HAVANA – Havana’s famed Tropicana nightclub turns 70 this week, its glamour days as an international celebrity haunt well behind it, but its future assured as a money-making hotspot for the cash-strapped Cuban government.
Scantily clad female dancers, their costumes mostly feathers and sequined thongs, writhed across its outdoor stage as they have for decades in a show that began on Monday night and ended Tuesday morning, marking the club’s opening on Dec. 30, 1939.
The show included an homage to stars like Carmen Miranda and Nat King Cole who performed amid Tropicana’s lush gardens and towering trees.
Photos of Cole flashed on screens behind the stage as two dancers swayed romantically to his song “Tenderly.”
Tropicana began as a casino and nightclub that, especially in the decade before Cuba’s 1959 revolution, attracted a steady stream of celebrities ranging from Marlon Brando to Maurice Chevalier. Some performed there and others simply mingled with the elegantly dressed clientele.
Their presence and the accompanying publicity made Tropicana one of the world’s best known nightspots.
At the time, Cuba, just 90 miles (145 km) from Florida, was a popular tourist destination for Americans, who have generally been banned from traveling there under a U.S. trade embargo in place since 1962.
Cuban gambler Martin Fox owned the club from 1950 on, but its casino, like many others in Havana at the time, was run by an associate of Santo Trafficante, a Florida mobster who had extensive holdings in Cuba.
After Fidel Castro and his bearded rebels toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista and took power on Jan. 1, 1959, they closed the island’s casinos. The nightclub, like almost everything in communist-led Cuba, became government property.
Cuban officials wrestled with how best to use Tropicana, but settled on using its past glory to make money in the name of promoting Cuban culture.
“This is an emblematic place for Cuba. It is one of Cuba’s most important tourist products,” Tourism Vice Minister Maria Elena Lopez said as she waited for the show to start.
The club’s tradition of flashy shows has continued, but club director David Varela said the goal now is to showcase Cuba, not just entertain.
The price of admission is equal to about $65, which is more than three times the average Cuban’s monthly salary. So most of the Tropicana’s customers are foreign tourists.
“Tropicana intertwines tourism with the national culture, and that is really what we export to the world – our national culture without any type of vice,” he told reporters.
The Tropicana spectaculars spotlight Cuban music and dance, putting on display “all the sensuality the Cuban has,” Varela said.
It is a tribute to Tropicana’s pre-Revolution stature that five decades after its heyday, it continues to be a big draw for tourists, and therefore a steady source of income for Cuba, which is in the midst of a financial crisis that has depleted its foreign reserves.
Varela said 250,000 people have gone to the club this year, which would equal just over 10 percent of the 2.42 million tourists the government recently said would visit the island in 2009.
He said some Tropicana visitors come away disappointed because the club is not the all-night dining, drinking and dancing experience it once was.
Most people are now bused in shortly before the show starts, and bused out after it’s over, with little time to linger over drinks as one might expect. Instead of cocktail dresses and business suit, the dress is mostly tourist casual.
What people may not understand, said Varela, is that Cuba, as one of the last communist countries, has a different way of doing things. Cuban cabarets are not like those elsewhere.
“Really, our cabaret has become a theater place where the message is cultural,” Varela said. “This is what has been created during all these years of revolution.”