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A Cuban showbiz 'paradise' is still putting on the glitz

HAVANA - When the Tropicana nightclub and casino opened 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.

HAVANA - When the Tropicana nightclub and casino opened 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 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: one wearing elaborate butterfly costumes; dressed up like Spanish bullfighters; sporting faux crystal chandeliers (with working lights) on their heads, and 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 has no equal."

David Varela, 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 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 costliest night out in Havana. Shows start about 10 p.m. and go late into the night.

The club was started by Italian-Brazilian showbiz 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 as "Goddesses of the Flesh."

Among the stars who played the main stage: Celia Cruz, Paul Robeson, Liberace, and Carmen Miranda. 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 the next day.

Shortly after 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 could get in at deeply discounted prices, usually as a reward for excelling at work. But in late 2008, President Raul Castro said the cash-strapped government could no longer afford the subsidy and others like it.

Although attendance is down at the club, it still attracts a pretty big crowd.

"I couldn't come to Cuba without seeing the Tropicana," said Italian tourist Antonio Conti, 47. "To miss this would be impossible."

Arrested American Gets Visit

The Cuban government has given a U.S. diplomat access to a jailed American citizen accused of providing satellite communications equipment to dissident groups while working as a government contractor, a U.S. official in Havana said yesterday.

The case has further strained U.S.-Cuba relations after months of slow but steady progress toward easing their half-century diplomatic standoff.

The consular visit took place Monday at an undisclosed location where the American is being held after his arrest in early December, said Gloria Berbena, a spokeswoman at the U.S. Interests Section, which Washington maintains in Havana instead of an embassy.

Berbena and State Department spokesman Ian Kelly declined to give further details on the encounter, the detained man's whereabouts, or his condition, citing privacy laws. Neither government has identified him.

The State Department has said he is a subcontractor for the Maryland-based Development Alternatives Inc. Jim Boomgard, its president and chief executive, said the man was part of a new USAID program to "strengthen civil society in support of just and democratic governance in Cuba."

After two weeks of silence, President Raul Castro on Dec. 20 acknowledged the detention, saying the American was arrested for distributing illegal satellite equipment. "The United States won't quit trying to destroy the revolution," Castro said.

- Associated Press