NEW YORK — In a city in which Bungalows, Homes and Beds constitute a normal nightlife experience, it may be hard to imagine a time free of red velvet ropes and pushy security guards, when ladies dressed in their finest frippery to take in an evening show over drinks with their beaux. You may not be able to relive those days (or you may be too young to recall them), but thanks to “Tropicana Nights: The Life and Times of the Legendary Cuban Nightclub,” out now from Harcourt, you can pretend you were there.
An evocative history of the most famous Cuban cabaret club, Tropicana, in its Fifties heyday, the book chronicles the celebrity visits by luminaries such as Marlon Brando, Ava Gardner, Ernest Hemingway, Eva Marie Saint and Dorothy Dandridge, star-spangled performances and the illustrious cast of characters who helped secure its place in Cuba’s rich past. Cowritten by Rosa Lowinger, a writer and art conservator, and Ofelia Fox, wife of the club’s famed late owner, the idea for the book had been chasing Fox for 40 years, ever since she left Cuba, as a way to clear her husband’s name of any lingering Mob connection rumors. Then coincidence or fate brought the women together a few years ago when the Cuban-born Lowinger met Fox’s nephew and realized she lived merely 10 minutes from his aunt in Glendale, Calif.
“Tropicana is one of those places that looms large in the memory of most Cubans,” explains Lowinger of her fascination with the club. “When my parents came from Cuba with me in 1961, that’s one of the places they tended to talk about the most: the cabaret world, the glamour of it, the beauty of it.”
Before he moved to Miami in 1962, Tropicana operated for years under the ownership of the much-beloved Martin Fox, a small-town boy who worked his way up through the country’s gambling and entertainment paths. Standing on the lush Villa Mina, surrounded by overflowing gardens, the arresting exterior designed by the modernist architect Max Borges Jr., the club was a hotbed of social, political and cultural fermentation. It was a place where people came to gamble in the back rooms and take in expertly choreographed shows by performers like classical ballerina Leonela González, aerodynamic duo Chiquita and Johnson and even Carmen Miranda, all decked out in fantastic costumes — from silk kimonos straight from Asia to 20-foot-long velvet capes, courtesy of the establishment’s unlimited sartorial budget and 12 seamstresses.
The cabaret’s patrons were equally decked out, including Fox herself, who had her clothes made by a custom tailor — that is, when she wasn’t modeling the latest draped jersey Balmain, as she did for one New Year’s Eve. She would often match her outfits to the performers’ costumes, wearing, say, a Chinese dress to an Asian-themed show. If anything, all those glamorous clothes and people meant Tropicana was no place to stage an impromptu make-out session. “My table was on the second level,” remembers Fox. “And [one night] on the lower level, there was a couple that was kissing and hugging. And I told the maitre d’ to tell them to behave or get out. And he did. No hanky-panky.”
“At least on the surface,” adds Lowinger, slyly.
Try telling that to the folks at Marquee.