Bajo las Estrellas (Under the Stars), Tropicana’s outdoor nightclub designed by Max Borges, Jr.
Courtesy The Wolfsonian-FIU

Next Friday, May 6, Promising Paradise: Cuban Allure, American Seduction opens at The Wolfsonian-FIU. Featuring more than 500 photographs, posters, and other objects, the show examines Cuba-US relations in the first part of the 20th century, and the cultural influences that left their mark in both countries. Here, the show’s organizers—Vicki Gold Levi, Rosa Lowinger, and Francis X. Luca—share some of their favorite pieces in the show.

Vicki Gold Levi is a collector, curator, and co-author of Cuba Style: Graphics from the Golden Age of Design. The works in Promising Paradise are drawn primarily from a gift of more than 1,000 pieces to the Wolfsonian made by Gold Levi.

Miguelito Valdés, c. 1955
Courtesy The Wolfsonian-FIU

I grew up watching “I Love Lucy” and was introduced to the music and the Cuban persona of Desi Arnaz playing the irrepressible Ricky Ricardo. We all loved him, especially when he broke out in song, playing the congas and singing “Babalú.” And he was good. But when I saw and heard the original “Mr. Babalú,” Miguelito Valdés, sing the same song, I felt chills up my spine. Who in the US knew that it was an homage to a Santería deity? Valdés’ powerful, throbbing voice, his passion for the music, and his rhythmic conga playing was otherworldly. He did come to New York, where he played with Xavier Cugat and also at the Havana Madrid nightclub, and he was a legend in Cuba. He remained one of my favorite musical discoveries (along with his friend, the great musician Chano Pozo).

Cover of the February 1929 issue of Social magazine, illustrated by José Manuel Acosta
Courtesy The Wolfsonian-FIU

My rediscovery of the magazine Social was another source of joy on my road to unearthing Cuba’s artistic treasures of vintage popular culture—first for my book, Cuba Style, and then for the exhibition at the Wolfsonian. It’s not as if you can just walk into a US store or library and research or buy something from Cuba. First, you have to know that these materials exist, and then comb the Internet or reach out to contacts.

When I first came upon a bound issue of the entire 1927 year of Social issues, I was amazed. The breathtaking cover designs, mostly in the Art Deco style, were so on par with American and French magazines of the time, and in my opinion they surpassed their contemporaries in wit and originality. The brilliant Cuban illustrator Conrado Massaguer founded and art-directed the magazine, and placed much emphasis on the Art Moderne style. Every time I came across an issue, it was another jewel in the artistic crown of Cuban magazines.

The very architectural, Deco image of a couple shown here, from a 1929 issue, is by Acosta, a wonderful artist and illustrator. Today in Havana, you can finally go to a store that sells magazines, maps, photos, etc., called Memorias—right next to Sloppy Joe’s. Maybe you will find a Social magazine, if you get lucky.

Sample labels from the Compañía Litográfica de La Habana, c. 1935
Courtesy The Wolfsonian-FIU

When I discovered, through a Cuban friend of mine, four leather-bound books dating from 1935, which held original Cuban lithographic labels produced by the Compania Lithographica in Havana, my heart pounded. It was, to me, a cultural archaeological discovery! I had been researching Cuban iconography since 1999, yet had never seen the likes of these magnificent labels, which are true windows on the consumer desires of an earlier era. Paris perfumes, stylish clothes, sweet-smelling soaps, chocolates, canned lobster, Cuban fruits and vegetables—the list goes on. But what was really thrilling was the incredible condition of the labels. They had retained their brilliant colors, with raised gold letters, or patterns and witty designs. It’s a real rarity to have such pristine, and beautiful, time capsules of Cuba’s past.

Rosa Lowinger is a noted conservator in the fields of art, architecture, and public spaces. The Cuban-born Lowinger is co-author of Tropicana Nights: The Life and Times of the Legendary Cuban Nightclub.

Before I visited Tropicana in 1998, the place had been only a name linked with my parents’ nostalgia for the country we had left behind in 1961. But then I saw it. Tucked into a tangle of gardens were outdoor sculptures and one of the best modern buildings I had ever seen (first photo in this article).

It was like discovering a long forgotten temple in a jungle, though here the structures were made of glass and concrete, and the forms were 1950s-era shell vaults, parabolic arches, and geometric sculptures—like the one pictured here on the stage of Bajo las Estrellas, Tropicana’s outdoor nightclub. Designed by architect Max Borges, Jr. as part of the outdoor club’s 1953 renovation, the sculpture is still used today, together with a series of catwalks that bring the gardens to life as part of the shows. You can almost hear the music in a photo like this. You can hear the rustle of the trees and see the dancers on the stage, the showgirls on the catwalks, the clinking of patrons’ glasses, and Tropicana’s larger-than-life owner Martin Fox threading through the tables, his ubiquitous highball glass of Ancestor whiskey in his hand.

A page from the brochure, Recuerdo de una noche inolvidable en Tropicana (Souvenir of an Unforgettable Night at the Tropicana),  c. 1955
Courtesy The Wolfsonian-FIU

In 2003, inspired by my visits to Tropicana, I decided to write a novel about Cuba’s nightclub era. Through a series of connections I met Ofelia Fox, the widow of Tropicana’s owner. On my first visit to her house, she sat me at her in-house full bar, served cocktails, and brought out her photo albums.

She showed me pictures of Liberace dancing onstage, and of her meeting Joan Crawford, and clinking glasses while wearing a mink stole gifted to her by Santo Trafficante of the Tampa mob. She let me leaf through menus, posters, and advertising brochures like this one, slyly luring me into the world of the Paradise Under the Stars without stating directly that the cabaret’s true story was better than anything I could invent for a novel.

A page from the brochure, Recuerdo de una noche inolvidable en Tropicana (Souvenir of an Unforgettable Night at the Tropicana),  c. 1955, showing the Arcos de Cristal designed by Max Borges, Jr.
Courtesy The Wolfsonian-FIU

In one day I learned that Tropicana’s range of artistry encompassed everything that was culturally brilliant about 1950s Cuba. It had the era’s most cutting-edge music, dance, graphic design, and architecture. Its architectural centerpiece, Max Borges’ Arcos de Cristal, was one of only two Cuban buildings included in a 1954 Museum of Modern Art exhibition about Latin American modern architecture. Add to that the workings of a casino, a nightly bingo draw, an underground bolita bank, and owners who knew they were making history with their venue, and I was hooked.

Diosas de carne (Goddesses of the Flesh), 1958
Courtesy The Wolfsonian-FIU

1958: Tropicana’s superstar choreographer Rodney stages a tribute to female sexuality based on the women of Greek literature and mythology, titled Diosas de carne, or goddesses of the flesh. Medusa, Antigone, Helen of Troy, Venus, Diana, and Minerva, among others, are played by Tropicana’s stunning showgirls. Rodney conjures Greece in his own way—for example, by displaying one of the goddesses bathing in a champagne goblet.

While writing Tropicana Nights, I used to comb the Internet for images of Tropicana, such as this one, that I could show Ofelia and the performers I was interviewing to get historical information and juicy tidbits. But every time I was about to buy one of these photos, someone would scoop it up before me. Eventually I learned the name of this buyer: Vicki Gold Levi. When we finally met, it was a second love at first sight (the first being my meeting with Ofelia.) Vicki loaned many images for publication in Tropicana Nights.

Francis X. Luca is chief librarian at The Wolfsonian-FIU.

As Vicki Gold Levi’s donation to The Wolfsonian museum included hundreds of vintage photographs—most dating from the 1950s—one of my first tasks was to try to identify some of the less-renowned Cuban entertainers captured in the silver gelatin silver prints. While it was easy to spot singers and musicians who had achieved international fame, such as Benny Moré, Xavier Cugat, Celia Cruz, Miguelito Valdés, and Desi Arnaz, it proved far more challenging to identify some of the many dancers and vedettes who performed at popular tourist nightspots, like Sans Souci and Tropicana, and others, such as the Bambu Club and Ali Bar, which catered to the locals.

Ramón Figueroa, Roxana Martín, and Juan de la Portilla performing at Sans Souci, c. 1955
Courtesy The Wolfsonian-FIU

Knowing that one of my neighbors, Juan de la Portilla, had been a professional dancer in Cuba during this time, I decided to enlist his help. I made a slideshow of some digital photos I had taken of the originals and took notes as he recalled many of the names and faces. What was most gratifying of all was the moment that an image of three dancers pictured center stage at Sans Souci flashed on my computer screen. Juan immediately became animated and beamed with pride as he pointed to the image and exclaimed: “That is my best friend, Ramón Figueroa, myself, and my ‘sister’”—(his common expression for Roxana Martín, the “girl I grew up with”).

I later discovered another photograph picturing Juan center stage again, this time with a pair of female dancers in Asian costumes. My co-curator, Rosa Lowinger, author of Tropicana Nights, identified it as having taken place at that most famous of nightclubs, the venue where Juan performed for most of his career in Cuba.

Ramón Figueroa, Roxana Martín, and Juan de la Portilla performing the Cabalgata dance, c. 1955
Courtesy The Wolfsonian-FIU

Not only was my neighbor generous with his time and knowledge, but he also donated several photographs from his personal collection, including one capturing a Cabalgata dance which Ramón, Roxanna, and Juan performed for a CMQ television broadcast. Afterwards, Juan also facilitated the loan of the dress worn by his partner, Roxana, for display in the exhibition.

Dress worn by Roxana Martín in the Cabalgata dance performed for CMQ Television, c. 1955
Courtesy The Wolfsonian-FIU

Promising Paradise: Cuban Allure, American Seduction opens May 6, 2016 at The Wolfsonian-FIU, where it runs through August 21.