Tropicana is a world-known cabaret and club in Havana, Cuba. It was launched in 1939 at Villa Mina, a six-acre (24,000 m²) suburban estate with lush tropical gardens in Havana's Marianao neighborhood.
The Tropicana had an impact in spreading Cuban culture internationally. New York's Tropicana was a Latin music club launched in 1945 by two Cuban restaurateurs, the brothers Manolo and Tony Alfaro, who made it the most glamorous nightclub in the Bronx. On the TV series I Love Lucy, the character Ricky Ricardo (played by Cuban-born Desi Arnaz) was a singer and bandleader at Manhattan's fictional Tropicana nightclub, now recreated in reality in Jamestown, New York at the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center's Tropicana Room. In 2004, the Atlantic City Tropicana opened The Quarter, which attempts to recreate the architecture, atmosphere and cuisine of Old Havana during the 1940s. In its September 1956 issue, Show magazine displayed a four-page spread on Tropicana (1957), a Mexican musical comedy filmed on location at the cabaret and featuring some of the Tropicana's performers.
The spectacular showplace that became The Tropicana evolved out of a Depression-era bohemian nightclub called Edén Concert, operated by Cuban impresario Victor de Correa. One day, two casino operators approached de Correa about opening a combination casino and cabaret on property on the outskirts of Havana rented from Guillermina Pérez Chaumont, known as Mina. The operators felt that the tropical gardens of her Villa Mina, would provide a lush natural setting for an outdoor cabaret. They cut a deal, and in December 1939, de Correa moved his company of singers, dancers and musicians into a converted mansion located on the estate. De Correa provided the food and entertainment, while Rafael Mascaro and Luis Bular operated the casino located in the chandeliered dining room of the estate's mansion. Originally known as El Beau Site, de Correa decided to rename the club Tropicana, because of its tropical atmosphere and "na" after the last syllable of the original owner, Mina. With a fanfare from the Alfredo Brito Orchestra, the Club Tropicana, opened on December 30, 1939. Its popularity with tourists grew steadily until the outbreak of World War II, which sharply curtailed tourism to Cuba.
During this time, Martín Fox, a burly, gregarious and well-connected gambler, began renting table space in the casino. Eventually, by 1950, he would amass enough profits to take over the lease of what would become The Tropicana. Martin Fox came to Havana from the countryside. Nicknamed the "Guajiro Fox," for being a country bumpkin peasant, he became big in the numbers rackets. Raised in the country and uneducated, he was nonetheless bold and had close relations with more solvent groups. He was able to topple Victor de Correa within a few years and together with Alberto Ardura and Oscar Echemendia, form an entrepreneurial trilogy that made the Tropicana one of the most famous nightclubs on the continent. Hanging on through tough times, including a period with a temporary ban on casino gambling, Fox bought out de Correa's interest in 1951 and tapped Alberto Ardura Oscar Echemendia to replace him.
Glory days and architectural splendor
This is when 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-Recio, who created Tropicana's Arcos de Cristal, a building composed of parabolic concrete arches and glass walls over an indoor stage. Construction continued through 1951. Giant fruit trees were left in situ during construction to punctuate the interior. When the indoor cabaret at the air-conditioned Arcos de Cristal opened on March 15, 1952, it had a combined total seating capacity of 1,700 for the interior and outside areas with furniture designed by Charles Eames. The Arcos de Cristal won numerous international prizes when it was built and was one of only six Cuban buildings included in the landmark 1954 Museum of Modern Art exhibit entitled "Latin American Architecture since 1945."
But it was the arrival in Havana in 1946 of Floridian mobster Santo "Louie Santos" Trafficante Jr. that would alter the future of The Tropicana. Trafficante, Jr. had been sent by his father, Tampa godfather Santo Trafficante, Sr. (a man who always wanted to make it big in Cuba) to oversee La Cosa Nostra and Tampa Family casino and business interests there. Upon Trafficante, Sr.'s death in 1954, Santo, Jr. succeeded his father as boss of Tampa. That same year, as Trafficante, Jr.'s control of Tampa's lucrative bolita racket had been threatened by congressional hearings on mob activities in the U.S., he officially settled in Havana along with Meyer Lansky. Lansky would become the top syndicate figure in Cuba, appointing Trafficante his second in command.
Within a few years, Trafficante owned or held stakes in both The Tropicana and The Sans Souci (the only casinos which had been operating in Havana for several years prior to 1955). Both clubs served drinks and meals which just about covered the operating costs. The profits from gambling amounted to approximately $5,000 a day, after "deductions". It was suspected that he also had behind-the-scenes interests in other syndicate owned Cuban gambling casinos namely those at, The Habana Riviera, The Nacional, The Sevilla-Biltmore, The Capri and the Havana Hilton. The newer casinos averaged even higher profits while the profits of the two original casinos remained more or less the same. Ironically, Lansky and Trafficante both avoided gambling. "Bartenders don't drink, because they see the consequences", Trafficante said at one point. "I know the odds are stacked against the players." According to a 1958 Treasury Department investigation The Tropicana casino (along with those at The Capri and The Nacional) were rumored to be using "bust-out dice" and "rigged equipment." According to their information the slot machines were "rigged for a very low pay off, due to the extremely high take off of the proceeds by officials."
Martín Fox and his brother Pedro continued to own the nightclub until the day they left Cuba. The casino nonetheless bore the name of Harry "Lefty" Clark (aliases: William Gusto, William G. Buschoff, Frank Bischoff), an associate of Trafficante's. There are disputing accounts of the extent of power that the Trafficante gang had over the club, but all records show that the Fox family maintained control over all operations of the club, even while hiring known mob figures to work at the casino, for example, Wilbur (no relation to Lefty) of Las Vegas's Desert Inn. and Pierre Canavese who had been previously deported from the U.S. to Italy but had subsequently entered Cuba by means of a fraudulent passport and was closely associated with Lucky Luciano
The showgirls at the Tropicana, known collectively as "Las Diosas de Carne" (or "Flesh Goddesses"), were renowned the world over for their voluptuousness, and the cabaret showcased a kind of sequin-and-feather musical theater that would be copied in Paris, New York, and Las Vegas. The lavish shows were staged by Neyra. Headliners included Xavier Cugat, Paul Robeson, Yma Sumac, Carmen Miranda, Nat King Cole, and Josephine Baker. Liberace never performed there officially, but took to the stage with mambo star Ana Gloria Varona on the one day in 1955 that he held a large party for the Cuban press corps. Heralded as a "Paradise Under the Stars", the Tropicana became known for its showgirls, conga sounds, domino tournaments and flashy, spectacular productions. In "Tropicana Nights" Nat King Cole's wife Maria 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?"
A Cabaret Guide issued in 1956 described The Tropicana as:
"the largest and most beautiful night club in the world. Located on what was once a 36,000-square-meter estate, Tropicana has ample room for two complete sets of stages, table areas and dance floors, in addition to well-tended grounds extending beyond the night club proper. Tall trees rising over the tables and through the roof in some spots lend the proper tropical atmosphere which blends well with the ultra-modern architecture of the night club. Shows include a chorus line of 50 and the dancers often perform on catwalks among the trees. Rhythms and costumes are colorfully native, with voodooism a frequent theme. Top talent is imported from abroad. Minimum at tables is $4.50 per person, but this can be avoided by sitting at central bar which has a good view of both stages."
An unpublished article sent to Cuban Information Archives around 1956-57 describes the club in detail:
"So as not to waste anyone's time, the gambling room at Tropicana is located right off the entrance lobby. The chandeliered room has ten tables for the usual fun and games, plus 30 slot machines lining the walls. Beyond the gambling room are the nightclub's two dining, dancing and show areas. The two areas are distinct: one is outdoors, with tall royal palms rising among and over the tables; the other is indoors and called the Crystal Arch. The Arch is indeed a huge, modernistic arch-like structure, and this area is used in inclement weather (and also when the outdoor area gets so crowded that there is no more room for customers). Tropicana's total seating capacity: 1,750, but of course you can stand at the bar or at the crap table, and the management won't object at all. Because of Tropicana's bucolic surroundings, the producer of the shows, Rodrigo Neira (better known simply as Rodney), can really spread himself. A Tropicana production number is not complete unless it includes at least half the chorus line dancing on catwalks among the trees. The schoolteacher from Paducah is suitable impressed when he sees scantily clad lassies scampering in front of him, to his right, to his left and above him. This is as hard on the neck muscles as watching a tennis match."
In 1956 Martín Fox arranged a special Club Tropicana tourist package: Cubana Airlines' Tropicana Special began a round-trip flight that ferried club customers from Miami to the Tropicana and returned them to Florida at 4am the following morning. 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.
The club soon became "a magnet for international celebrities, musicians, beautiful women, and gangsters.". The long list of stars who flocked to the Tropicana included Édith Piaf, Ernest Hemingway, Jimmy Durante, Pier Angeli, Maurice Chevalier, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Marlon Brando.
- Lowinger and Fox tell the story of Havana's notorious Tropicana nightclub, the template from which Las Vegas was made after the Batista government 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.
After the Revolution
The Cuban Revolution was to have serious repercussions for the mob's involvement in Cuba. As early as December 31, 1956 a bomb exploded at The Tropicana. Set by communist rebels, the explosion was contained to the bar area and one woman lost an arm. Despite this, and even as Castro's rebels began to overthrow Havana two years later, Trafficante was heard to insist that the revolution was, "a temporary storm" that would "blow over." Lansky, the son of Russian exiles, disagreed. "I know a communist revolution when I see one", he said. He was correct. The new Cuban president, Manuel Urrutia Lleó closed the casinos and nationalized all the casino and hotel properties. This action essentially wiped out both Trafficante and Lansky's asset base and revenue streams in Havana. Cutting his losses Lansky decided to flee Havana. Trafficante remained, hoping he could cut a deal with the new regime. But Castro was not interested. He wanted to make an example of the mob, and Trafficante was seen as someone involved with Batista. He was hunted down and arrested. On June 21, 1959, along with friends of his like Guiseppe di Giorgi and Jacob "Jake" Lansky, Meyer's brother, Trafficante was interned in the Tiscornia camp in Havana.
Martín and his wife Ofelia Suárez, who had no children, fled to Miami. Martín died of a stroke in the mid-1960s. Ofelia moved to Los Angeles with her long-time companion Rosa Sanchez, and their Glendale house became a gathering place and social center for Cuban-American friends and neighbors who continued the Tropicana tradition of domino tournaments. Ofelia died at age 82 on January 2, 2006 of cancer and complications from diabetes at Burbank's Providence St. Joseph Medical Center.
Tropicana's musical director is Chuchito Valdes, the son of Chucho Valdés.
The Tropicana continues to operate to this day, attracting tourists to its Cabaret Shows taking place at 9pm, Tuesday to Sunday, in the open-air Salon Bajo Las Estrellas (weather permitting). These days, foreign tour groups comprise the majority of patrons. The layout of the club means that from many of the seats the show is difficult to see, although no seats have a restricted view. In 2012, ticket prices were CUC 70, 80 and 90, each including 0.25 liters of rum and various combinations of drinks and snacks. Taxi fare is about 15 CUC from the city center (El Capitolio area).
- Tropicana.net - The Quarter
- Architecture, atmosphere and cuisine of Old Havana
- Tropicana Nights: The Life and Times of The Legendary Cuban Nightclub by Rosa Lowinger with Ofelia Fox (Harcourt Books, 2005)
- Havana Before Castro By Peter Moruzzi
- U.S. Treasury Department Bureau of Narcotics, September 1961
- Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba...and then Lost it to the Revolution by T.J. English
- Cuban Information Archives - Transcript of Document 0288 / Letter from Treasury Department United States Customs Service, Havana, Cuba to The Commissioner of Customs Division of Investigations Bureau of Customs, Washington, D. C. (Dated: March 27, 1958)
- Federal Bureau of Narcotics, International List No. 198
- Cabaret Quarterly, Special Resort Number, Volume Five, poss 1956, p56
- Havana Night Life by Jay Mallin, Sr.
- Night Club in the Sky
- U.S. House Of Representatives, Select Committee: Investigation of The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy - Thursday, September 28, 1978
- Associated Press: "Tropicana" 'first lady' Ofelia Fox dies
- Tropicana is changing
- Excerpt from Tropicana Nights: The Life and Times of the Legendary Cuban Nightclub by Rosa Lowinger and Ofelia Fox
- Moon Handbooks: Cuba (Avalon Travel Publishing, 2007). Detailed travel information for visiting the show.
- Mi Moto Fidel: Motorcycling Through Castro's Cuba (National Geographic Adventure Press, 2001). Includes description of the author meeting a Tropicana dancer and their subsequent love affair.
- Andy Carvin/Susanne Cornwall: A Night at the Tropicana - Photos of the show
- The History of Havana's Tropicana Club (in German)