King of Clubs

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

Jose Cachaldora still has a sheet of yellow legal paper upon which he and an architect drew, doodled, and calculated ten years ago. They were shooting for something bigger and trendier than Les Violins. Something on the Beach, which seemed poised for a renaissance. A talkative type who describes himself as the family dreamer, Cachaldora tells of the day in 1986 when he found himself in a seat on a plane next to the Fontainebleau's convention manager. When he told her of his goal, she asked if he'd like to bid on the La Ronde space.

Interested parties had to submit videotaped presentations. The Cachaldoras put together a tape chronicling the family's heritage and their own visions for a club: top Latin performers drawing local audiences, Spanish-language media broadcasting the shows. "The combination of this beautiful hotel and premier Latin supper club will create a showcase for Latin television specials," the tape's narrator confidently predicted.

In early 1987 the Cachaldoras, along with Albino and George Currais (Pepe Currais's son) signed a twenty-year contract to lease the club. Jose Cachaldora, who is prone to spouting monetary figures from memory, won't divulge the cost of the lease except to say that it's less than what it would have cost to build his own place. He says they sank $3.5 million into remodeling, including construction of a new, larger stage and a new electrical system. They hired artist Carlos Alfonso, who had just immigrated from Cuba, to tropicalize the curving room; he created a mural of jungle vegetation and green papier-máche vines whose tendrils embrace the thick columns. Bamboo railings mark the aisles among the tiers of tables that descend to the stage.

For inspiration, Cachaldora made the rounds "to all the great supper clubs -- in Paris, Rio, all over the world." For dancers and singers, he staged auditions in New York and Puerto Rico, as well as in Miami. Gloria and Andres Senor, long-time orchestra leaders and managers who provided talent for Les Violins, brought along a kid who had been performing with one of their orchestras. His name was Jon Secada. ("He was very busy at the time because he was working -- his parents had a restaurant," recalls Gloria Senor. "Later we introduced him to Emilio Estefan, and the rest is history.")

The Cachaldoras wanted a name for their new place that would conjure up the tropics and a Latin sense of entertainment, like the famous Tropicana in Havana. Veteran Argentinian producer and choreographer Eber Lobato, who'd directed shows at Les Violins, came up with Tropigala.

Jose Cachaldora recalls a day in 1987 when one of the Hilton's financial officers dropped by to peek at the renovation in progress. "He said, 'I don't want to see you lose your shirt. I've been here twenty years and what I see you boys doing is crazy. This is a hard room. The Fontainebleau hasn't been able to make a go of it for many years.' And I said, 'We do know what we're doing. We've been in the business all our lives.'"

La Ronde staged its grand opening on a New Year's Eve. Thirty-three years later, so did Tropigala. The Cachaldoras booked Paloma San Basilio, the Spanish diva famous in Europe for playing the lead role in Evita. Then Jose Cachaldora's barber, who also coifs Julio Iglesias, mentioned over a haircut that Julio had flown him up to New York to see him perform at the opening of the Essex House hotel. "I started thinking," says Cachaldora, snapping his fingers. "I called my brother. 'Why can't we bring Julio Iglesias in for opening night?' 'Are you crazy?' I said, 'Alex, I think we can do it.'"

They did. In the preperformance frenzy tickets sold out -- at $400 to $1000 apiece. "It was a historical event. Julio Iglesias is another thing; Julio doesn't do nightclubs any more, he just works in theaters, so everybody was very surprised," remembers El Nuevo Herald's entertainment writer Norma Niurka.

"Before word even got out, we had 120 tickets sold," Cachaldora says. "People from all over the world started calling with their credit card numbers. That night there were people out in front actually scalping tickets! This place was magic from the first night."

A year and a half later the Cachaldoras were confident enough to invest in more remodeling, including the construction of a network of pipes to create waterfalls and fountains on-stage. As for how much the Tropigala now nets after expenses, they will reveal only that their staff numbers upward of 120 -- some have worked for several generations of the family -- and that the club grosses in about five million dollars annually.

On a summertime Saturday, the sky is still light as the "orchestra" -- five men in white tuxedos and three women in evening gowns -- starts in on "Girl from Ipanema." The vocalist is Fatima Bermudez, a multitalented Cuban-born musician who has lived in the States for three years now. Her father Carlos is the combo's keyboardist. The bass player and musical director is Rafael Sanchez, who for 21 years was a member of Cuba's national television orchestra. ("The world of musical shows is the same everywhere in the world," says Sanchez, a six-year Tropigala vet. "Here I'm like a fish in water.") During this set, the band will run through "I Love You for Sentimental Reasons," "It Had to Be You," and other American pop and jazz standards.

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