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."

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.

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.

The Tropigala has played host to beauty pageants, conventions, and well over a hundred TV programs and specials, including the 1991 Emmy Awards and several ASCAP and BMI conventions. Even the six-page dinner menu is versatile -- while La Ronde's list was limited to a handful of entrees and a few appetizers, Tropigala offers everything from duck a l'orange to Beluga caviar.

That range is reflected even more vividly on-stage. At the beginning of the evening, most audience members are on the far side of 50, and English-speaking. (Retirees come by the busload year-round, but during the off-season the tables are only peppered with tourists.) On this night the crowd will be treated to two hourlong musical revues, both unabashedly nostalgic. "Night on the Town," a sometimes bawdy mix of Las Vegas and Latin influences, has been a staple of the three-dozen-strong Tropigala cast for about a year. But the opener, "Magic of Music," is brand-new -- and still being tinkered with by director-choreographer Lobato. Billed as "a musical journey through time," it features 25 numbers and 16 costume changes in the space of one hour. According to the Cachaldoras, it cost more than $1.2 million to produce. The first show is tailored for non-Latin audiences (who have been known to complain about too much Spanish-speaking by the staff), the second geared to Hispanics (who "will just walk out," according to some of the performers, if the music "isn't Latin enough").

The curtain rises. A video depicting prowling cave people wearing pelts and large, matted wigs is projected on a screen. Backstage, veteran artistic director Juan de la Portilla calls out to his stagehands: "AArriba! AArriba, por favor!" (Bespectacled and high-strung, De La Portilla is a former dancer with the Cuban national ballet who fled Havana on New Year's Day 1959 with two dollars in the pocket of his tuxedo.) The screen is pulled up to reveal three female dancers in animal-skin getups poised in front of a real waterfall set against a backdrop of fake rocks. More male and female dancers join them as vocalists Gaby Gabriel and Jeanette Colin (also clad in faux skins) sing "Music/Wondrous music/Has been with us since the dawn of time" to the tune of the Flintstones theme.

Hired for the Tropigala's first show in 1987, Gabriel is the only original employee still working at the club. In addition to his singing duties in the stage shows, he is the leader of the house orchestra (still managed by Gloria and Andres Senor). His nightly appearances have led to contracts for TV and radio commercials. "The Tropigala is the greatest thing that ever happened to me," says Gabriel, his wide smile revealing gleaming teeth. "Everything good in my career has happened because of the Tropigala."

A New York native, Colin has been in show biz for more than three decades and is a veteran of stage shows in New York, Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and Puerto Rico. Unlike most of her colleagues, nearly all of whom are Hispanic, she's used to mixing Anglo and Latin elements. Dancers Betty Valdivia, who's nineteen, and Joel Mejias, who is 21, were in Spain with the Ballet Folklórico Nacional de Cuba when they defected two years ago. (According to Mejias, 18 of the 27 dancers on that tour defected). Both were flamenco-trained but answered an ad in the paper for auditions at the Tropigala. "Here you have the opportunity to dance a little of everything," says Valdivia, seemingly unimpressed with her achievement in securing a full-time job in the arts.

The show progresses through the centuries, from La Traviata to "Old Man River." When Gabriel sings Al Jolson's "My Mammy," he moves to the edge of the stage and gets the audience to sing along. They know all the words. A patron at a table up front is videotaping the show. The finale is a Cole Porter medley.

Much of the condo crowd leaves, and the orchestra plays another set before "Night on the Town" commences promptly at 10:00. The new patrons filtering in are younger, Spanish-speaking, and dressed less formally than their older non-Hispanic predecessors. After the second revue concludes, the remaining non-Hispanics depart. Though they could have stayed till the end (showgoers pay when they leave, with ticket prices ranging from $10 to $30 or $40, depending on the price of the headliner and how many performances they stayed to see), this exodus is typical, owing to the general Anglo unfamiliarity with Latin performers. The Cachaldoras are working with Julio Sabala on a crossover bid; the protean-faced impersonator aspires to an all-English "spectacular" to debut at the Tropigala within a year. He has been working on impressions of Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson, Luciano Pavarotti, and Stevie Wonder, the comic explains, having recently returned from a Central American tour to his newly acquired home down the street from Madonna and Sylvester Stallone. "I give Alex Cachaldora the most credit for this," Sabala says. "He is a person who is friendly, hard-working, very important in my future plans."

Tonight, of course, Sabala is not performing. The crowd assembling to see the headliners is almost exclusively composed of venezolanos llaneros (Venezuelans from the countryside) -- one of the niche markets the Tropigala management has so deliberately lured. They're here to see comedian El Conde del Guacharo, a compact, freshly barbered 35-year-old who performs in a straw hat, T-shirt, and sandals. El Conde is a superstar in his country, but most of his jokes don't readily translate into non-Venezuelan idioms. About once a year, he packs the Tropigala with homesick paisanos. This time he's not only plugging his own long-distance calling card, he's brought a fellow comedian, Rafucho "El Maracucho," as well as Reynaldo Armas, Venezuela's top singer of criollo (indigenous) music.

Tuxedoed waiters rush to set up tables for the newcomers forming a boisterous line at the entrance, and the orchestra begins its last set, which bears little resemblance to the first. Now Gaby Gabriel welcomes everyone in Spanish, making cordial references to Venezuela and at one point remarking jovially, "Yo soy de Hialeah, Cuba." All the songs are now sung in Spanish. The front part of the stage has been lowered into the floor, leaving the dance floor open. And after the first few numbers, the floor remains packed. Men in leather jackets, women in short skirts and high-heeled sandals eagerly dance salsa, cumbias -- even the macarena.

When the music is over, rowdy audience members pound the tables and clink their glasses until Rafucho "El Maracucho" appears. His 45-minute routine is largely topical, and particularly tough on Venezuelan political leaders past and present. When he finishes, the applause is rousing.

Reynaldo Armas, a tall, silver-haired singer whose vaguely Asian eyes seem always to be scanning a distant Venezuelan horizon, can't get through a song without a female audience member making her way to the stage to offer him a note or, occasionally, a flower. He bends and kisses each visitor, then tenderly unfolds and reads each note to himself. "Tengo ganas de llorar" ("I feel like crying"), he sings. He makes his exit singing, stepping down from the stage and wending his way through the aisles, pausing for snapshots with adoring fans, women and men alike, shaking hands, kissing, all the while crooning into his cordless microphone until he vanishes through curtains at the side of the stage. A chant goes up: !Otra! !Otra! Armas and his musicians return for one encore.

At this point in the evening's entertainment, past two o'clock in the morning, it seems the audience could not wax any more passionate. But when El Conde dances out, the response is positively riotous, and it's easy to see why the Cachaldoras are mulling over a Tropigala spinoff. The superstar comedian's one-hour set mixes sexual innuendo with more swipes at Venezuelan politicians, and concludes on a surprisingly refined note, with several boleros. By the time the stage lights are extinguished and the valet parking rush clears, it's only a few hours till sunrise.

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