I don’t have a clear recollection of the first and only time I was in Tropicana Cabaret. It was a long time ago and almost another time, when any Cuban couple could allow themselves the luxury of going there and enjoying a place renowned in almost all the world because of the quality and magnificence of its shows. I confess that I have hardly kept in my mind some of the moments of that night, despite the agreeable atmosphere – surrounded by an environment of exuberant trees and tropical plants –, of the excellent choreography, of the famous singers – though I don’t even remember their names -, of the always beautiful dancers and of the good music. Perhaps this is due to my bad memory or that perhaps, even with all its brilliance, the show was below my expectations and was not as impacting as I expected. What’s curious is that more or less during the same time we used to also go to other nightspots that I still remember with great fondness and a great dose of nostalgia: the jazz sessions by Felipe Dulzaides in the Riviera Hotel’s Elegante Salon, the songs by César Portillo de la Luz or the hoarse voice of José Antonio Méndez in the conspiratorial intimacy of the Pico Blanco, less spectacular but with a great deal more of feeling. I specify that I am speaking of something that took place more than 20 years ago, in the 1980s and before the crisis called Special Period that disrupted so many things on the island, including the possibility of having access, with the devalued Cuban peso, to nightspots like Tropicana or the Pico Blanco.
But beyond my personal recollections or opinions, there is no doubt that Tropicana Cabaret has had a trajectory that well deserves the international fame achieved in its almost 75 years of life, which it will be celebrating on the last night of 2015. This explains that a great deal has been written about the origins and vicissitudes of the institution, through whose stages so many internationally renowned Cuban and foreign artists have passed though, and that even some books have been published on the subject, including a short story told by Ofelia Fox, widow of the owner of the cabaret, Víctor Fox, with the title Tropicana’s Nights: the Life and Times of the Legendary Cuban Nightclub, and Tropicana, a Paradise Under the Stars, by Rafael Lam.
What’s curious is that part of the available information at times is contradictory. Some even disagree about when it was named Tropicana, though all seem to coincide in that this word was taken from a song composed by Alfredo Brito, one of its founding musicians. According to Brito’s daughter, cited by Rafael Lam, the cabaret was named Tropicana ever since it was opened, while the song is from before the place existed. Meanwhile, other testimonies indicate that the place was originally called Beau Site and that on a suggestion by Sergio Orta, choreographer and director of the shows, it was renamed a year later, based on the song especially conceived by Brito to identify that place with the desire to become established with its own style in the lively Havana nights.
Discrepancies also appear when speaking of the persons who participated in the original idea of the cabaret. There are those who affirm that it was conceived by Víctor Correa, a daring Italian-Portuguese impresario who had previously created in the area of Old Havana the Eden Concert Cabaret. According to that version, the Eden was unable to “take off” due to the strong competition of other famous nightspots already existing in the area, and in one of those strokes of luck so difficult to predict, Correa decided to lease to Mina Pérez Chaumont a part of his property located in Marianao to open a new cabaret. However, the initial stages were difficult and Correa decided to find other partners, like Víctor Fox, to set up a casino to attract a greater amount of pubic.
Others affirm that Correa was only the visible head of an operation that had other purposes, and the real promoters of the idea were Rafael Mascaró and Luis Buar, already linked to gambling. They proposed that Correa be responsible for the cabaret that would serve as a front for the casino they aimed to set up and with that objective they leased the plot of land, though the property was purchased in 1950 by Martín Fox, a character who had the necessary connections – according to rumours – to legalise the casino and fully exploit the potentials of the place. And undoubtedly the game was, in all its modalities, one of the most important tricks for the resounding success of Tropicana, though not the only one.
No matter when it started up, Cuban Víctor Fox played a decisive role in creating a better known image of Tropicana. He was the one who in 1951 hired architect Max Borges Jr. to carry out a project that, as it is said, he dreamed of and firmly defended: a construction that would maintain intact its close relationship with the surrounding nature, while making it possible for the place to be air conditioned and protected from the rain. Borges thus conceived two spaces. One was in the open, later known as “Under the Stars”, and another called “Glass Arches”, with an intelligent structure that followed the wishes of its contractor and contributed to decisively distinguish the image of Tropicana until our days. The work also received the Gold Medal Prize of the National School of Architecture in 1953.
Throughout the years, other many factors helped to create that magic halo that many attribute to Tropicana Cabaret. Some of them include the passionate creativity attributed to the shows conceived by choreographer Roderico Neyra (Rodney, according to his artistic name), in which some of the most internationally renowned artists participated in its time. They were so many that it would be easier to make a list of those who did not perform in Tropicana, though I would like to call attention about one aspect in particular: the notable amount of Cuban artists who passed through its stage, from Chano Pozo to Benny Moré, without forgetting Rita Montaner, Bola de Nieve, Celia Cruz, Merceditas Valdés and Rosita Fornés, which even calls more attention when it is known that also performing there were the very famous Josephine Baker, Libertad Lamarque, Pedro Vargas, Xavier Cugat, Tongolele, Liberace, Carmen Miranda and Nat King Cole, who performed on three occasions and sang in Spanish, to the admiration of a public who seemingly was mesmerised by the black singer.
Another important factor to consolidate its fame beyond its borders was the “quality” of the public that usually chose Tropicana to entertain their nights of leisure: wealthy and famous, mafiosos and politicians, Hollywood stars and celebrities, as we say today.
Carrying these stories (and many more) on its shoulders, Tropicana is reaching its 75th anniversary. To this is also added the peculiarity of having recovered that elitist condition that originally marked it (exclusive shows for publics with the possibility of paying for that exclusiveness), though perhaps without the glamour that then turned it into an unforgettable site! (2015)
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