Domingo Peña: Corpus Christi's Premier Hispanic Entertainer
The Texas Story Project.
My father, Domingo Everett Peña, was blessed with a dynamic personality, charm, and a sense of dignity and kindness for others. Over the course of his life he leveraged these qualities in a show business career entertaining the Hispanic population of Corpus Christi and South Texas as well as overseas during the Vietnam War. And he used his popularity often to help those in need.
Dad was born December 16, 1917 in Kingsville, Texas, one of Placido Peña and Rose Everett Peña's four sons. The family moved to Corpus Christi, Texas in 1935. His great grandfather, Captain Jack Everett, made history in the 1800s during the Mexican-American war. Captain Jack was a dynamic and adventurous young man from Mobile, Alabama. I tend to believe those traits were passed down to my father. As an adult I took my grandmother's name to honor her.
From a young age, dad dressed to impress. Even the earliest photos I’ve seen of him have him wearing double breasted suits and bow ties. As a teenager, dad contracted tuberculosis and was institutionalized. A photo taken during his convalescence shows him, cigar in hand, wearing a polo coat and a dapper hat. My grandmother thought her daughter, Ofelia Palacios, should marry dad because he was always well dressed. He often wore fresh flowers in his lapel and his boots were custom made and embossed with his name.
At age 28, dad became a disc Jockey on KCCT, a Corpus Christi Spanish language radio station. His popularity soon took off due to his commanding voice and sense of humor. No one could tell a joke like dad, leaving us laughing off our chairs.
He continually reinvented his career, especially in the early years. We had a jewelry store in the front part of our house along with a watch repairman. In his 40s he was appointed by Sheriff Odem Dolan to be his Deputy Sheriff. After a failed re-election, dad opened several restaurants, the last one in Alice, TX. Later we returned to Corpus Christi.
He began organizing his legendary "Monday Night Dance" in the mid-1960s at the Exposition Hall in downtown Corpus Christi. He showcased the best Hispanic musicians for the local community. The musicians respected dad and wanted to do right by him. His word could make or break their careers. The dances became immensely popular and were the beginning of a lifelong effort to use his growing fame and fortune to help the Hispanic community in Corpus Christi and beyond.
Dad’s popularity grew rapidly and in 1968 the U.S. State Department approached him to entertain Hispanic soldiers in Vietnam. He put together a twelve-person troupe of amazing performers that traveled on a seventeen-day tour of Vietnam, the only one of its kind offered during the war. It brought dad much additional acclaim and placed him on the national map as a leader among the larger Hispanic-American community.
So great was his popularity that in 1968, while away on his Vietnam tour, Dad won election to the board of the Lower Nueces River Water Supply District. He resigned this position to accept an appointment as a Nueces County deputy constable. Governor Dolph Briscoe also appointed him to the Texas State Health Advisory Committee in the 1970s.
In 1964, a new network affiliate TV station, KIII was launched in Corpus Christi. They intended to serve the local Hispanic audience so they hired dad to develop and host a talk and variety program, the Domingo Peña Show. His highly rated show ran until 1981 when he became too ill to host. The program was visited by local performers and personalities as well as leaders from the Hispanic community, including representatives from the League of United Latin American Citizens, the American G.I. Forum, and many other civic and charitable organizations.
My father and the late President Lyndon Johnson were friends and our family visited the Johnsons at their ranch. The late Texas Governor John Connolly was also a friend.
But my father’s dearest professional and personal friendship was with the late Dr. Hector Garcia, creator of the American G.I. Forum, a civil-rights organization devoted to securing equal rights for Hispanic Americans. Dr. Garcia was always welcome on the Domingo Peña Show.
My dad dedicated his life to giving the people what they wanted. His great love for the working class Hispanic population led him to support their interest and well being. He wanted them to be happy, to dance, and to enjoy life through his show. His popularity was such that families would either get up early to attend mass before the show’s 1:00 p.m. broadcast or attend after the program!
If you ask anyone of my generation or older who grew up in the Corpus Christi area if they remember Domingo Peña, they’ll recall him as much as a philanthropist as an entertainer. They'll say “Oh my goodness. He helped my mother,” or “He gave money to my cousin.” Once, a family knocked on our front door and told dad of a fire which damaged their home. The next Sunday on his TV program he recounted their story and solicited support from the community. Donations poured in and helped to support the family during their time of need. This was not an uncommon occurrence. Many times he simply gave his own money to help those in need.
As much as dad loved the limelight, many times he performed public services without anyone even knowing about it. I recall him inviting disabled children to swim in our indoor pool. Afterwards, food and sodas were served. No cameras were allowed nor was this deed ever mentioned in public.
Dad's work was acknowledge posthumously through his induction into both the Tejano R.O.O.T.S. Hall of Fame and Museum and the Texas Conjunto Music Hall of Fame. He would have liked these honors very much as he worked so hard to bring music and other forms of entertainment to so many thousands of South Texas Hispanic citizens.
Corpus Christi has never seen anything like that period when the Hispanic community was so vibrant with all of the dances, and radio and television shows. My father’s legacy lives on and I'm reminded even in the smallest of ways – be of help to others in my community.
When I've traveled to Corpus Christi since he passed in 1983, dad's spirit is always present. I can't help but to smile when remembering him.
Posted January 03, 2017