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Nightlife - Gambling

[REF: Cabaret Quarterly, Special Resort Number, Volume Five, poss 1956, p43]



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HAVANA at night is a glit-back velvet of the Caribbean.  She is a seductive sorceress exuding an essence of warmth and idolence and delicious lethargy.  Her streets throb with a dark and pulsating beat.  The air is a heavy, aphrodisiacal wine that dissolves the inhibitions and dissipates restraint.  The tourist is caught in a heady torrent of rich laughter and swept along in swirling freshets of gaiety.  The music is everywhere.  Time is an endless round of dark rum and rhumba, light rum and marimbas, for Havana is the mistress of pleasure, the lush and opulent goddess of delights.

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[caption] Roulette tables are tourist attraction at casinos
in big hotels, at Tropicana and Montmartre clubs.


YOU SIT at the sidewalk cafes near the Capitolio sipping your daiquiri and the crowd flows by; the Spanish beauties with their soft black eyes in camelia pale faces, the Cuban men in light tropical linens, the young mulatto girls like bright flowers in their dresses of crimson silk with impudent breasts arched high and forward, and the pale tourists from the north, free of care, seeking the diversions of the tropical night.

Havana has many diversions and gambling is one of them.

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[caption] National lottery pays fantastic prices.  Pellets
containing numerals are whirled within steel cages.

A quarter of a century ago Havana was a winter gathering place for heavy spenders.  In the years that followed, however, other Caribbean areas spent lavish sums to attract American tourists.  Shortsighted tourist officials and hotel owners in Havana did not do the same, and the tourist trade languished.

Then in 1952-1953, the gambling business in Cuba hit bottom following the famed "razzle-dazzle" scandal.  Several Havana nightclubs installed razzle-dazzle, a tricky dice game in which customers have virtually no chance of winning–but can, and usually do, lose heavily.  With this game the nightclubs were milking tourists of hundreds of thousands of dollars weekly, until finally the Cuban government banned the game.  A dozen unscrupulous American gamblers who had been operating it were deported.

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[caption] Lottery has been a national sport for many years.
Back in 1946, venders used to peddle huge numerals.

Soon afterwards, with the golden flood now halted, the big Casino Nacional closed because it was losing more than it took in.  (Once the most famous nightclub in Latin America, it was torn down this year to make way for a golf course.)  Sans Souci, another big nightclub,

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Betting has become way of life in Cuba.  At left windows take bets on jai alai matches.
Below, bookie at cockfight shouts bets.

was able to stay open only at intervals.  By 1955 there remained only two big nightclubs with gambling facilities: Tropicana and Montmartre.

In the meantime, however, hit by an economic recession, the Cuban government set about to recapture the tourist trade.  A major move was the enactment of a law permitting hotels worth over $1,000,000 to install gambling.  Gambling devices were also to be permitted in other places deemed suitable by the official Tourist Institute.

Enactment of the law in 1955 set off a chain reaction of activity.

Wilbur Clark, who runs Las Vegas' Desert Inn, secured the concession to open a casino in the Hotel Nacional, the country's largest hotel.  The casino, the first in a Havana hotel, opened in January of 1956.  The casino is divided into the Casino Parisien (dining and dancing), the International Casino (gambling) and the Starlight Terrace (bar).

Sans Souci was remodeled at a cost of about one million dollars by an American group.  It reopened in time for the 1956 tourist season, and has not closed since.  The nightclub has all the usual gambling facilities–roulette, craps, slot machines, blackjack and chemin de fer.  In addition, Sans Souci has two novelties: bingo, with $1,000 prizes, and a "money crap game," in which bettors bet against each other instead of against the house which simply collects a percentage.

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[caption]  Called most beautiful club in world.  Tropicana's decor is
ultra-modern -- club accommodates 1,750.


In any tour of Havana there is one "must" that should be on any pleasure seeker's list–a visit to the fabulous Tropicana.

Known as "the most beautiful nightclub in the world," it is also the world's largest.  Located on what was once a private estate, its grounds cover a total of 36,000 square meters of which the nightclub occupies 8,000, the rest is a huge and beautifully kept garden.  Tropicana has a total seating capacity of 1,750 in outdoor and indoor areas.  The shows are large colorful productions that rival the scope of Hollywood musicals.

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[caption] Latin comics are intermixed with Cuban beauties.

For the grandeur of the place prices are extremely reasonable.  There is a $2.00 minimum per person to enter the Tropicana.  The minimum per person at the tables is $4.50 week nights and $5.00 on Saturday nights and it takes $4.50 to buy a solid meal.  A highball is tabbed

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at a dollar.  Sitting at the bar and tables around it the customer pays only for what he drinks.

A unique feature initiated by the Tropicana to draw the Florida crowd has no parallel anywhere in the night club world.  It's a round-trip flight from Miami, an hour away.  The Tropicana special takes off every Thursday night and returns to Miami at four a.m.  From the minute the customer steps aboard the plane in Miami the evening is under way.  Drinks are served and there is even a small floor show during the flight to Havana.  The lavish part of the evening of course is at the Tropicana with the big show and choice tables.  Everything is included in the package deal: the flight, the drinks, the eats, the show.  The tab at the end of the evening $70.00.

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[caption] Lavish production numbers with chorus lines made up of American and Cuban girls are spectacular entertainment feature.  New gimmick in promoting tourists is special round-trip flight from Miami.

In the plush clubs, Tropicana, Montmartre, and Sans Souci the showgirl comes into her own in the glittering productions.

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The Cuban standard of beauty prevails.  The ideal woman to the Cuban is a plump and saucy creature.   They like their girls to look like girls and the Cuban girls meet the specifications marvelously.
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[caption] Men make passes at these girls with glasses:
Jennie Leon and Isa Reynolds.

[caption] Cuban chorus girl displays latest in a-peeling attire.
[caption] Latin look-alikes from "Bahionado" show:  Gladys Roban, Nancy Quesada.
[caption] Mixed chorus of American and Latin types attract trade.

[caption] Cuban Bombshell, Olga Chaviano, was Havana hit.

Though many bounteous displays of gorgeous gals can be found in the revues at the big clubs, the stripper, whose stock in trade is a net bra and a G-string, is a relative rarity in Havana.  While "exotics" such as Betty Howard and Bubbles Darlene have played clubs there the strip acts have been mostly confined to infrequent appearances in variety shows at the legit theatres like the Compoamor and the Marti.  Whether influence of big-time U.S. operators will mean importation of big names in the peel profession as it did in Las Vegas is still a matter for speculation.  U.S. operators in the past have been responsible for importing other big names in the bistro business.

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WHEN GAMBLING became the center of interest in the big clubs name talent was a scarcity in Havana and it has become an axiom of the business that the big names draw the crowd so plans to remedy the situation quickly got under way.

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[caption] Star performer Dorothy Dandridge sang at Sans Souci in line with policy of big name talent.

Since then changes have been made.  Name talent has become a standard attraction and there is strong competition among the big clubs to land the biggest acts in show business.

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[caption] Immortal Frenchman Maurice Chevalier drew big crowds for operators of plush Montmartre club.

Sans Souci featured Denise Darcel, Edith Piaf, Ilona Massey, Cab Calloway, Dorothy Dandridge, Tony Martin and Ginny Simms.

Continental chanteuse Edith Piaf enchanted assemblage at Sans Souci as did countrywoman Denise Darcel with special acts.  Crowds came for show, stayed to gamble.

The Casino Parisien had Eartha Kitt, Toni Arden, Teddy and Phyllis Rodriguez, Constance Towers, the De Marco Sisters, Vicente Escudero and his Group, the De Castro Sisters and Chiquita and Johnson.

Montmartre showcased Dorothy Lamour, Maurice Chavalier and Jacqueline Francois.

At the Tropicana names like Johnny Puleo and the Harmonica Gang, Billy Daniels and Nat "King" Cole drew the customers in.

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ONE OF HAVANA'S notable attractions is its least publicized one.  This is the Shanghai Theatre–the naughtiest theatre in the world.

The Shanghai offers three-sided sex: risque plays, altogether naked women and pornographic movies generally never seen outside the smoke filled rooms of stag parties.  The Shanghai is the only theatre of its type in Havana–and perhaps anywhere in the world.  It does not operate behind secret doors or even in private: you pay your admission $1.25 for good seats– and you walk right in.

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Admission to Shanghai is gained for mere $1.25.  Program consists of risque plays, raw burlesque and stag movies.  Proprietor Jose Orozco Garcia, top, can see nothing wrong in showing stag films: "These films were made in New York and Paris," he says.

There have been other burlesque houses in Havana, but poor business and reform efforts have wiped them out.  The Shanghai, by keeping publicity to a minimum, has managed to escape the attention of the law.  No cameras are permitted inside, although Cabaret photographers have managed to take some pictures.  (One of these is now featured in the lobby of the theatre.)

The Shanghai is an old theatre, and it shows its age.  It is hot, uncomfortable and usually smelly.  It seats 750 persons, and on a Saturday night is packed.

There are two shows nightly, and a matinee on Sundays.  The shows consists of the three aforementioned parts.  It starts out with the first scene of a risque play.  Then follows a musical "review," in which half a dozen or so women wind up completely nude.  For about an hour and a half the scenes of the play alternate with the reviews, with an occasional single act thrown in.  These "singles" consist of singers and comedians, most of whom have been at the Shanghai for years–and haven't changed their acts in all that time.

After the live show, the theatre is darkened, and movies are shown.

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Despite an ordinance forbidding cameras, Cabaret photographer obtained exclusive pictures of stage show.  One picture from series is now featured in lobby of theater.  Orozco's biggest problem is not law but scarcity of talent: "Ours is a small country and there are not many girls who consent to strip."

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