olgasanjuanShe pos­sessed the same tiny frame and fer­vid Latin tem­pera­ment as her Brazil­ian coun­ter­part, Car­men Miran­da, and, for most her career, Puer­to Rican singer/dancer Olga San Juan, like Miran­da, was a wel­come dis­trac­tion by Amer­i­can audi­ences. A fla­vor­ful, scene-steal­ing per­son­al­i­ty who delight­ful­ly man­gled the Eng­lish lan­guage, she dec­o­rat­ed a num­ber of war-era and post-war musi­cals and com­e­dy escapism with her spe­cial brand of com­e­dy.

Dubbed the “Puer­to Rican Pep­per­pot” dur­ing her hey­day, Olga was born in the Flat­bush sec­tion of Brook­lyn. Her fam­i­ly returned to Puer­to Rico when she was three, but came back to Amer­i­ca after a few years and, this time, set­tled in “Span­ish Harlem”. By age 3, she was tak­ing danc­ing lessons and was almost imme­di­ate­ly thrust into the lime­light by her moth­er. By age 11, she (and five oth­er young girls) had exe­cut­ed the Fan­dan­go for Franklin D. Roo­sevelt at the White House. As a teenag­er, Olga per­formed at such hot spots as the El Moroc­co and the Copaca­bana and, sub­se­quent­ly, earned pay as a dancer with famed jazz and mam­bo musi­cian, Tito Puente, who by then had earned the title of “The King of Latin Music”.

Gain­ing momen­tum appear­ing on radio, Olga formed a pop­u­lar night club act, Olga San Juan and Her Rum­ba Band, that even­tu­al­ly caught the eye of Para­mount Stu­dios. Putting her under con­tract, Olga, as an added incen­tive to stand out, decid­ed to become the first dyed-blonde Latin movie spit­fire. Mak­ing her film debut in the trop­i­cal musi­cal short, Caribbean Romance (1943), her sec­ond short film, Bom­balera (1945), earned itself an Acad­e­my Award nom­i­na­tion. In this, Olga was billed, appro­pri­ate­ly enough, as “The Cuban Cyclone”. She was front and cen­ter in her third short, The Lit­tle Witch (1945), a musi­cal romance in which she vir­tu­al­ly played her­self as a night club singer.

Her fea­ture film debut came in the form of Rain­bow Island (1944), a typ­i­cal South Seas vehi­cle for sarong-wear­ing Dorothy Lam­our. Soon, Olga was seen play­ing “oth­er woman” sup­ports. Arguably, her finest hour came along­side Bing Cros­by and Fred Astaire in her first post-war pic­ture, Blue Skies (1946), adding zest to such songs as “You’d Be Sur­prised”, “Heat Wave” and “I’ll See You in C-U-B-A”. While the boys are vying for the roman­tic atten­tions of gor­geous Joan Caulfield, Olga is paired up, engag­ing­ly, with anoth­er com­e­dy scene-steal­er, Bil­ly De Wolfe.

Con­strict­ed in films by her heavy accent, Olga nev­er­the­less became an eth­nic com­mod­i­ty for Para­mount and, for the rest of the post-war decade, was enjoy­ably fea­tured in light “B” mate­r­i­al. She stood out play­ing Mary Hatcher’s com­e­dy side­kick and fel­low wannabe movie star in Vari­ety Girl (1947), which seemed more of an excuse to fea­ture Paramount’s huge ros­ter of super­stars in cameo bits; was bor­rowed by Uni­ver­sal to juice up the musi­cal pro­ceed­ings, oppo­site geeky Don­ald O’Connor, in the com­e­dy, Are You with It? (1948); played a mor­tal sec­ond fid­dle to god­dess Ava Gard­ner in One Touch of Venus (1948); offered sil­ly dis­trac­tion in skat­ing star Son­ja Henie’s final Hol­ly­wood ice extrav­a­gan­za — The Count­ess of Monte Cristo (1948); and lent fun­ny, flashy vul­gar­i­ty to one of Pre­ston Sturges’ less­er out­ings, The Beau­ti­ful Blonde from Bash­ful Bend (1949), a Bet­ty Grable vehi­cle for Twen­ti­eth Cen­tu­ry-Fox.

Dur­ing this peri­od (1948), Olga had met and mar­ried actor Edmond O’Brien. The cou­ple had three chil­dren, two girls and a boy. Her last hur­rah in the indus­try came, by acci­dent, when famed lyri­cist Alan Jay Lern­er hap­pened to hear her sing at a fes­tive Hol­ly­wood gath­er­ing and offered her one of the leads (Jen­nifer Rum­son) in his Broad­way-bound musi­cal, “Paint Your Wag­on”, in 1951. The show was a flop, run­ning just eight months, and Olga left the cast before the run end­ed, after becom­ing preg­nant with her sec­ond child. In the after­math, Olga, a strict Roman Catholic, decid­ed to con­cen­trate on mar­riage and fam­i­ly. Aside from a smat­ter­ing of TV shows, she com­plete­ly retired. On film, she was briefly glimpsed only two times more, both of them being her husband’s vehi­cles, The Bare­foot Con­tes­sa (1954), in which he won the “sup­port­ing actor” Oscar, and The 3rd Voice (1960).

Set­tling in West Los Ange­les, Olga suf­fered a stroke in the 1970s and slow­ly declined in health, from that point on. Divorced from O’Brien in 1976, their chil­dren all involved them­selves in dif­fer­ent facets of the busi­ness. Daugh­ter Maria O’Brien became an actress in her own right and son Bren­dan O’Brien also delved into act­ing as well as writ­ing and gui­tar-play­ing. Oth­er daugh­ter, Brid­get O’Brien Adel­man, became a TV pro­duc­er. After decades of being out of the news, it was report­ed in Jan­u­ary of 2009 that Olga had died at a Bur­bank hos­pi­tal of kid­ney fail­ure, fol­low­ing an extend­ed ill­ness. She was 81.

Fil­mog­ra­phy

(1960) The 3rd Voice — Blonde Pros­ti­tute

(1954) The Bare­foot Con­tes­sa — Bit Role (uncred­it­ed)

(1949) The Beau­ti­ful Blonde from Bash­ful Bend — Con­chi­ta

(1948) The Count­ess of Monte Cristo — Jen­ny Johnsen

(1948) One Touch of Venus — Glo­ria

(1948) Are You with It? — Vivian Reil­ly

(1947) Vari­ety Girl — Amber La Vonne

(1946) Cross My Heart — Dancer (uncred­it­ed)

(1946) Blue Skies — Nita Nova

(1945) The Lit­tle Witch (Short) — Guadalupe, Night­club Singer

(1945) Hol­ly­wood Vic­to­ry Car­a­van (Short) — Olga San Juan

(1945) Duffy’s Tav­ern — Glo­ria

(1945) Out of This World — Mem­ber, Glam­ourette Quar­tet

(1945) Bom­balera (Short) — Rose Perez ‘La Bom­ba’

(1944) Rain­bow Island — Miki

(1943) Caribbean Romance (Short) — Lin­da