The Tropicana, Havana’s Legendary Cabaret

The Tropicana, Havana’s Legendary Cabaret

“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?” Maria Cole, Nat King Cole’s wife.

The Tropicana, a world renown cabaret and nightclub, located in Havana’s suburban Marianao neighborhood, has been going strong since 1939. It evolved from a Havana nightclub, Eden Concert. Two casino operators and the Eden Concert’s owner formed a partnership and opened their combined casino and cabaret at Villa Mina, a lush tropical estate in the outskirts of Havana. Thus, on New Year’s Eve  1939, the Tropicana was born.

The Tropicana, Havana

The iconic nightclub has had a long and checkered history, but the Tropicana has always been associated with Las Diosas de Carne (Flesh Goddesses), as the showgirls are known. These scantily clad female dancers, their costumes mostly feathers and sequined thongs, dance and twirl across the outdoor stage as they have for decades in a show that begins at ten in the evening and doesn’t end until early the next day.

The Tropicana, Havana

The productions are lavish and extravagant.  The choreography  is superb and the orchestra plays the cabaret’s signature Afro-Cuban rhythms nonstop. During the club’s heydays in the 1950s, all of the costumes and sets were made on the premises. Designers and buyers were sent to Miami and New York to buy fabrics, shoes, etc.

The Tropicana, Havana

All that represents the Tropicana has helped spread Cuban culture around the world. There are Tropicana wannabes from Las Vegas to Atlantic City and beyond. Heck, there is even a brand of orange juice named after the cabaret. 🙂 In the TV show, “I Love Lucy,” Ricky Ricardo, played by Cuban born Desi Arnez, was the bandleader and singer at the fictional Tropicana nightclub that attempted to emulate its namesake.

The Tropicana, Havana

The Tropicana, Havana

During the 50s, Cuba, being just 90 miles from Florida, was a popular tourist destination for Americans. In 1957 the Tropicana arranged for Cubana Airlines to fly a plane load of wealthy revelers and gamblers from Miami to Havana every Thursday for a weekend at the cabaret and casino. The plane featured a wet bar stocked with everything imaginable, a scaled down version of the Tropicana’s orchestra, and, of course, a bevy of show girls. The club became:

“a magnet for international celebrities, musicians, beautiful women, and gangsters.”
Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba…and then Lost it to the Revolution by T.J. English

Be sure to watch the above video to get an idea of the high energy, pulsating music and dancing!

The club was owned by Martin Fox, a burly, uneducated, but well connected gambler from the Cuban countryside, during those extravagant years. The cabaret and its grandiose shows were his passion. However, the casino side of the business had been infiltrated and eventually controlled by Tampa mobster, Santo “Louie Santos” Trafficante Jr.

The Tropicana, Havana

The Tropicana, Havana

The Cuban Revolution brought everything to a halt in 1959. Castro closed all of the casinos and nationalized all of the casino and hotel properties in the country. The mobsters that weren’t able to escape were imprisoned. Martin Fox and his family fled to Miami.

The Tropicana, Havana

The Tropicana, Havana

Today the nightly shows at the Tropicana go on, albeit not in their former glory. The casinos are closed and the cabaret is a government bureaucracy. Tickets for the show cost close to $90, over four times the average Cuban’s monthly wage.

The Tropicana, Havana

The Tropicana, Havana

One sultry evening recently, Travelerlynne and I took in the non stop, high energy  show. It was a night to remember and a highlight of our Cuba trip. As I watched the show, I wondered what it must have been like in 1957 when the Tropicana was in it’s prime. Actually, I was there. As a kid on a weekend visit to Havana. Problem is,I just don’t recall much about it. But, I will savor and keep this recent memory.

Ron Mayhew

Fine Art Photographer specializing in Still Life and Commercial Photography.

This Post Has 16 Comments

  1. Yikes – I think my eyes hurt there’s so much color! Cannot imagine what it looked like in person.

    1. Yes, and nonstop for well over two hours.

  2. WOW……..WOW……WOW……
    I loved every minute of the video…..The Dancers, very sensual! The Colors fantastic!

    1. Thank you Sandy. It certainly was fun and a little fun is a good thing!

  3. Fun to see – the video really makes an impression. My parents were there in 1955 – still have some photos around from that trip. Definitely one of the reasons I’d like to travel to Cuba at some point too.

    1. Thanks Carol. There are times when video tell the story better than stills for sure. I would love to see your parents photos. I’ll bet they are great.

  4. What an amazing extravaganza. Your photos capture the energy perfectly. Wonderful! Thanks for letting us experience it vicariously. 🙂

    1. Extravagant for sure. Thanks for your kind comment Cathy.

  5. Love imagining Mrs Cole going gaga over the Tropicana – how strange it must be to go now, without all the other buzz around – but wonderful they keep the high kicks going and along with them the skills of all the people who make the show. Terrific post Ron – and unbeatable for this week’s ‘costume’ drama 🙂

    1. I thought the same thing about Mrs. Cole, what with all of their life experiences one would think she would be hard to impress. The entertainers work very hard at pleasing the crowd. They have long days, what with rehearsals and performing seven nights a week.

  6. These are some really great Pics my fried congratulations ! they depict this amazing show brilliantly!!!


    Thank you for visiting my blog today. I appreciate the time you took to stop by. May your day be filled with joy and peace.

    1. Thank you and you are welcome my friend. It was my pleasure.

  8. Amazingly vibrant dance video and photos, Ron. Thanks so much for sharing and also for the history behind them. 🙂

    1. It was a fun evening. Thank you for your kind comment Sylvia.

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