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Tropicana turns 70, feathers, dancing gals and all

The Associated Press, Tuesday, December 29, 2009, 11:26am (PST)

HAVANA (AP) -- When the Tropicana nightclub and casino opened its doors in a leafy Havana garden on Dec. 30, 1939, World War II was raging in Europe, "Gone With the Wind" had just hit U.S. theaters and a rebellious youngster named Fidel Castro had just turned 13.

So much has changed in the 70 years since — but not the Tropicana show, which offers those willing to pay the price an intoxicating peek at an era when Cuba was America's naughty island playground, a place where nearly anything was possible, and legal.

The club marked its big anniversary this week with the same celebration of glamour and kitsch, sin and sensuality, sequins, feathers, showgirls and Latin beats that has made it one of the world's most famous — and infamous — nightspots.

In a gala that stretched past midnight Monday, about 850 tourists, government officials and special invitees watched tributes to Tropicana legends such as Nat King Cole and Rita Montaner and listened to pulsating salsa, samba and son music. There was a big band, a contortionist act, an a-cappella rendition of "The Banana Boat Song" and a two-man acrobatics team in skintight leotards.

And then there were the showgirls.

Showgirls wearing elaborate butterfly costumes; showgirls dressed up like Spanish bullfighters; showgirls sporting faux crystal chandeliers (with working lights) on their heads, gold and silver sequined string bikinis on their bodies.

It was as it has always been at the Tropicana, which bills itself as a slice of "paradise under the stars."

The club "remains an iconic location that is known the world over," said Maria Elena Lopez, Cuba's vice tourism minister, who turned out for the show. "It is one of the most important tourist destinations in Cuba and ... it has no equal."

David Varela, who has been the Tropicana's director since 2003, said the club drew a record 200,000 visitors in 2008. He expects that to drop to about 150,000 this year as a result of falling tourism amid the world economic crisis and the global swine-flu pandemic.

The club can seat as many as 1,500 people, though the normal capacity is 850. Tickets to a show cost about $80 including dinner — by far the most expensive night out in Havana. Shows start about 10 p.m. and go late into the night.

The Tropicana club was started by Italian-Brazilian show-biz producer Victor de Correa and two casino operators, but it became famous about a decade later when it fell under the sway of American mobsters Santo Trafficante Jr. and Meyer Lansky, who along with their frontmen drew big-name talent and hired the voluptuous cabaret girls known the world over as "Goddesses of the Flesh."

Among the stars who played the main stage, under a lush canopy of trees: Celia Cruz, Paul Robeson, Liberace, Orfelia Fox, Carmen Miranda and Yma Sumac. Many nights the audience was just as famous. Marlon Brando, Sammy Davis, Jr., Greta Garbo and other Hollywood stars came to the Tropicana, making it the ideal place to see and be seen.

There was even a Cubana airlines plane with live music and a wet bar to take patrons from Miami for the show and return them early the next day.

Shortly after Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, the Tropicana and other famous Cuban hotels and casinos were nationalized, and many of the gaming houses, brothels and strip clubs never reopened.

But the Tropicana endured — minus the gambling — sticking with the showy costumes, cabaret dancers and exorbitant prices that it was founded on, even as Cuba embraced a new communist ethos of egalitarianism, efficiency and sacrifice.

Most of the club's patrons have always been deep-pocketed foreigners, but some lucky Cubans were able to get in at deeply discounted prices, usually as a reward for excelling at work. The practice continued until late 2008, when President Raul Castro said the cash-strapped government could no longer afford the subsidy and others like it.

Attendance is down at the club, but Cuba's tourism industry as a whole is strong. The government recently said about 2.4 million vacationers will visit the island by the end of 2009, up 3.3 percent over last year's record — though overall industry revenues have slumped due to package deals and travelers making shorter stays.

And despite its high prices and 70-year-old act, the Tropicana still attracts a pretty big crowd.

"I couldn't come to Cuba without seeing the Tropicana," said Italian tourist Antonio Conti, 47, who was at the show with his wife and some friends, all of whom clapped and shouted along with the rest of the audience. "To miss this would be impossible."

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