[Editor's note: The following post is from our intrepid AV sleuth, John Kostka, UCLA MIAS '15. If you have any leads regarding El Cucaracho, let us know!]
In the age of Google, YouTube, and Wikipedia, it can be easy to forget that some information lies beyond our immediate reach. In a strange sense, it’s almost heartening (or at least humbling) to be reminded that the vast scope of human knowledge still harbors certain lacunae. Nevertheless, and particularly for the archivist or researcher, the desire to know remains difficult to ignore, and it can become hard not to take such gaps in knowledge as slights against personal pride. After all, for librarians and archivists, finding information is our line of work. It is, quite literally, our job to know, or at least to know how to find. When we’re vexed at what we’re supposed to do best, it can feel as though the proverbial gauntlet has been thrown.
Just such a conundrum presented itself before the UCLA Library Preservation Department several months ago and has proven the object of a good deal of wonder ever since. Hidden away, amongst a personal collection of reels housing home movies and old Laurel & Hardy shorts, was a 16mm mystery labelled simply, “Cartoon.” Upon reviewing the object on a rewind bench (two hand-cranked spindles used for moving through the print without the benefit of a projector), a close inspection revealed the cartoon to be an animated short entitled “El Cucaracho.” The print was complete, with nary a splice down its length, and in generally good physical shape, save for a worrisome whiff of pungent odor, harbinger of the dreaded “vinegar syndrome,” a process of chemical degradation in acetate-base film which leads to shrinking, warping and the eventual decomposition of the film base itself.
Thankfully, in addition to being in decent physical condition, the featurette was complete and included a full list of credits; however, the names unfortunately yielded more mysteries than they did solutions. Of greatest import was the opening production logo, for “Producciones Animadas Val-Mar.” A bit of cyber-sleuthing revealed “Val-Mar Productions,” later renamed “Gamma Productions,” to have been a Mexican animation studio responsible for much of the outsourced, non-US animation for such American television classics as The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle. Keith Scott’s The Moose That Roared, an excellent book-length history of R&B, provided some exciting background information on the studio, as well as information on a number of the production members listed in “El Cucaracho’s” credits. However, still no mention was made of the short itself, which overall proved to be largely a research-query dead-end. All searches conducted on the company itself provided little beyond information on its contributions to American television. Furthermore, while investigation into the various production team members listed in the credits revealed some interesting points of history (several, including director Ernesto Terrazas, had started out in American animation during the 30s), they still yielded almost nothing on “El Cucaracho.”
When hitting a roadblock in research, it is often good to step back and take stock of what you know. We in the Preservation Center knew we had a cartoon titled “El Cucaracho,” on 16mm, black-and-white, Gevaert film stock. The film measures about 10 minutes long, and, despite its hints of early-onset vinegar syndrome, it should remain fairly stable if, as we have done, moved to a cool, dry climate for safekeeping. The film was produced by “Producciones Animadas Val-Mar” (the only Spanish-language credit on the print), and was directed by Ernesto Terrazas (often credited as Ernest Terrazas). It was written by Carlos Manriquez, with backgrounds by Sergio Delatorre, and the animators were Claudio Bana, Ignacio Renteria, and Miguel Arellano. Its music was composed by Emilio Barney.
Perhaps the most important lesson any researcher or archivist can learn is not to be afraid to ask for help. In light of our lack of success with both online search engines and UCLA’s scholarly databases, our next step, unfortunately also unfruitful, was to reach out to scholars familiar with Val-Mar. Keith Scott’s generous assistance, for example, put us in touch with several American representatives who had worked with Val-Mar personnel over the years; unfortunately, none of them, either, could provide anything in the way of history on the mysterious “El Cucaracho.” Nevertheless, while its origins may continue to remain a mystery, our hunt itself remains far from over. If anyone out there should have any information on a short cartoon called “El Cucaracho,” we would certainly love to hear from you. In the meantime, our hunt continues!