The Man Who Would Be Fidel

For more than fifteen years, master Castro imitator Armando Roblan has been sending up El Tirano

Holding at arm's length a painting of a Cuban woman dressed in a shawl, Roblan explains with obvious pride that he trained as a visual artist, not as an actor. Born in the small western Cuban town of Bejucal to a cigar maker and a seamstress, he studied painting and sculpture at the San Alejandro Art Academy in Havana. While still in school, in 1950, Roblan entered a talent competition at the newly inaugurated Cuban television station Telemundo, seen on Channel 2 in Havana. He conflated a stage name, Roblan, from his two given last names, Rodriguez Blanco.

"I kept in mind that television was a medium to watch, not listen to," he recalls, making drawing motions with his hands as he leans back on a fake leather love seat in the theater's lobby. "So the more movement there is, the better. I presented something I had always enjoyed -- caricatures. I had members of the audience draw any kind of squiggle on a piece of paper, and I'd turn it into a picture of a celebrity or a politician."

Roblan proved popular with the public, and eventually appeared on several episodes of the talent show. He soon added a new element to his routine. "I said, 'Why don't we animate the caricature?' So I started mimicking the personalities I drew."

The artist's imitations quickly earned him a regular spot on another program, Hacia la Fama (Toward Fame), and not long afterward he was working full-time for Telemundo, learning about constructing sets, operating lights, scriptwriting, and other elements of production for the new medium. But most of all he made people laugh. "I won my place through my characterizations," he points out. "Since I could draw, since I could sculpt, I could shape my face to look like the face of any other person."

By the mid-Fifties Roblan was a well-known comic in Cuba, performing not only on television but also in Havana's most popular nightclubs. He appeared as Nat King Cole, Maurice Chevalier, and even Josephine Baker, always doing his own makeup. In the case of some characters, such as the black Cuban lounge singer Bola de Nieve, the transformation could take him as long as three hours.

One night he was doing a bit as Liberace at the famous Tropicana Club, and the musician himself happened to be in the audience. Liberace climbed on-stage beside his imitator and the pair traded jokes. "It caused a real sensation," Roblan remembers. "From then on I always tried to get the person I was imitating into the TV studio and have them come out with me at one point in the show."

While Roblan continued performing in theaters and clubs, he also stepped up his television appearances, working for two years with Garrido and Pi*ero, the most popular Cuban comedy team of the day. Not only did he perform his imitations, but he painted backdrops for the show's sets. Then in 1959 he added a new dramatic caricature to his repertoire. "The triumph of the revolution came," he explains, "and since every week I presented the most popular personality of the moment, that week it was Fidel."

He transformed himself into the bearded young revolutionary, appearing on Garrido and Pi*ero's program as Castro in the earliest days of the new regime. But the times were already changing, and Roblan was contracted to perform in a new play at Havana's venerable Teatro Marti -- not as a comic, but as a true-to-life depiction of Fidel Castro.

"It was the first production of the new genre of socialist realism after the revolution," Roblan notes now. The actor worked in the theater six nights a week, playing the protagonist's role in a rather didactic representation of Castro's triumph over Cuban leader Fulgencio Batista. Sometimes he was joined on-stage by the young Castro himself, and the two Fidels would engage in a humorous exchange. Later they'd joke around in the dressing room where, the actor says, he called Castro "Roblan" and Castro referred to him as "Fidel."

"It was a moment when the country was living in true euphoria," he remembers. "We were living the emotion of the whole moment of 'the bearded ones' coming down from the Sierra. We Cubans, we Latinos in general, we are very emotional, and at that moment we let ourselves get carried away. Although we've had to pay for it, in the beginning it was euphoric."

Roblan was rapidly becoming known as Fidel's double, and there was one incident in particular that cemented that identity in the minds of the public. He was contacted by someone in Castro's office and told that the president needed his help in playing a practical joke. Already dressed in his Fidel costume, Roblan was picked up and whisked to a convention hall in Havana's Parque del Init, where an international travel agents convention was being held. Roblan was greeted as Castro. When he got up to the podium and began delivering the president's welcoming speech, Fidel himself suddenly entered the room through the back door -- much to the crowd's surprise.

"I'm a part of history," Roblan asserts, remembering that day. Afterward a photo of himself as Castro appeared in one of the first issues of the Cuban magazine Bohemia.

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