A Teenage Toreador: The Armando Rodriguez Story

In Baltimore, Maryland in 1989, Rudy Galindo made history as the first Latino American skater to win a U.S. senior pairs title. Seven years later, he became the first Latino American skater to win the U.S. senior men's title. What many may not know is that decades prior to Galindo's historic wins, a trailblazing Latino skater almost beat him to the punch.

Photo courtesy Sacramento Public Library, Digital Collections

Born February 17, 1932 in Benito Juárez, Michoacan, Mexico, Armando Ramon 'Pancho' Rodriguez emigrated with his family to California via Texas two years prior to the start of World War II. He took up skating after getting an eight dollar pair of skates on his thirteenth birthday. His second time on the ice, he took a nasty fall and damaged several teeth. Rather than give up in discouragement, he traded in his eight dollar skates for a twenty dollar pair.

Armando rose to fame as something of a teenage skating sensation during the post-War era, representing the Capital City Figure Skating Club and training both at Iceland on Freeport Boulevard in Northern Sacramento and at the rink in Berkeley. Though he lived in America since he was a boy, he was a Mexican citizen throughout his skating career.

Left: Armando Rodriguez. Photo courtesy Sacramento Public Library. Right: Bobby Simmonds.

In 1949, Armando won the Pacific Coast senior pairs title with Patricia Quick. The following year, he placed dead last in the junior men's event at the U.S. Championships, eliminated before the free skate even took place. Within two short years, he won the Northern California Inter-Club and Pacific Coast Championships in both senior men's and pairs, the latter with his second partner Barbara Ziem, a talented roller skater. He was coached by Ice Follies skater Bobby Simmonds.

In almost every competition he entered, Armando struggled in the school figures and came from behind with a dazzling free skating performance. He skated with far more 'show biz' flair than many of his rivals, interpreting Spanish themes like Rimsky-Korsakov's "Cappricio Espagnol" and Ernesto Lecuona's "Malaguena" - pieces that were then not the 'old standards' they are today. Sevy Von Sonn heralded his "clever and intricate footwork, his extraordinary jumps and his appropriate interpretation of the music". At the height of his fifteen minutes of fame, he was good friends with actor/skater Tab Hunter.

Winners at the 1952 Pacific Coast Championships. Barbara Ziem and Armando Rodriguez are third and fourth from the left in the top row. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

In 1951, Mexican officials apparently submitted nineteen year old Armando's name to the International Olympic Committee. His application to be Mexico's first Olympic figure skater in the 1952 Winter Olympic Games was reportedly turned down because it was submitted late, and an appeal was denied. At that year's Pacific Coast Championships, he put so much into his free skate that he was "completely exhausted at the completion of his program and required the attendance of a doctor. This momentary lapse of consciousness in no way detracted from his desire to skate, as only minutes later he appeared on the ice once more in the Senior Pair event." At that year's U.S. Championships in Colorado Springs, he claimed the silver medal in the junior men's event but won the free skate, defeating future Olympic Medallists Ronnie Robertson and David Jenkins. One judge had him first overall. He also placed sixth in the junior pairs. Shortly after the competition, he was drafted into the United States Army. He served in the Korean War with the 24th Infantry Division in the 26th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion

Photo courtesy Sacramento Public Library

Armando returned to the skating scene in 1954, while on leave from active duty at the Presidio of San Francisco. Having had little opportunity to train, he lost the senior men's title at the Pacific Coast Championships to Tim Brown by one point and placing a disappointing fifth in the junior men's competition at the U.S. Championships in Los Angeles. 

Armando took a job coaching at the Paramount Iceland rink for a time but soon left the skating world behind to run the La Piñata restaurant with his partner Harry, whom met during his skating days. The couple were fixtures in San Francisco's gay scene in the sixties and seventies.

Kenneth Caldwell, who developed a good friendship with Armando and Harry recalled, "Harry had picked Armando up when he lived in a Berkeley boarding house... Sometime in the 1950's, they opened their first restaurant in San Francisco at 1701 Polk Street. Later on, they opened the place at 1851 Union Street, perfectly timed to ride that street’s popularity in the 1960's and 1970's. With their wealth, they moved from a suburban house in Terra Linda to a large house on three hillside acres in Kent Woodlands in Marin County. Their housekeeper came over and said, 'Well, you boys didn’t tell me you all were moving into a motel.' That home was a shrine to 1960's high gay camp, replete with oil paintings of long-dead non-relatives, low tufted couches, golden sheaf cocktail tables, a swimming pool, and at least one bedroom devoted to storing the stuff they bought and didn’t know what to do with. And there were cocktails, lots of cocktails. Armando had perfect white teeth and perpetually tanned skin, and he loved wearing bling, real bling, diamond and gold bling. With a big silk scarf over his balding head and an unbuttoned shirt, he was a gay character from central casting, but still lovable. Harry, who always stayed blonde, managed the money (and everything else that needed managing). Armando's dream was always to be a star, first an ice-skating star and then a saloon-singing star. Many nights we would sit around, get drunk, listen to records, and then listen to him sing. I think he drank to sing."

Armando could often be found on small stages at his La Piñata restaurants, crooning as a lounge singer under the stage name Armando Jones. In 1985, he even recorded a little-known album with H&A called "Live In San Francisco". Perhaps his most memorable performance as a singer came back in his skating days - at the closing Supper Dance Party at Oakland's Athens Athletic Club at the Pacific Coast Championships in 1954. Harry A. Sims recalled, "To show that he is as good at singing as at skating, our very popular young Toreador, Armando (Pancho) Rodriguez, entertained the crowd with a couple of well-received arias."

Recording courtesy Mark Betcher

Sadly, Armando's partner passed away in 2002, and the last his friends heard, he was living in Kentfield in Marin County, California and suffering from memory problems. Though never recognized for his pioneering role as one of the first Latino and LGBTQ+ figure skaters of note in America, Armando certainly should be.

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