Tropicana Nights

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Tropicana Nights: The Life and Times of the Legendary Cuban Nightclub

by Rosa Lowinger & Ofelia Fox (2005)

Harcourt

This 438 page book about the famed Tropicana nightclub in Cuba is part history, part biography and part learning about how such a book was developed. LA based Author Rosa Lowinger based her writing largely on her interactions with Ofelia Fox, widow of the club’s last owner Martin Fox. It’s a well researched and thoroughly entertaining read that can be enjoyed on many levels. Supplemented by over thirty photographs, many of which have not been published previously, as well as a useful index.

Rosa Lowinger talks about the book here.

Why you might buy it:
This is a very well written book that really engages the reader, based on hours of face to face interview and research. The principal characters are used to great effect in bringing to life what it must have been like to be involved with Cuba’s best known cabaret. Full of interesting anecdotes and memories that you won’t find anywhere else from someone who was at the Tropicana nearly every night it was open in its heyday. The book also goes some way towards correcting the only previously published book about the Tropicana (Published in Cuba). A bonus item at the back of the book is the eight page full list, with notes, of all of choreographer Rodney’s Tropicana stage productions.

Why you might leave it:
It is not so much a book about the music, rather the environment and personalities that surrounded it. That said musicians features throughout. Not a book that you can easily dip into randomly really needs to be read as a whole entity. Reading it will spoil any enjoyment you might have from watching the stage production Lady Salsa – I wanted to jump on stage and shout “this is all WRONG!!!”.

Contents:

Prologue: The Flight
Part 1
Chapter 1: Introductions
Chapter 2: A Nickel on the Butterfly
Chapter 3: The Boulevard of the New World
Chapter 4: The Peanut Vendor
Chapter 5: Valentin
Chapter 6: Waiting Things Out
Chapter 7: Covering Your Bets
Chapter 8: Arcos de Cristal

Part 2
Chapter 9: The Santos and the Song-and-Dance Man
Chapter 10: The Two Loves of Martin Fox
Chapter 11: The Coup
Chapter 12: Mambo a la Tropicana
Chapter 13: The Leap
Chapter 14: The Circus
Chapter 15: On Diamonds, Razzle, and Goddesses of the Flesh

Part 3
Chapter 16: “The Guajiro has gone crazy!”
Chapter 17: Cabaret in the Sky
Chapter 18: Esta es mi Cuba, Mister

Part 4
Chapter 19: Shattered Slots
Chapter 20: Rumba at the Presidential Palace
Chapter 21: Bongo Congo

Part 5
Chapter 22: The House on Beacon Boulevard
Chapter 23: Noche de Ronda

Acknowledgments
Appendix: A List of Rodney’s Tropicana Shows
Author’s Note on Sources
Dates of Interviews
Bibliography
Index

Selected extracts (from):

(Chapter 1: Introductions):
If you grow up among Cuban exiles in Miami, you quickly become used to such hyperbole, to memories clouded by grief and loss. Everything in Cuba had once been more beautiful, more elegant, more glamorous. To many, Tropicana was the ultimate symbol of those days. But it belonged to my parents’ world, not mine

…(snip)…

Tropicana was designed to be experienced at night, but I returned the following morning. Stripped of the colored stage lights, the structures seemed even more audacious; Arcos de Cristal’s arches, which support the entire building, were barely three inches thick. Whoever built it had been making a deliberate statement about modernism, about how functionalism could harmonize with the lyrical garden setting and the sound, which at that moment was being made only by gardeners’ and custodians’ voices and the soft swish of the wind in the trees. I stayed there for a long time. For some reason, I started to remember the tear-jerking boleros that my parents liked, music that, as a child, would send me running from the room. That morning I began to listen

…(snip)….

Three weeks later, I was standing on Ofelia Fox’s porch. My finger had barely grazed the buzzer when she opened the door. She had been watching from the window. She herded me in quickly-“so the cats don’t escape”- then shook my hand in an entryway in which the carpeting was so thick I felt as if I was sinking. Like the porch, the interior was resolutely cheerful. There were ornaments and candles, bubbling fountains, dried flower and feather arrangements, and a Noah’s ark’s worth of ceramic animals. An oil painting of a young woman wearing pearls and a white mink stole hung over the fireplace. It did not seem to be Ofelia but there were similarities that I could detect even after a short acquaintance-something about the combination of serenity and liveliness. By my calculations, Ofelia had to be around eighty years old, yet she was amazingly youthful looking. Her round face was barely lined. Her silky white, shoulder-length hair was tied back in a ponytail. Her brown eyes twinkled behind black, square-rimmed glasses. She wore perfume that was both smoky and floral. She said little at first, but when she spoke-in English at first-her voice was deep and warm, but also carried a tone of quiet bemusement. This, I thought, is someone who has lived a long and interesting life.

(Chapter 4: The Peanut Vendor):
While Miranda was in Cuba performing in Bahiondo, Ofelia and Martin gave her a party on the day of her santo, St. Carmen. The party was held at Johnny’s Dream Club, a caberet so after hours that it usually did not close until after dawn. The Foxes invited many of the friends Miranda had made during her stay in Cuba, including Olga Guillot, Mexican actress Maria Felix, and Cuban actress Lilia Lazo. For Ofelia, the party was memorable not only because of Miranda’s presence or the meringue-covered sheet cake that she had specially made for the event, but because that night was one of the few times in her life that Ofelia danced with Martin.

Like many gamblers, Martin considered it undignified to whirl around on a dance floor, and a waste of time when there was a gambling table nearby. The horns, strings and congas, and the melodic voices of Havana’s troubadours and crooners were merely background music, the soundtrack to the more serious business of gambling. Yet music, more so than gambling, was the true lifeblood of Cuba. It was what lured patrons through the doors of Tropicana.

(Chapter 5: Valentin):
Ofelia slammed the book down on the poker table. “Por favor! What nonsense. Martin was more Cuban than the royal palms! And me, a model? I’ll take the compliment but, really, they should try doing a little research before they say these things. Martin used to call me china. It was a common pet name in Cuba. And he didn’t buy me a lion. Sunan was a gift from an African prince!”

“Hold on a second,” I said. “You had a pet lion?”

(Chapter 9: The Santos and the Song-and-Dance Man):
A singer started chanting in high pitched Yoruba. A chorus of singers responded. Six male dancers came out dressed in colorful striped pants and straw hats adorned with green feathers and proceeded to sit down, sprawling comfortably on either side of the drummers. Ardura couldn’t believe his eyes. Was Rodney staging real bembes for the cabaret public? Would the community of santeros let him get away with this? And would this sustain the interest of a cabaret public that wanted to see skimpily clad showgirls and hear the latest Cuban music?

(Chapter 12: Mambo a la Tropicana):
If I had learned anything by this point, it’s that former Tropicana regulars loved the gossip and the inside stories. “The most famous mambo dancer – I’m not going to say her name, but you know who I mean – was actually the daughter of Miguel Matamoros,” said Bebo, nodding and putting a tapered finger to his lips. Matamoros, composer of the beautiful son bolero, “Lagrimas Negras,” which Bebo and Cigala had just recorded, was one of the most important singers and composers in Cuban history. The implication of Bebo’s story was that Matamoros’s life itself resembled a bolero. But the most deliciously ribald tale Bebo told me pertained to a 1952 mambo he composed in honor of Miguel Angel Blanco, Tropicana’s notoriously rakish master of ceremonies. I had heard many times the story of this mambo, titled “Guempa,” based on Cuban slang for “good lay”. Yet there was nothing like hearing it from Bebo himself…

(Chapter 15: On Diamonds, Razzle, and Goddesses of the Flesh):
Brando had already won the Oscar (in 1954, for On The Waterfront), but he was crazy for Cuban music and he flew down to find a tumbadora. That night he even tried to buy one off Armando Romeu! In the end he left Tropicana without the drum, but he left for Club 21 with two of the most beautiful modelos, Berta Rosen and Sandra Taylor.

(Chapter 16: “The Guajiro has gone crazy!”):
One day Ofelia did ask Martin why Tropicana never hired the man who was unquestionably the greatest Cuban singer of his era. Martin told her to see about it with Ardura, who made these decisions. “The reason Ardura gave ne,” said Ofelia, “was Benny’s drinking. He was unreliable. He’d miss performances or show up late.” Other cabarets, including Sans Souci, were willing to work around More’s weaknesses. Rodney, on the other hand, was not. He demanded rigor and professionalism from his cast. At Tropicana the concept was the star of the show, not any individual performer.

(Chapter 20: Rumba at the Presidential Palace):
New Years Day 1959. The morning was bright and sunny. A light winter breeze made the Cuban flag above the presidential palace flutter. The streets were almost empty…snip…However a mob formed, by noon it was coursing down the shaded terrazzo pavement of the Paseo del Prado, stopping to smash windows, slash tires, hunt for members of the police, military, or anyone who could be accused of being a collaborator. Just as valentine had predicted, the slot machines became particular targets of peoples wrath…snip….At Tropicana the staff waited. By noon, waiters, cooks, busboys, and parking attendants, anyone who had heard about the destruction of the other cabarets, poured in to protect their workplace. Many now openly declared their allegiance to Fidel castro, and wore red and black armbands in support of the 26th of July. By mid-afternoon, however, nothing had happened….snip…But Tropicana was spared. The mob never arrived.

[end of extracts]

Other Reviews:

Publishers Weekly
Tropicana opened in 1939 at Villa Mina, a six-acre suburban Havana estate with lush tropical gardens. It’s still going strong, after a number of setbacks, not the least of which was Fidel Castro’s squelching of nightlife and other social outlets. After Martin Fox took over in 1950, choreographer Roderico “Rodney” Neyra staged spectacular shows in the club’s newly constructed Arcos de Cristal, parabolic concrete arches and glass walls soaring over an indoor stage. Headliners included Josephine Baker, Nat King Cole, Celia Cruz, Xavier Cugat and Carmen Miranda; and celebrity visitors ranged from Brando and Durante to Hemingway and Piaf. Tracing the evolution of this “paradise under the stars” against the backdrop of Cuban culture, politics in pre-Castro Cuba and mob connections, journalist Lowinger (Latina) interweaves the personal stories of Fox and his widow, playwright-teacher Ofelia Fox, who recalls, “It was a life set to music. What could be better?” The superb talents of Cuban music’s Golden Age were resurrected in the Oscar-nominated film Buena Vista Social Club (1998), but Lowinger’s scintillating chronicle offers an overview—not found in that film—of the florid, splashy era when “Cuba was an endless party, and Tropicana was its epicenter.”

Booklist by Mike Tribby
Lowinger and Fox tell the story of Havana’s notorious Tropicana nightclub, the template from which Las Vegas was made after the corrupt Batista regime collapsed, and the Tropicana was closed. In its day the Tropicana was a prime site for gambling, elegance, seeing and being seen–a resort of choice for international gangsters and jet-setters. Readers who enjoyed Anthony Haden-Guest’s “biography” of Studio 54, The Last Party (1997), will enjoy comparing the differing modes of showmanship, decadence, and ostentation current in the Tropicana’s 1950s heyday to those of 1970s New York’s debauched disco scene. Fox married Tropicana owner Martin Fox in 1952 and helped him run it until 1962, when they decamped to Miami. She and Lowinger take pains to establish that the Tropicana was hardly a sleazy Mob hangout but rather a world-class entertainment venue that discriminating gangsters happened to enjoy frequenting. An excellent resource on Cuban popular culture, lavish entertainment, and everyday life just before and just after Castro, this is also an exciting and rewarding read.

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