Glitz and glamour at the legendary Tropicana

Long before she could sing, Monica Leticia Morua dreamed of Tropicana. Her afternoons as a young girl were spent listening to live broadcast performances via her family’s radio in the resort town of Varadero. The sounds of boleros and mambos carried her, mentally, from her coastal home east of Havana into the electric, pulsing bandshell where Havana’s elite and tourists danced and drank the night away.

Twenty years later, her fantasy became reality when she took the stage under Tropicana’s celebrated bright lights. The orchestra, a booming 90-person ensemble, heralded her entrance as Morua made her Tropicana premiere.

“It is maravilloso,” she says. “There is no other place like it.”

While most of Cuba’s facades have crumbled, Tropicana remains synonymous with luxury and splendor. From its inception in the 1930s, the nightclub has been a landmark for Cuban culture, hosting local and international artists and becoming one of the most legendary cabarets in the Americas.

Even as time and economic hardship began to take its toll on the building and its lineup, it remained a cultural icon, drawing collectors like American Vicki Levi to collect memorabilia from its pre-revolution golden days. She has brought that memorabilia to Miami’s Wolfsonian Museum in “Promising Paradise: Cuban Allure, American Seduction,” now showing.

The voice of crystal

When it opened, Tropicana was a hub for American mafiosos looking to gamble. But when fascist dictator Flugencio Batista was overthrown, revolutionary fighters bombed the venue as a sign of protest against capitalist extravagance. The casino and all nightclubs on the island were immediately closed and reopened sans gambling, searching for other ways to make that money.

“When the revolution happens and when gambling revenues end, they’re left with a loss on how to handle finances,” says Rosa Lowinger, historian and author of “Tropicana Nights: The Life and Times of the Legendary Cuban Nightclub.” “They start being a club that plays to visiting dignitaries.”

Born to a family of artists and musicians, Morua first took the colossal stage in 1971 with her brother, Luis Morua, and his quartet, the iconic Los Zafiros. She was known across the country as “the voice of crystal” and sang regularly for a crowd filled with international tourists and local elite.

When the lights would come up under the soaring roof, the stage would fill with beautiful dancers. Better known as “Las Diosas de Carne,” they were dressed in provocative costumes, underscoring Morua’s performance with powerful sashays and flourishes.

“Just talking to you about [La Tropicana], it gives me chills” says Morua. “There is not one person who goes and does not marvel at their beauty.”

The underside of the glitz

But the Tropicana was reserved for privileged classes in Cuba, even after the revolution. As an artist, Morua had access that few other Cubans had — access that gave her a direct window into the entitlement that the elite enjoyed.

After one performance in the mid-1970s, she remembers a well-known comandante from the revolution inviting her to an after party. Sweaty and tired, she declined and retreated to the changing room for a shower. But when she came out, he was still waiting for her.

“He liked how I sang,” she recalls. “And he told me, ‘Listen, compañera, shame on you for making us wait.’ In that moment, I became nervous.”

Morua attended the party and was left unscathed. Her experience is typical of the Tropicana’s frequent guests. Even during the dire economic crisis of the 1990s known as the ”Special Period,” caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union, resources were funneled into the Tropicana because of the valuable foreign currency it brought.

“[The Tropicana] is gold,” says Morua. “Economically, it calls the foreigners, so they repair it constantly.”

A jarring reality

But nothing around it shares that glamour. Tourists and dignitaries headed there must pass through Marianao, a working class neighborhood whose streets are riddled with potholes and piles of uncollected garbage.

Today a ticket to the Tropicana costs anywhere from $80 to $100, a price that vastly surpasses a citizen’s average monthly wage. Lowinger, the historian, insists almost all of that goes just to keeping the venue running.

“It’s fuel revenue,” she says. “They don’t have the money they used to. People have done a decent job in Cuba of preserving the space and doing whatever they can to perform a show that is half way decent given the resources they have. But it’s not even a shadow of itself.”

Lowinger explains that the diversity of shows has decreased. They used to rotate every three months, but now shows cycle through every two years. But for the average tourist, this doesn’t matter. Levi, the collector behind the Wolfsonian exhibit, goes everytime she visits Havana.

“The photos of Tropicana showgirls in their amazing and creative costumes are some of my favorite pieces in the collection,” Levi says. “If you go back historically, in the 40s and 50s there was this Latin craze. There are a lot of examples of American nightclubs that have Cuban performers showing the love of the Latin beat.”

Morua left the country in 1980 during the Mariel Boatlift because of concerns about her family. At 76, she still travels to Cuba to both attend performances and perform herself. As we finish the interview, she performs a soft acapella version of “Anoche Aprendi,” a song most Cubans heard growing up

“A noche aprendi a quedar me sola sin ti, a sentirme sola,” she coos (Last night, I learned how to be without you, how to feel alone). Her voice is a soft, piercing crystal and it resonates with nostalgia as she remembers singing the lyrics beneath the soaring arches of La Tropicana.

Come relive the Tropicana with The New Tropic and the Wolfsonian Museum on Friday night with free drinks and live music. RSVP here.