Juan Elias, who helped shaped the Latin-music scene in Phoenix, has died
Juan Elias, a concert and event promoter who brought some of the biggest names in Spanish-language entertainment to audiences in the Phoenix area, has died.
Elias and his brother, Francisco, formed the company Elias Entertainment in the early '90s. Together the brothers presented such iconic Latin-music artists as Vicente Fernández, Rocío Dúrcal, Juan Gabriel, Luis Miguel and Joan Sebastian to large crowds in Phoenix.
The Elias brothers presented their concerts in such venues as Talking Stick Resort Arena and the Celebrity Theatre throughout the '90s and into the 21st century.
"When you think about it, Vicente has retired, Rocio and Joan have passed away. It was like a special moment in time," Francisco Elias said.
It was more than that, according to Ralph Marchetta, senior VP and general manager at Talking Stick Resort Arena.
"It was really kind of a golden age, in terms of those shows and the artists," Marchetta said. "It's a different world now."
The Elias brothers got into the world of concert promotion in Las Vegas. In 1991, they launched the successful Las Vegas Mariachi Festival, which ran for several years.
They kind of stumbled into the music business, according to Francisco. "We didn't know anything about concerts. We were farmboys. But Juan said it was just common sense and business, and we went for it."
Juan's most celebrated achievement
Their success in Las Vegas led them to launch the Christmas Mariachi Festival in Phoenix. Though Tucson hosted a popular mariachi conference, there wasn't a similar event in the Valley.
"We thought, 'Why don't we do something that's different?'" Juan said in a 2011 interview with The Arizona Republic. "So we thought about doing it during the holidays and serenading Our Lady of Guadalupe and doing the re-enactment of Las Posadas. This was something no one was doing."
Held between 1992 and 2011 at what is now Talking Stick Resort Arena, the festival became a signature event for the downtown venue. At its peak in the mid '90s, more than 13,000 people attended yearly. By the time the festival ended its run in 2011, more than 150,000 people had witnessed its colorful mix of music and pageantry.
One reason the show attracted such large numbers was by bringing crossover-minded headliners (three-time Grammy winner Vikki Carr headlined four times, the most of any artist). Other headliners included Jose Feliciano, Arturo Sandoval and Linda Ronstadt.
Beyond the star power, the festival featured local dancers, vocalists and performers drawn from Valley schools. It was a true family event.
"Even now when we would talk," Francisco said, "I would ask him what he missed about the show, and he'd say 'all the ballet folkloric kids.' They would look forward to this, and their parents would come up and say thanks, and you knew it meant something to them."
The two weren't simply concert promoters, "they were really trailblazers when it came to Latin shows in this market," Marchetta said. "The Christmas Mariachi Festival celebrated that art form in a way that had not been done on that scale in Phoenix before. And it became this great tradition that people would come every year to see."
In 2010, Juan was honored at Valle del Sol’s Profiles of Success event for his contributions to Latin music and culture in the Valley.
The Elias brothers were the dominant promoter for Latin music in Phoenix for quite some time, Marchetta said.
Other concerts Elias promoted in the Phoenix area included shows by Chayanne, Pepe Aguilar, Antonio Aguilar, Ana Gabriel, Alejandra Guzmán, Maná, Alejandro Sanz, Ricardo Arjona, Banda Recodo, Elvis Crespo and Los Tigres del Norte.
Other shows held special memories. At the Christmas Mariachi Festival in 1993, Alejandro Fernández, now a Latin-music superstar, made his first U.S. appearance without his father, iconic singer Vicente Fernández. He told us: "I won't let you have my son unless you make sure to take good care of him," Francisco recalled.
"I think about how amazing Juan was, and what a great impact he had on the culture of this city," Marchetta said. "I'm just really honored to have called him a friend."
A brother remembers
The brothers were in business together for most of their lives, Francisco said.
"We talked every day," Francisco says. "I'll miss that."
He remembers how they started working together. "I was probably 13 years old, and Juan was 18, and we rented a gas station with a little diner and bar, and I had to go in the morning and close the bar the down. Ever since then, we were partners."
Juan was born with vision problems; he could see only shadows until he was about 10, when he went completely blind.
"I remember my mother telling me, 'You've got to look out for your brother. You're going to be his eyes.' But I think we both looked out for reach other."
After the final Christmas Mariachi Festival, the brothers worked on a smaller scale, Francisco said.
"We'd do a few shows at the Orpheum, but we kind of wound it down," Francisco said. Elias Entertainment eventually closed in approximately 2016. Juan enjoyed retirement and living in Gilbert.
The brothers also had a cattle ranch in Sonora, Mexico, and would hold an annual posada in which they provided meals to children in the town of Benjamin Hill. "You'd see all these kids' faces, and it was like a present for us," Francisco said.
Juan died on Oct. 16. A funeral Mass was held on Nov. 8. In addition to his brother, Francisco; Elias is survived by his wife, Laura; son Juan Carlos; siblings Margarita and Ernesto; and grandchildren Noah and Aidan.
Queen of Heaven Catholic Cemetery and Funeral Home handled arrangements.