As Cuba and the U.S. continue to warm up to each other, new Miami hotspot El Tucan is set to add some serious sizzle to the courtship.
HAVANA, Dec. 31th On December 30, 1939, at a villa on the outskirts of Havana, doors opened at what would become one of the world’s most famous cabarets. It was called the Tropicana—and for the next 20 years, it became the epicenter of hedonism, a veritable bacchanalian eden for the jet set.
Ernest Hemingway drank there. So did J.F.K. Marlon Brando supposedly tried to buy the drum set right off the stage—before taking off with two of the establishment’s best showgirls instead. The performers became celebrities and the show was so popular that, in 1956, the Tropicana debuted its first promotional flight from Miami to Havana, entertaining revelers on a Cubana de Aviación plane with in-air performances.
Then, toward the end of the 1950s, Fidel Castro took control of the country and everything changed; the club’s owners quickly fled (or were imprisoned) and the showgirls’ travel was greatly restricted. Americans, needless to say, were no longer welcome.
Today, however, marks a new era for the Tropicana. The club’s famous entertainers are set to perform at new Miami hotspot El Tucan for a New Year’s Eve bash that’s set to make history: When the feathered and bedazzled dancers hit the stage tonight, it’ll be the first time in 32 years they’ve done so in the United States.
“The arrival of the Tropicana dancers to the States is a sign,” said Havana-based filmmaker and producer of the show, Rolando Almirante. “It is like a greeting from Cuba, which is why we called the show Ola Havana. We wanted to use this moment to bring the roots of the two shores together again.”The performance is the culmination of a long, arduous—and surprising—journey that began over a year ago, when nightlife impresarios Mathieu Massa and Michael Ridard signed a 20-year lease on a space in upcoming Miami neighborhood Brickell with plans to open a Cuban cabaret.
“We had no idea what was about to happen between the two countries,” said Massa, a French transplant who, along with partner Ridard, owns Miami eateries Baoli and Marion. “A few weeks after we signed, [President] Obama shook the hand of Raul Castro for the first time in I don’t know how many years.”
Massa and Ridard had already teamed up with Cuban-American Emilia Menocal (director of the Charlize Theron–produced doc East of Havana) to create a dinner and show experience at El Tucan that would pay homage to the glamorous Cuban cabarets of the 1940s and ’50s. The trio, along with their team of creatives, began visiting Cuba in late 2014 and early 2015 to conduct some very fun research: “We rented a house in Havana and began going out every single night to every single live performance to get inspiration for the atmosphere and performance,” said Massa.
The biggest lesson he learned? “The personality of the characters and the performers is key to getting the audience emotionally involved,” he said—which is why El Tucan’s bartenders and waiters also had to audition for the gig.
As Massa and his team got to work on the new space, Cuban-American relationships continued to warm up. “I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to create a bridge, to give the opportunity to the younger Cuban-American generation to learn about their cultural heritage by bringing the jewel of the country—the Tropicana—here,” he said. Again, his timing was impeccable: After tracking down the man in charge at the Tropicana, Massa was informed that the cabaret was already planning a world tour. It was decided then, that the tour would kick off in Miami at the El Tucan.
“It’s very symbolic that we’re starting in Miami,” said Almirante, who, along with Massa, noted that there was plenty of red tape to cross. “We’ve been working on this a long time. But we feel that all that work will pay off.”
The one-hour performance will feature 15 dancers, two live singers—and 12 outfit changes (fun fact: the costumes arrived in nine crates from Cuba, weighing a staggering 850 pounds). And, if performer Alisbet Rebe Reyes, aka La Santiaguera, has any say in it, it will indeed be truly unforgettable.
“It is my first time in Miami and an absolute honor,” she said. “I am excited to share a piece of my culture and to give native Cubans in Miami a taste of home. I am emotional and ready to give the best performance Miami has ever seen. Get ready for some flavor!”