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Tropicana Nights: The Life and Times of the Legendary Cuban Nightclub
A little more than four decades after that momentous New Year's Eve in Havana, I was driving up the Glendale Freeway near Los Angeles, on my way to meet Ofelia Fox. It was a hot summer afternoon, and the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains loomed above the city, shrouded in yellow smog. Glendale is the third-largest city in Los Angeles County and home to the region's largest Cuban population. Though roughly fifteen miles east of where I had lived for over ten years, until a month earlier I had had no idea I lived so close to the widow of Tropicana's last owner. Until a few years before that, I had never given much thought to Tropicana, or any cabaret for that matter, Cuban or otherwise. I was in diapers when Batista's DC-6 flew over my grandparents' apartment building. Two years later, my parents and I were living in Miami. Tropicana belonged to the world that had been left behind, though my parents and their friends often spoke of it. "The most beautiful cabaret that ever existed," said my mother with characteristic Cuban bravado. "They called it 'A Paradise Under the Stars' because it was just that-a paradise," echoed my father, his voice thick with nostalgia.
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.
Then I saw it. The first time was in 1998. I had been going back to Cuba for a number of years. All four of my grandparents were Jewish immigrants, so our Cuban-based family was small and everyone left soon after the 1959 revolution. Yet I am an art conservator by training, and for years I had been eager to see the country's architecture, and particularly that of Havana, where I was born. Havana is an architectural historian's dream. Walk from one end of the city to the other and you will pass stunning examples of almost every major architectural style that has existed since the mid-fifteen hundreds. Many of the buildings are in terrible disrepair. But look behind the peeling paint and rusting grillwork and you will find astonishing details: murals, stained glass, black terrazzo, iridescent tiles, glazed terracotta, and granite facades inlaid with bronze. The list goes on and on. I began returning to Havana to participate in restoration workshops with my Cuban colleagues and to teach aspiring conservators there techniques to repair bronze and marble monuments and modern art. By the late 1990s, when tourism was flourishing in Cuba, I was often sought out to lead groups of Americans who were prohibited by U.S. law from visiting Cuba other than for the purpose of cultural research, or a type of travel termed "People-to-People Exchange," intended to foster socio-cultural understanding between the two nations. Between 1998 and 2003, Havana was jam-packed with tour groups from practically every museum, alumni group, film society, and religious and cultural institution in America. Tropicana was a common evening destination for these tour groups, touted as offering the archetypal Cuban song-and-dance experience. It was mainly for tourists now; the minimum entry price was three times the average Cuban monthly salary.
In 1998 I went to Tropicana with a group from the National Trust for Historic Preservation's study tour to Cuba. After a day of sightseeing, we sat at a long table in Tropicana's Bajo las Estrellas, the club's outdoor performance space, drinking rum-and-Cokes and watching the spectacle of silky-skinned, scantily clad dancers and muscled acrobats. Singers belted out Afro-Cuban songs. The show was astounding-an hour and a half of satin, feathers, fishnets, G-strings, towering headdresses that looked like chandeliers, and blaring horns and hammering congas. Some in my group covered their ears. "This is too loud!" they complained. Others got up and danced. Still others were struck dumb by the six-foot-tall women parading down the catwalks and inviting members of the audience to dance with them.
I, too, was struck dumb, but for entirely different reasons. Before that night, Tropicana had only been a name, a place as removed from my life as the archeological sites in the Middle East I had worked at during my art conservation training. Now it was as if I were walking into someone else's dream and realizing it was also mine. Tucked among clusters of fruit trees, flowering shrubs, and vine-choked royal palms, was some of the finest modernist architecture I had ever seen. It was like discovering an ancient temple in a jungle, though here the structures were made of glass and concrete, and the forms were 1950s-era shell vaults, parabolic arches, geometric sculptures, and Charles Eames furniture. The architectural centerpiece of Tropicana is a building known as Arcos de Cristal, a cavernous performance space formed by slender concrete arches and soaring walls of glass. Giant fruit trees, left in situ during construction, punctuate the interior. Arcos de Cristal, I later learned, 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."
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.
OFELIA FOX lives on a steep street I had passed many times. Her block, located technically a few doors down from Glendale's city limits, dead-ends at the back entrance to the Forest Lawn Memorial Park, the most "Hollywood" of cemeteries. Errol Flynn, Nat "King" Cole, and Sammy Davis Jr. are buried there, and every half hour there is a sound-and-light show in front of a large stained glass mural depicting Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper. Years ago, when I first moved to Los Angeles, I restored some marble sculpture for Forest Lawn. When the project was finished, I never thought I'd be back in the area again. Yet there I was, parking my car in front of a neat red-tile-roofed Spanish house. A long flight of steps led to the front door. They were lined with planters in the shape of dogs, cats, elephants, deer, and, of course, foxes. When I reached the top, I stopped to catch my breath on a porch crowded with orchids, palms, and gnomes. Colored flags and wind chimes hung mutely in the August stillness. Next to the doorbell was an engraved bronze plaque. "On this site, in 1897, nothing happened." Another smaller plaque read, "Happiness lives here. We do too."
I'm in pretty decent shape, but I was winded. I wondered whether it was from nervousness, though I couldn't imagine why. I had learned of Ofelia Fox's existence by accident, several years after my first visit to Tropicana. I had been playing hooky from one of my tour groups and sitting in an Old Havana cafandeacute; with a noted Cuban filmmaker, who introduced me to a relative of hers. When the relative learned I was from Los Angeles, he sidled over to me and began crowing about his family's connection to the Tropicana. His great aunt had been married to Tropicana's owner. "I want to write a screenplay," he said. "It would make a great movie. I can see it. We just need to add a love interest, a showgirl, and a revolutionary. Two lovers separated by political circumstance. Something like that." He and his great aunt were not on good terms, he admitted, but he still carried her phone number. I took down the number, surprised to see that the area code was the same as mine.
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.
Copyright and#169; 2005 by Rosa Lowinger and Ofelia Fox
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