King of Clubs

Club Tropigala's heritage dates back to nineteenth-century Cuba, but when the curtain rises, this could only be Miami

For a rare fifteen minutes, on-stage at the Club Tropigala in Miami Beach, the fabulous Julio Iglesias is actually taking questions by cellular phone.

"What is the secret," one caller inquires, "of your success with so many women?"

The tanned and smiling singer pauses, smoothing the lapel of his tux and looking out through clouds of cigarette smoke at the rising tiers of tables in the circular supper club. It's past midnight on a Saturday, and among the capacity crowd of about 700, Spanish is the language spoken -- from the stage all the way back to the tropical greenery painted on the walls and columns.

"Well, I have my own line of vitamins and herbs," Iglesias ventures, and adds what is in Spanish a rather raunchy double-entendre: "Their only drawback is that when you first swallow them they make your neck stiff."

Laughter and applause. Iglesias goes on to his next call. A man wants to know: "What do you think of Julio Sabala, the guy who impersonates you?"

"Ah!" the singer exclaims, "!Es una persona bellisima!" Gales of laughter this time: The man standing before them is in fact Julio Sabala, an impersonator who is at the pinnacle of success in all of Latin America and Spain. When he launches into one of Iglesias's hits with flawless intonation and mannerisms, the audience cheers. As the evening progresses, he will sing a duet with another Latin music legend, Jose Jose; he'll impersonate (and banter with) Cuban salsa great Celia Cruz; he'll acknowledge Emilio Estefan and a panoply of Spanish-language radio, TV, and recording-biz bigwigs, all of whom are in the audience. He'll do uncanny renderings, physical and musical, of stars unknown to non-Hispanics but revered by Spanish speakers everywhere: the late Mexican comedic legend Cantinflas and musical greats El Puma, Dyango, Roberto Carlos, and Juan Gabriel.

The 34-year-old Sabala's career has been closely tied to the Tropigala, the nightclub at the Fontainebleau Hilton Resort and Spa. His live appearances and a Latin Emmy Award-winning TV special taped here in 1988 were instrumental in his metamorphosis from a little-known Dominican comic into one of the world's top Latin acts. His success has paralleled that of the club itself. Known as the Tropigala only since 1987, the Fontainebleau's nightclub represents a convergence of two distinct histories. It evokes a vanished age of opulence and decorum, and at the same time reflects South Florida's striking transformation from America's foremost tropical playground to an international capital in which Spanish is the dominant language. It simultaneously harks back to the Tropicana, the Riviera, the Capri, and other legendary Cuban nightspots of the Forties and Fifties, and to the golden era of Miami Beach.

The Tropigala is the only U.S. supper club that consistently books top Latin entertainers, the kind who normally play larger auditoriums. Singer Raphael has taken the stage here. So have Roberto Carlos, Juan Gabriel, Alvarez Guedes, and Raul DiBlasio, as well as Dyango, Braulio, Lucia Mendez, and Albita Rodriguez. "It's the only nightclub of that caliber left in the country," says impresario D'Aldo Romano, who used to do bookings for Sabala, Willy Chirino, and other entertainers. A former singer who appeared at the Flamingo in Las Vegas, the Copacabana and the Latin Quarter in New York, Bimbo's in San Francisco, and other renowned supper clubs, Romano adds, "It's the only nightclub that has the quality, the variety of entertainment."

The Tropigala would no doubt thrive away from its home, but it wouldn't be the same. Designed down to the whimsical resort scenes on the lobby walls (now painted over) by architect Morris Lapidus, the Fontainebleau is the most famous and photogenic of all the splendidly kitschy beachfront hotels built in Miami Beach's prime. Motion pictures were shot on location here: Jerry Lewis's The Bellboy, Sinatra's Tony Roma, and Sean Connery's Goldfinger were filmed at least in part at the Fontainebleau. You couldn't miss the lobby's famous spiral "stairway to nowhere," its distinctive white marble floor scattered with black bow-tie patterns, the palatial antique Belgian crystal chandeliers. Despite extensive remodeling, these trademarks have remained, serving as backdrops for more recent movies: The Bodyguard, with Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston; and Just Cause, again starring Connery. Both include scenes filmed in the Tropigala; one elegant shot in The Bodyguard has Houston singing with the club's (original) giant bronze and crystal sunburst chandelier reflected on the burnished stage, seeming to move like the sun as the camera tracks around Houston.

The hotel's nightclub opened as La Ronde, and it attracted big stars to its small stage: Sammy Davis, Jr., Jack Benny, Patti Page, Tony Bennett, Ann Miller. Even now, it retains an ambiance of past glamour. A few years ago, as the velvet stage curtains were being taken down after being damaged in a small fire, a decades-old La Ronde menu fluttered out of a fold, advertising a Frank Sinatra show.

"We owe a lot of our success to the Fontainebleau," says Tropigala co-owner Jose Cachaldora, who along with his partners leases the space from Hilton Hotels Corporation. "We're like a jewel in a jewel box."

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