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Original Essays | September 15, 2014

Lois Leveen: IMG Forsooth Me Not: Shakespeare, Juliet, Her Nurse, and a Novel



There's this writer, William Shakespeare. Perhaps you've heard of him. He wrote this play, Romeo and Juliet. Maybe you've heard of it as well. It's... Continue »
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Tropicana Nights: The Life and Times of the Legendary Cuban Nightclub

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

 

 

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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 café 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 © 2005 by Rosa Lowinger and Ofelia Fox

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted

in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy,

recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission

in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should

be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc.,

6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

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lieslies, June 11, 2011 (view all comments by lieslies)
Rosita and ofelita tell a lot of stories and dance to the tune of Cuba's castro along with their comrades, but that's Ok. I am sure they'll find their place in the restoration of Cuba.

The truth is that there was a Cuba before 1900 and way before castro. That Cuba was mainly populated by Spaniards and they were civilized, Catholic law abiding citizens, contrary to the anti-Spanish and anti Catholic propaganda that has plagued this world since the reformation all the way to the present.

The terrorists of the middle ages and their cohorts have persecuted and destroyed everything that reminded or reminds them of the Golden Spanish Era and Cuba was that symbol. Read the history of what has triggered all the revolts in Cuba and who was and has been behind them.

Find out about the history of Cuban music (the real history), find out about the man who founded Communism in Cuba and where he came from hint eastern europe year 1917-1921. Did you know that Batista had beem a member of the Cuban Communist party, and that castro's revolution had nothing to do with the Cuban people. Do your research don't believe the superficial lies that propangadists feed you.

Yes Cuba is an architectural musem dating back all the way to Diego Velazquez first governor of Cuba. I was born in a a grand mansion in the province of Camaguey the weathiest province of Cuba aka Puerto Principe the first capital of Cuba. Industries of Camaguey included cattle and agriculture since the 1500's not casino gambling.

Cuba did not need American Gangter's money and their casino's to have a great economy nor did it need their cheap trashy architecture to add any value to our architectural beauty and Spanish heritage. In fact most wealthy and most midddle class Cubans saw the American Gangters, their casinos and their money nad their American clients as symbols of the moral corruption of many Americans whose indecent behaviour while in Cuba was total human depravation in contrast with the high moral and ethical values of the majority of an educated and sophisticated Cuban population.

These interventionists were are odds with the vast majority of the Cuban population who was trying very hard to restore law and order in Cuba to no avail. Batista had been aided by the US and the American Mafia. Castro had been aided by various American religious, activits and political groups, the American government, the American Mafia and the International Communists and Socialist groups. Castro was the last hope to bring down the moral and ethical values of the last remnants of the Spanish Medieval Era. I mean destroy anything and everything at any cost so that no memory would ever remain or be told. The truth from the beginning to end.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780151012244
Subtitle:
The Life and Times of the Legendary Cuban Nightclub
Publisher:
Mariner Books
Author:
Fox, Ofelia
Author:
Lowinger, Rosa
Subject:
History
Subject:
History & Criticism *
Subject:
Modern - 20th Century
Subject:
Entertainment & Performing Arts
Subject:
Entertainment & Performing Arts - General
Subject:
Caribbean & West Indies - Cuba
Edition Description:
Trade Cloth
Publication Date:
20061009
Binding:
Paperback
Language:
English
Illustrations:
One 16-page black-and-white photo insert
Pages:
448
Dimensions:
8 x 5.31 in 0.96 lb

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Tropicana Nights: The Life and Times of the Legendary Cuban Nightclub
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Product details 448 pages Harcourt - English 9780151012244 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "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.' Photos. Agent, Ellen Levine. (Oct. 31)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Synopsis" by ,
Of all Cuba's nightclubs and cabarets, Tropicana has always held place of honor. Part casino and part cabaret it was all Cuban: the only nightclub owned and run by Cubans rather than by the American mob. TROPICANA NIGHTS brings back the days and nights of its greatest glory, in the 1940s and 1950s, when Havana was one of the most sophisticated and vibrant tourist destinations in the world, and where the combination of music, dance, gambling, and sex made it irresistible to post-War America.

Co-written by Rosa Lowinger, a Havana-born American journalist who specializes in Cuban culture, and Ofelia Fox, the octogenarian widow of the nightclub's last proprietor, the book combines cultural history with memoir to reconstruct the days when, to thousands, Tropicana seemed like the most glorious place on earth-a "paradise under the stars." Part of the story recounted in this book is the growing bond between Lowinger and Fox, and how the older woman reveals to the younger what Tropicana came to represent. "If you grow up among Cuban exiles in Miami," Lowinger writes, "you quickly become used to 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." When Rosa met Ofelia, however, she realized that the Tropicana's story transcended generations, and that the only way to bring it to life was to combine memoir and narrative.

"Synopsis" by ,
It was to Havana what the Moulin Rouge was to Paris or the Blue Note to New York. The brightest jewel in 1950s Cuban nightlife, Tropicana was a "paradise under the stars" where you could gamble, hear the finest mambo and jazz musicians, and ogle the extravagantly risqué floorshows. Nat "King" Cole played Tropicana; so did Josephine Baker. Americans-celebrities and suburbanites both-were drawn to its kinetic sensuality and tropical setting. And Tropicana remained a uniquely Cuban institution; unlike most Havana nightclubs, it operated free from the American mob's control.

Journalist Rosa Lowinger and Ofelia Fox, widow of Tropicana's last owner, vividly portray the cultural richness and roiling social problems of pre-Revolutionary Cuba and take the reader on an intimate insider's tour of one of the world's most glamorous venues at its most brilliant moment.

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