ABOARD THE CELESTYAL CRYSTAL – I don’t know where they sat. Probably not where I did. But such rich and famous folks as Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando, Rita Hayworth, JFK, Ernest Hemingway and Lucky Luciano once attended the famous Tropicana show in Havana.
Now I have, too, on a late-night excursion from my Celestyal Crystal cruise. The optional four-hour activity cost $149 for adults. Children under 18 not allowed.
That price includes a glass of sparkling wine, one-fourth of a bottle of Cuban rum, bottle of Coke for mixer, bucket of ice and some nut snacks. That’s a lot of rum and two people at my table of four didn’t drink rum. When the show was over, I saw quite a few folks carrying unopened or partly full bottles of rum out with them.
We left the ship after dinner at about 9 p.m. for the short ride to the cabaret by excursion bus. The huge nightclub was already filling up when we arrived but our tables were reserved so no need to hurry.
I had heard about the Tropicana for years but was surprised to see it is an outdoor theater. In case of bad weather, the show is moved inside but I doubt if it would have been quite as spectacular as it was under the stars.
Sort of an in-the-round theater, it has a big stage in front with smaller stages on both sides. Plus the performers often parade through the audience so the result is like surround sound. Sometimes it was hard to know where to look because so much was going on.
Dress code for the audience is long trousers and closed shoes for men, “elegant” clothes for women. Photos and videos are allowed but we were warned up front that it would cost $5 to take photos and $15 to take videos.
That “extra” photo price is one I have encountered several times in Cuba – $5 to take photos inside the Marti mausoleum at the Santiago cemetery (photos of Fidel Castro’s grave and elsewhere were free) and $5 to take photos inside Castillo del Morro fort. But I have never seen anyone enforce that rule at any of those places nor at the Tropicana.
The Tropicana cabaret opened in 1939 and is a huge spectacle. Before the revolution, the Tropicana also was a casino owned by the mafia. The nightclub was featured in a scene in the “Godfather II” movie.
Castro kicked out the mafia and closed the casinos, strip clubs and brothels but the traditional cabarets survived. They were shut briefly in 1968 but popular support had them reopened as part of the Cuban sense of identity and cultural history.
Did you ever watch the “I Love Lucy” TV show and see her real-life husband Desi Arnaz perform as Ricky Ricardo with his Cuban band on a cabaret show like the Tropicana?
Arnaz was born in Santiago de Cuba where his family was wealthy and politically influential. However, when Batista came to power, Arnaz’s father was imprisoned and his property was confiscated. When the family secured his release after six months, the family fled to Miami.
Desi Arnaz went on to become a popular band leader and TV producer. He was deeply patriotic about the United States and wrote in his memoir that he knew of no other country in the world where “a 16-year-old kid, broke and unable to speak the language” could have the incredible successes that he had.
Our Tropicana show had plenty of beautiful people of both genders. Plus plenty of bare butts of both genders. Huge song and dance acts along with some acrobatic performances filled out about 20 acts. The show has more than 200 performers and sometimes it seemed as though they were all on the stages at the same time.
Skimpy outfits. Feathers. Sequins. Towering headdresses that must require great strength for the women to wear. Those lighted chandelier headdresses were incredible and somehow the showgirls were able to walk down stairs and through the audience wearing them.
Songs were sung in Spanish, of course. Someone described Tropicana as Vegas on steroids and that sounds about right.
The show ended at 12:30 a.m. and we got back to the ship a little after 1. Sleeping in the next day was not an option. Because of Cuba’s lack of infrastructure, anyone who wanted to visit Havana the next day had to be off the ship by 6:15 a.m. because the Celestyal Crystal had to move out so another ship could dock.
The Crystal would be anchored away from the dock until about 9 p.m. tomorrow night so nobody could embark or disembark the vessel. An inconvenience and a long tiresome day for sure.
But would I want to miss seeing the Tropicana or losing my day in Havana? No way. I can sleep at home.
Photos and video by Jackie Sheckler Finch