team because of a conflict in classes, and in football you had to spend more time working out and getting a twenty-four-inch neck!"

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