Charo Speaks With All Her Heart

Months after losing her husband, Charo hungers to do what helps her get through life: entertain us.

For many people, social media is at best a double-edged sword. It’s the way we keep up with old friends and present our best selves to the world, but it’s also a corporatized surveillance state where we confront juvenile envy, spittle-flecked trolls, and an occasionally unshakable sense of digital loneliness.

But for Charo, the comic, accomplished guitarist, occasional Hollywood Square, and Queen of England in Sharknado 5: Global Swarming, social media is an unambiguously positive way of engaging with the world.

“Social media is great,” she tells SF Weekly. “I’m extremely grateful to the people that support me with so much kindness after my tragedy. It’s like having a therapist. You become friends with everybody, and you’re talking to everybody, and that’s why I want to tell you I’m hooked now on social media. I’m hooked on Instagram!”

The feeling is mutual. In Charo’s upbeat videos, shot on a cell phone and roughly a minute in length, she expounds on the health benefits of this or that fruit, struggles to be understood by Siri, or simply goes on an early-evening walk. They invariably begin with her addressing her fans (“Hola, amigos!”) and include goofy jokes, mild innuendo, life-affirming messages of love — and, of course, that girlish, heavily accented voice and hair done up in a Full Boopsie.

Her persona is so infectiously ebullient that simply imagining Charo feeling sad at all takes on existential proportions. It would be like Puff the Magic Dragon after Jackie Paper stopped hanging out with him, shedding green scales all over a land called Honalee. But after her husband of more than 40 years, Kjell Rasten, shot himself in February after having contracted a rare and disfiguring skin condition known as bullous pemphigoid, she was understandably despondent.

It took her some time for her internal gyroscope to right itself, and when she says that she is as determined as ever to embrace life and bring happiness to people, there is a gravitas underlying that giggly charm.

And on Sept. 20, she’ll be back in what she calls “Planet San Francisco” for a show at the Herbst Theatre. It’s an all-new show, centered on her arrangement of “Besame Mucho.”

“Most of the people in the business, when they have a good show they keep it for a long, long, long time,” she says. “But I like a challenge, and I also look for what’s next. What about mañana? So I hope they like it.

“Because my heart is broken and it keeps breaking, I decided to choose life,” she adds. “So I bring my guitar, and there’s not a question in my mind of how to keep it going and choose life.”


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In order to be understood, Charo says she’s “working very hard to shout American,” but after more than five decades spreading cuchi-cuchi across America, it’s clear she’s in on her own joke. Having taught herself Japanese, she admits she speaks the language with the same exaggerated intonations that characterize her English, but she’s attuned enough to differentiate a Tokyo accent from an Osaka accent.

“I know what I said but I don’t know if they know what I’m talking about,” she says.

There is mystery to her, as well. The woman born María del Rosario Mercedes Pilar Martínez Molina Baeza has long concealed her age, which could be anywhere from 68 to 78. A conversation with Charo is a dazzling, discursive affair, full of boisterous self-interruptions and a tendency to spell out various Spanish terms, all of which are phonetic, but that’s hardly important.

Asked to explain the nuances of flamenco guitar — a sensual style tied to the Moorish history of Murcia, the city of her birth, and which she studied under the legendary Andres Segovia — Charo launches into a four-minute anecdote about a long-ago television producer who misunderstood what she was looking to play.

“I was holding the guitar in my hand and the producer is laughing,” she says. “He said, ‘OK, this is not a zoo. We don’t have flamingos here.’ He thought that I was talking about the fucking birds!”

Yet Charo is a virtuoso guitarist. That seeming contradiction — a hyper-bubbly demeanor versus profound musical talent — has stayed central throughout her entire career. She was put on this Earth to bring joy, and she’s as appreciative of any opportunities to do so as she is of the many Charo impersonators she’s met. Beyond those real-life look-alikes, fans also send her portraits of her they’ve painted of her distinctive appearance.

“Very good artists, too,” Charo says. “It’s probably because it’s very easy to make a caricature of me. I have a funny nose and my lips are big and look like they could suck an orange out of San Francisco. So I make it easier for people with my face.”

Charo

Friday, Sept. 20, 8 p.m., at the Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave. $50-$100, cityboxoffice.com

Five Other Can’t-Miss Events This Fall

There Will Always Be Roses in San Francisco
Oct. 3-Nov. 3, at the Tenderloin Museum, 398 Eddy St. tenderloinmuseum.org

For the Tenderloin Museum’s latest show, Marissa Leitman stages photographs of the unconventional drag performers at dive bar Aunt Charlie’s.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Live!

Oct. 10-Nov. 10, at Oasis, 398 11th St. sfoasis.com

Slay, gurl! The warped minds behind other mostly line-for-line, live drag remakes of TV shows like Star Trek, Absolutely Fabulous, and Sex and the City take on the ultimate in 1990s teen angst for 16 performances.

San Francisco Street Food Festival

Oct. 12, 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m., at The Power Station, 420 23rd St. $5-$50, lacocinasf.org

Compared to ultra-luxe food festivals, La Cocina’s annual affair has its fingers on the pulse of the city, with dozens of affordable vendors showcasing top restaurants and up-and-coming talent alike.

CODAME Art + Tech Festival

Oct. 25-27, at GitHub, 88 Colin P. Kelly Jr St. Various events, free-$149, codame.com

As the planet hurtles toward ecological catastrophe, CODAME exists on the outer frontiers of science, drawing attendees in with workshops on augmented reality and “time-bending media.”

Raphael Bob-Waksberg in conversation with Emily Nussbaum

Dec. 16, at the Sydney Goldstein Theater, 275 Hayes St. cityarts.net

The creator of the most poignant and frequently depressing animated show of all time (BoJack Horseman) sits down with The New Yorker’s Pulitzer-winning TV critic at this exceptional City Arts & Lectures program.

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