07 October 2006

Mad Hot Book Review #4

Tropicana Nights

Tropicana Nights
The Life and Times of The Legendary Cuban Nightclub
by Rosa Lowinger with Ofelia Fox
(Harcourt Books, 2005)
Reviewed by Donny Jacobs
Do you know what glamour is? No, I’m not talking about surly male hip-hop stars loaded down with miles of gold neck chains, or trashy female pop singers dolled up in Marilyn Monroe drag. I’m talking about real glamour! The kind you see in old movies starring screen divas like Marlene Dietrich, María Montez, Rita Hayworth and Greta Garbo. The kind that’s almost impossible to find in today’s culture of tacky tawdriness. The last time Americans were exposed to real glamour was undoubtedly in the 1950s, the years of tail-finned automobiles, Christian Dior’s “New Look” for women, Audrey Hepburn’s rise to movie stardom, Biblical epics in Cinemascope, Lawrence Welk’s “champagne music“, Arthur Murray’s easy-to-learn dance steps, a fabulous new vacation resort called Las Vegas, and Desi Arnáz conducting his Latin house band on “I Love Lucy.” A great new book called Tropicana Nights will take you back to that golden era. Specifically, it will usher you into the glittering world of 1950s Cuban nightlife, where glamour was definitely a given.

In this fascinating story of Cuba’s most famous nightclub, you’ll meet Victor de Correa and Alberto Ardura, cabaret impresarios par excellence. You’ll meet Rodney, the mad genius of Cuban floor show choreography. You’ll meet Valentín Jodra, master of the roulette wheel. You’ll swing and sway to the music of Armando Romeu, leader of Cuba’s finest nightclub orchestra, and marvel at the keyboard skills of his virtuoso Afro-Cuban pianist, Bebo Valdés. You’ll thrill to the fancy steps of exhibition dancers Ana Gloria and Rolando, Leonela and Henry, and Chiquita and Johnson. You’ll gasp at the sight of gorgeous showgirls like Alicia Figueroa, Sandra Taylor and Jenny Léon. You’ll rub shoulders with legendary international celebrities like Ava Gardner, Errol Flynn, Pier Angeli, Maurice Chevalier, Edith Piaf and Sammy Davis, Jr., as well as sinister Mafia figures like Santo Trafficante, Frankie Carbo and Lefty Clark. All of these colorful characters revolve around Martín Fox, a shrewd and ambitious entrepreneur who began his career as a lowly numbers runner and ended it as the owner of what was arguably the most celebrated casino in the western world. Fox didn’t create Club Tropicana, but as you’ll learn reading this story, his vision created its legend.

Author Rosa Lowinger deftly divides her book’s contents between descriptions of Club Tropicana’s cabaret and casino operations, with just the right amount of gossip thrown in among the facts. She also provides readers with a detailed lesson in Cuban history, complete with economic and political intrigue. Chronologically, she shifts back and forth between a narrative set in the 1940s and ’50s and present-day reminiscences of Martin Fox’s widow Ofelia and several of her husband’s former employees, all living in exile across the United States. Señora Lowinger weaves an engaging tale that positively drips with gusto, excitement, atmosphere, and that most important ingredient of all, glamour.

The spectacular showplace that was Club Tropicana evolved out of a Depression-era bohemian nightclub called Edén Concert, operated by Victor de Correa. One day, two casino operators approached Correa about opening a combination casino and cabaret on the outskirts of Havana. They cut a deal, and in December of 1939, Correa moved his company of singers, dancers and musicians into a converted mansion located on the estate of a deceased Cuban sugar baron. Originally known as El Beau Site, the club’s popularity with tourists grew steadily until the outbreak of World War II, which sharply curtailed tourism to Cuba. During this time, Martín Fox began renting table space in the casino. Eventually, he would amass enough profits to buy out Victor de Correa’s partners and take over the lease of Club Tropicana. Hanging in through tough times, which included a temporary ban on casino gambling, Martín Fox bought out Correa’s interest in 1951 and tapped Alberto Ardura to replace him. This is when Club Tropicana’s glory years really began. Ardura hired maverick choreographer Roderico “Rodney” Neyra away from his chief rival on the cabaret scene, the Club San Souci, and Fox contracted up-and-coming architect Max Borges to revamp the look of the club. Borges’ avant garde design of glass arches (known as arcos de cristal) atop the building’s indoor/outdoor cabaret room would draw as much critical acclaim as Rodney’s daring floor shows.

Club Tropicana’s headliners during the ‘50s were the cream of Spanish and Latin-American musical talent: Cuban singers Miguelito Valdés and Celia Cruz, Mexican tenor Pedro Vargas, Argentinean balladeer Daniel Riolobos, Brazilian movie star Carmen Miranda, the man known as the “Cuban Sinatra“, Beny Moré, the all-singing, all dancing, multi-instrumental group Los Chavales de España, and one the greatest interpreters of Cuban bolero music, Olga Guillot. Numerous North American performers graced the cabaret’s stage as well, among them Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson, Yma Sumac, Liberace, and the Xavier Cugat Orchestra featuring Abbe Lane. Superstar Nat “King” Cole was one of Club Tropicana’s biggest attractions, as well as a frequent celebrity patron of the club along with his wife, Maria. Interviewed for the book, Maria Cole paints a colorful portrait of the venue in its heyday: “It was breathtaking! My mouth just fell open . . . there was so much color, so much movement . . . and the orchestra! The house band had forty musicians . . . I said to Nat, ’that’s the house band? (Are there) that many showgirls?” The multitude of statuesque and scantily clad showgirls she refers to was known collectively as las diosas de carne (fleshly goddesses). The job of the diosas was to basically saunter across the cabaret stage and stun male audience members with their ravishing beauty and bountiful physical charms. Evidently, they did the job well, because their reputation has carried down in entertainment circles through the decades.

At the height of Club Tropicana’s fame, an enraptured entertainment critic wrote: “The luxury of the costumes, the rapturous music and Rodney’s choreography combine in the proposal that Tropicana, jewel of the Americas, offers (the) public: That Cuba can compete with any other country in the presentation of dazzling musical revues.” And what revues they were! Shows devoted to Mexican ranchera music, Italian opera, Brazilian samba, Argentinean tango, Spanish flamenco, and of course, Cuban music and dance. Club Tropicana was one of the first Havana nightclubs to present authentic Afro-Cuban rhythms to tourists. Rodney mounted elaborate Christmas shows, lavish historical costume pageants, musical tributes to Broadway, the circus, Asian culture and Greek mythology. His boundary-breaking concepts involved dancers hiding in the audience, disrobing onstage and executing dangerous stunts high above the stage. His versatile troupe showcased ballet, jazz and modern styles, spiced liberally with rhumba, mambo and cha-cha-chá moves. A complete list of Tropicana stage extravaganzas presented between 1952 and 1960 is included in the book.

As if the club’s gambling and entertainment offerings weren’t sufficiently tempting to draw patrons by themselves, Martín Fox sold a special Club Tropicana tourist package, consisting of a round-trip charter flight that shuttled well-heeled night clubbers from the United States directly to Havana for dinner, drinks, a show, an overnight hotel stay and breakfast. The plane featured a wet bar stocked with a bevy of cocktail selections, as well as a scaled-down version of Armando Romeu’s orchestra for anyone brave enough to dance in the aisles. Upon debarking in Cuba, passengers were treated to mambo lessons on the airport tarmac! Talk about clever marketing!

The events leading up to Fidel Castro’s 1959 coup are recounted in some detail. Rosa Lowinger describes how Castro’s evolution into a dictator and the advent of communism ripped the heart out of Club Tropicana; its management and stellar talent roster fled into exile over a period of years. The club survived Cuba’s régime change, but it was never the same again. The golden era of Cuban nightlife came to an abrupt end. However, Señora Lowinger’s dynamic prose brings it back to glorious life for her readers. Ofelia Fox's vivid recollections (as well as her startling personal revelation near the end of the book) form the backbone of an excellent story told exceptionally well. This is one of those books that prompts you to ask “When’s the movie coming out?” as soon as you’ve finished it. Please don’t wait for the movie, though; buy the book! Even if you disapprove of gambling and aren’t particularly enamored of Cuban dance music, it’s well worth buying. Once you’ve read it, you simply won’t be able to resist longing for those fabled Tropicana Nights.