King of Clubs

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

The Tropigala is the most ambitious in a procession of restaurants and supper clubs owned by four generations of the same family. In 1830 an immigrant from Zaragoza, Spain, opened an eatery in Havana, which was sold in the early 1900s to Jose Currais, a relative of the original owner. La Zaragozana, as the restaurant was named, became known even outside Cuba for its seafood and sophisticated atmosphere.

Currais's daughter Maruja married Gustavo Cachaldora, who also entered the business. In 1957 Cachaldora and his brothers-in-law Albino and Pepe Currais opened 1830, a restaurant in a renovated Mediterranean mansion on the Malecón. The place featured a picturesque bamboo-studded outdoor bar right on the beach, with a bridge leading to a manmade coral rock island. Strolling violinists or an orchestra entertained the crowd, which on many nights reached 2000. The 1830's Continental menu was written in English -- an indication of where the customers were coming from. It was a heady time in Havana, an era known as the "dance of the millions," when nightclubs such as the famed Tropicana attracted partygoers from all over the world to drink, dine, gamble, and gape at spectacular and usually quite risque musical revues. Both La Zaragonzana and 1830 are still open, operated by the Castro regime and listed in tourist pamphlets as among the best restaurants in Cuba.

Cachaldora and the Currais brothers had planned to erect a casino on part of the property, a glass dome that would retract on top to admit the evening breeze. But time ran out before the gambling colossus materialized. Gustavo Cachaldora, along with his wife and three children, fled to Miami in 1960, not long after Castro took power. When the Currais families arrived here three years later, jobs awaited them at Les Violins, the new supper club Cachaldora had opened on Biscayne Boulevard just north of downtown. The old restaurant crew from Havana was reassembling on the other side of the Florida Straits.

Les Violins featured singing waiters, strolling violinists, and shows calculated to recall the decadent glamour of Cuba's nightlife, the world that had been so hastily left behind by thousands of instant Miamians. "Havana Reborn in a Corner of Miami," crowed a November 1966 New York Times article that mentioned Les Violins as one of the popular spots among local exiles. The article put the number of Cubans then living in Miami at 100,000 -- a remarkable proportion of Dade's population (about a million at the time) but a number that couldn't have presaged the influx to come.

Two years after launching Les Violins, in 1964, the Currais-Cachaldora clan opened the Flamenco Supper Club on the 79th Street Causeway, then a sparkling strip of fashionable night spots. True to its name, the Flamenco featured live flamenco shows along with tapas and dinner. It would close in 1985, a victim of urban decay. The Les Violins property, which these days shuts down every summer, is up for sale.

The Fontainebleau, meanwhile, had become one of the most famous resort hotels in the world, its nouveau riche funkiness disgusting architectural critics but attracting plenty of business. La Ronde was inaugurated on New Year's Eve 1954 by singer Vaughn Moore and "Richard Hayman and his mouth organ." In 1960, when Elvis Presley was discharged from the army, Sinatra and his Rat Pack threw a party for the King at La Ronde. The event, memorialized on film, was a high-spirited affair in which Sinatra sang the Presley hit "Love Me Tender" and Presley (in uniform) did Sinatra's "Witchcraft" to the accompaniment of female screams.

But by the late Seventies the Beach had cooled off. Entertainers who once played at La Ronde were finding better money and bigger audiences in Las Vegas. "Those were sluggish years; Miami Beach kind of fell to its knees," says Lisa Cole, who has worked as public relations director for the past twelve of her eighteen years at the Fontainebleau. "The hotel wasn't getting the tourists, they weren't fixing the place up. The La Ronde always had some kind of show, but in the summer it would close."

Stephen Muss bought the Fontainebleau out of bankruptcy in 1978 and soon turned over day-to-day operations to Hilton, which tried several approaches to entertainment at La Ronde. In the early Eighties an independent producer staged a musical version of a beauty pageant. During the next few seasons, "Stompin' at La Ronde," a re-creation of a Forties nightclub, proved somewhat successful. "Then we started doing shows," Cole recounts, "name acts that weren't as popular as in their heyday but were still name acts -- like Debbie Reynolds, Rosemary Clooney, Jim Nabors, Shecky Greene, Robert Goulet. They were nice shows and we did get some good numbers, but it wasn't profitable and it didn't seem like what the people wanted."

Some female-impersonator spectaculars did well, but no programs were as profitable as hoped. Hilton finally decided to stick to the hotel business and find someone else to run the nightclub. "We felt it would be smarter and more profitable to lease it out to someone in the business," Cole explains, "someone who knows what they're doing."

Alex and Jose Cachaldora had grown up working in the family business. Though both earned degrees from the University of Miami (Alex in accounting, Jose in finance and business administration) and worked outside the entertainment industry, by the mid-Eighties they had resolved to open their own place.

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