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The Great Cafés: Cafe Impresso at El Ateneo Grand Splendid, Buenos Aires

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The Café Impresso, in El Ateneo Grand Splendid at Avenida Santa Fe 1860 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, immediately fits the bill for the basics of a great café. All is here: a well-appointed wait staff, real ceramic plates, glass glasses, proper napkins, an accommodating attitude, and all the food and drink that would be served in any very good Argentine confitería. Generally these days, few cafes anywhere provide these things, and to find one that does almost comes as a surprise, but it is not these things alone that make the Impresso a great café.

In January, 2008, the British journal, The Guardian, named El Ateneo Grand Splendid one of the five most beautiful book stores in the world, and it’s true that a good book store on the premises can help a café’s effort to be great, although not always, as we know from the many Barnes and Noble stores, to which a café is attached as a pedestrian necessity to increase book sales. The pastries served at these places are like large cow flops with hard-edged whipped cream and a cheery on top.

A truly great café is so because of what has happened on the premises, of who once owned it, of who wrote about it – or in it. The person who allows El Ateneo Grand Splendid’s Café Impresso to ascend to levels only dreamed of by others is Max Glucksmann.

To be sure, his is not a household name outside of Argentina, but were it not for Max Glucksmann, the Argentine recording and film industries would not have developed as quickly as they did or, especially in recording, with such formidable results.

An Austrian, Glucksmann migrated with his family to Buenos Aires in 1890 when he was 15-years-old. Max was a very industrious young man and went to work soon after his arrival in Argentina for the company of Lepage y Compañia, a photography studio. He was one of three employees in a shop that was seven by twenty-five meters in its entirety. He often bragged later in life, shrugging his shoulders in the Buenos Aires manner of humorous acceptance of one’s fate, that his first salary was 50 pesos a month. Even in the late nineteenth century, this was not a lot.

Lepage y Compañia recognized the coming importance of the moving picture, and expanded its operations to that primitive, but exciting art in 1900. In the meantime, the possibility for recording voice and music had also become a reality. In a 1931 interview, Max explained what had been happening in Buenos Aires. “Forty years ago, the first Lioret phonographs were imported from France. They used celluloid cylinders. Then came cylinders made of wax. And finally in 1900 disks appeared, even though they were pretty bad.”

Max understood that, although these first recordings were mostly by opera singers like Enrico Caruso, the real market lay in popular music artists of the period. In a day in which radio was in its own infancy, these recordings were usually the only way large numbers of people could hear different kinds of music.

“When the gramophone really came into its own in Argentina,” Max said, “it was thanks to the popularity that, day by day, was enjoyed by ‘criolla’ music (music from Argentina itself). From the time of the ‘payadores’ (itinerant singers) like Negro Gazcón, Gabino Ezeiza, Villoldo and others, who were singing just as the disk was perfecting itself.”

Max, recognizing clearly in 1900 that cinema and recording were the coming industries, applied himself to his work so intently that, in 1908, when Lepage y Compañia now had one hundred fifty employees, he bought the company. Soon thereafter, he built the first recording studio in Argentina, taking advantage of new technology that allowed recordings to be made by the thousands. He also worked to establish the legal rights of music authorship for performers, something that had not previously existed in Argentina.

Max also saw the attractiveness of providing a very comfortable place for people to view the new movies coming from Europe, New York, and the upstart Hollywood. In 1919 he built a 1,000-seat cinema on the Avenida Santa Fe, then as now one of the fashionable shopping streets in Buenos Aires. Calling it the “Grand Splendid,” he showed all the latest movies, and the theater was an instant sensation. It also had a large stage, and he mounted live shows that featured the many musicians he was recording.

One of these was Carlos Gardel.

A former street singer, Gardel had made an early reputation as half of the Razzani-Gardel duo that was popular on the Buenos Aires music scene before and during World War I. Eventually the two split up, and Carlos Gardel continued on as a single, signed to an early recording contract by Max. Carlos was still a “criollo” singer whose music had a country flavor heavily influenced by the music of the Argentine pampas and the gauchos, but he was an urban kid who had been brought as an infant to Buenos Aires by his mother, a French woman from Lyons.

As in many great cities, there were populations in Buenos Aires that had been forced to emigrate from other countries by war or great economic difficulties. There was chaotic urban noise and emotional dissociation, the alienation that comes from the break-up of families, from the loss of community, the anger and rage of having to fight so hard for what in the end can be a meaningless urban existence. Gardel was no stranger to this, and his first solo recording, in 1917, was a tango entitled “Mi noche triste,” about a man sitting alone in his Buenos Aires room, crushed because his lover has just left him.

It was the first such recording ever made. Tango had existed for years before this, but more as a folkloric music and dance that celebrated rural happiness, fine horses, and the loveliness of country girls. This that Gardel was singing was new – and instantly popular.

“El espejo está empañado / y parece que ha llorado / por la ausencia de tu amor.” (“The mirror mists / and appears to have wept / with the absence of your love.”)

Carlos Gardel went on to become the biggest-selling music star in the Spanish-speaking world, an international phenomenon of enormous proportions. He and Razzano came together again on one memorable occasion. On October 12, 1924 they made one of the first live radio broadcasts to be produced from the studio of “Lo Grand Splendid,” Max’s important new station that was housed on the upper floor of his theater.

Gardel himself also became a movie star, so well thought of by Hollywood that by 1934 he was being prepared by Paramount Studios to become the next Maurice Chevalier. On March 5, 1934, Max arranged for a short wave radio hook-up, broadcast by Radio Splendid in Argentina — from the same studios atop the Grand Splendid Theater — and NBC in the United States.

The artists were Carlos Gardel and his long-time guitarists, Guillermo Desiderio Barbieri and Angel Domingo Riverol. These men had accompanied Carlos on many of his most memorable recordings, much of the music also written by them. This occasion was memorable for quite a different reason, since in fact Carlos was singing in New York while the guitarists were playing in Buenos Aires. It was one of the first such international broadcasts ever made.

Carlos’s ambitions for international film star status came to naught. He was killed in an airplane accident in Columbia on June 24, 1935, still an occasion of national mourning in Argentina. All of Carlos’s recordings are in print to this day and readily available on CD and the Internet.

For me, the Café Impresso, which is located on the stage of the old Grand Splendid Theater, is a great pleasure simply because of all this history – but there is more. . .

El Ateneo Grand Splendid is now a very fine bookstore in a country that prides itself on its literate population and its reading. Perhaps there are more bookstores per capita in London or New York, but I wouldn’t bet on it. The Argentines read; and if you read Spanish, you can find in this store and in this old theater enough to keep you going, well, for as long as the theater stands.

Maybe the best of all is that the ownership has made a clear commitment to keeping the place in pristine condition. The original design, basically that of a 19th century Italian music hall, has been kept. The enormous circular room that houses the store has three levels of box seats, two of which are now occupied by gallery space, the third by books. The theater walls and the external bays of the boxes are painted white with extensive neo-classical decoration and ornament in gold.

The ceiling, very high up, is a grand cupola with an original mural by an Italian artist named Nazareno Orlandi. Not quite The Sistine Chapel, but it will do for the bookstore. Where the main floor seats once were is now filled with bookshelves, and the curious reader of almost any kind of writing can find something of interest. My own pursuits are in contemporary South American fiction, and just about everything of importance in that sphere is here.

The one drawback the English-speaking reader encounters at the Grand Splendid is the absence of books in English. You’ll find only a few of the kinds of paperbacks you can get in any airport bookstore in the United States, but El Ateneo Grand Splendid can be forgiven. If you read Spanish, this store is a great treasure. Having a coffee at The Impresso — perhaps on the very spot where Carlos Gardel reprised “Mi noche triste” for an adoring audience — only adds to the experience.

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About Terence Clarke