Steamy, Latin, sexy, Mambo, rum, they all conjure images of the iconic Tropicana in Havana, Cuba. Recently returned from a week in this historic city I was privileged to speak with a former MC at the iconic club. After diving around old articles and books I became intrigued by the nightlife scene in Havana in the 1940s and 1950s.
There were clubs such at the Shanghai, the Sans Souci, Montmarte, the Nacional and many more. But the Tropicana reigned as the place to be. Some of the women I had interviewed for my film and book “Behind the Burly Q” had worked Havana in the ‘50s. Dardy Minsky (Lili St. Cyr’s sister and wife of impresario Harold Minsky) recalled the hour flight from Miami, where the showgirls they were bringing to perform got whopping drunk and had to be helped off the plane.
The Cubana de Aviación was a flight, billed as the “Cabaret in the Sky” bringing Americans from Miami to Havana. A band played salsa and pink daiquiris were served to passengers while Tropicana showgirls sand and danced on a tiny stage.
The Tropicana, opened in 1939 had been the former Villa Mina spread across 6 acres of lush ground with every kind of fruit and tropical tree. It was taken over by the exacting hand of Cuban-born Martin Fox and was reportedly the only Cuban run operation, competing with the Meyer Lansky’s and Santo Trafficante Jr’s joints. Fox’s masterpiece was the construction of the Arcos de Cristal. Huge concrete arches soared overhead enclosing the indoor space with a glass ceiling, which gave the illusion of dining and dancing and being entertained among tall fruit trees outdoors. It was luxuriously air-conditioned and opened in 1952. It competed with the outdoor stage which was often rained out. At the Tropicana there was gambling of course, with rumors of Mafia participation.
In its pre-Castro heyday the club was open 7 days a week for three shows a night. Audiences packed the place seated under the stars with Hollywood’s own movie stars, such as Errol Flynn, Marlon Brando and Joan Crawford. A neon sign “Tropicana” greeted guests as they emerged from cars (probably still on the island today) wearing furs and jewels and men spit-shined in tuxedos. It was glamour to the ninth degree. Known as “paradise under the stars” there was no more exciting place to drink champagne and rum.
Performers such as Nat King Cole, Carmen Miranda and Josephine Baker performed. The Queen of Salsa, singer Celia Cruz who would be crowed the most popular Latin singer of the 20th Century was a regular performer at the Tropicana. After Castro took control of the country Cruz established herself in the United States, going on to record 23 gold records.
Liberace once performed there, unofficially. He was a guest of Fox who had designed a piano-shaped table with 88 black and white keys for guest to sit around. Liberace unabashedly took to the stage.
Under the temperamental direction of choreographer Rocerico Neyra, known as Rodney, the Tropicana shows were elaborate jaw-dropping events with girls leaping from 20 feet in the sky and other impossible acrobatics. Dancers wearing very little strutted on the catwalks between the trees close enough to give one patron a heart attack (he recovered).
Rodney was Cuban and had been a performer himself. Mercurial, foul mouthed and gay, he was almost solely responsible for the elevation of the mulata showgirl that took over the nightclub’s stages. This temperamental genius created great themed shows, 6-8 every season. For several months the show would revolve around a voodoo ritual, another time there were circus animals, other shows were Chinese or Hawaiian themed. All elaborately done, and costumed. Rodney’s open secret was he suffered from leprosy that left him ashamed, disfigured and in pain. He would eventually die from the disease.
These showgirl were of course – unfairly – the “legitimate” older sister of the burlesque performers. Even though they were as nude as burlesque girls, because they didn’t strip they are historically treated better. The world’s first transsexual, and burlesque performer, Christine Jorgensen performed at the Tropicana to sold-out crowds. To be a Tropicana girl was to be somebody and was often these girls crowning achievement.
There were rumors prostitutes sat at the bar looking for patrons. One male swore in the book “Tropicana Nights” co-written by the former owner of the Tropicana’s wife, Ofelia Fox that the club knew he was there looking for a pay day – or rather pay night.
My interview with the former MC, Miriam was a delight. She had worked the club from 1981-1995. By then there were two shows a night, with 120-130 artists performing, including musicians, dancers and the band. At the time, before the Soviet collapse, the club was populated with mainly Cubans, with Monday being the night the Tropicana closed. Now the club is open 7 days a week jammed with tourists.
Miriam talked of dancers with giant chandeliers on their heads that lit up. In the pre-battery operated days a string was draped from girl to girl finally ending up plugged into an outlet. Dancers were weighed once a month but weren’t paid well. Miriam said today the dancers get a very good salary of about $300 a month.
Performers had to deal with constant power outages, sometimes there was no electricity to run the shows once the Russians stopped supporting Cuba. During one dramatic moment as a dancer leapt from a 20 foot structure the lights went out. Miraculously the dancer was safe but the climactic moment was missed by the audience.
The bit of history Miriam seemed most proud to tell was during the revolution, while the rest of the clubs were destroyed by rioting crowds, disgusted with the corruption and Mob ownership, the staff of the Tropicana formed a ring around the club and faced the crowd. There’s was a Cuban institution that needed to be saved. And was. The crowd disbursed and today one can enjoy the benefits of a proud people, and tradition. Cha cha cha.
Leslie Zemeckis is an award-winning documentarian whose film “Behind the Burly Q” chronicles the history of burlesque. Her film “Bound by Flesh” is a Netflix hit about Daisy and Violet Hilton of “Sideshow” fame. Zemeckis authored “Behind the Burly Q, the book based on her film and “Goddess of Love Incarnate” about burlesque stripper Lili St. Cyr. Zemeckis’ current documentary Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer, on the world’s first female trainer Mabel Stark premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival going on to win numerous awards.
She has created the only comprehensive burlesque site bringing together the burlesque community under one roof (www.theburlyq.com) and has create the first line of burlesque, showgirl, pinup (and flamingo) emojis (Burlyqji.)
Zemeckis is currently writing her third book, set to co-star in a film opposite Steve Carell, and developing several other films. She continues to chronicle the vast untouched history of burlesque and has one of the largest personal collections of burlesque memorabilia, with items from Gypsy Rose Lee, Blaze Starr, Lili St. Cyr, Ann Corio and many many more. @Lesliezemeckis, www.lesliezemeckis.com Follow Leslie Zemeckis on IG and Twitter.