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Ichikawa says he first heard Alvarez Guedes's jokes as a child on the island. "It was a bad recording on an Orwo cassette tape, a brand from East Germany," he recalls. "Ironically [because Alvarez Guedes is anti-communist] his first jokes began circulating in Cuba on those cassettes. In every neighborhood there was someone with an Alvarez Guedes cassette. To this day his latest jokes -- which include plenty of anti-Castro swipes -- are commented on in Cuba."
In fact anti-Castro jokes are Alvarez Guedes's specialty. For instance there's the one about Fidel meeting with top officials to determine the mood of the Cuban people. One Cuban official says, "There are two categories in which Cubans fall: the pessimists and the optimists. The optimists say that in six months the only thing left to eat in Cuba will be shit."
"What do the pessimists say?" Fidel asks.
"The pessimists say there won't be enough of it to go around."
CANF executive director Joe Garcia also got his first taste of Alvarez Guedes as a child growing up in Miami. "I remember being a preteenager and us sitting around a record player and my father and mother crying with laughter," Garcia recounts. "We had a friend that had every single one of his records. When we visited he would play them for us. I could imitate his delivery as a kid."
Garcia finally met Alvarez Guedes a few years ago, when the comic did volunteer work for CANF. "I find him to be one of the funniest people in the world. He's got it. He makes these absurdities that are part of our character funny. His jokes are fast and furious, yet when you meet him he's so damn stoic. He looks like a Jewish existentialist philosopher trapped in a Cuban mind. It's weird when he smiles. You don't recognize him with a smile."
Authentic Cuban humor -- brazenly crude, rich in popular flavor, and laced with the resentment of being in exile -- is just one of the many layers with which Cuban Americans relate to Alvarez Guedes. For gusanos, worms, as Castro detractors in and out of Cuba are known, Alvarez Guedes evokes nostalgia for the Cuba of old and a more lighthearted approach to life. "If you can laugh at yourself and at your own countrymen, then you know things could be worse," says Garcia. "Even though we're living this tragedy, there's a guy walking around being funny."
We waited for Alvarez Guedes's stand-up routine at the Fontainebleau Hilton's Club Tropigala, drinking mojitos-- rum, sugar, and mint leaves--while sitting at a front-row corner table. The opening acts were sociology studies in their own right. One was a Las Vegas-meets-Havana revue that seemed frozen in time, so kitsch it was enthralling. "It's everything I dreamed of," my friend Gaspar admitted. Second-rate showgirls twirled in hot pink, green, and orange rumba ruffles while their shirtless male dance partners mostly struck poses behind them. One leggy dancer did a little number in a palm-tree costume complete with a crown of cascading leaves on her head. Gabbie Gabriel performed Frank Sinatra covers in oversize suits, and audience members, mostly Cuban old-timers -- bankers, lawyers, and funeral directors, Gaspar assured me -- danced with their wives to the music of a ten-piece orchestra. Candy Caramelo, an overweight burlesque queen from Havana, rocked the crowd in her red-hot teddy and blond wig. She literally sent tremors throughout the five-tier showroom as she shook her saggy breasts. In the process Candy managed to dunk the heads of several hapless men from the audience between her tired melons.
In a strange, surreal way, the scene at Club Tropigala is reminiscent of the smoky ambiance of Fifties Havana cabarets where Alvarez Guedes began performing, but in reverse. In his day the culture wasn't schmaltz or nostalgia for irony's sake. Now it is.
Born in Union de Reyes, a small town in Matanzas, in 1927, under the astrological sign of Gemini, Guillermo Alvarez Guedes made his artistic debut in theater at age five. As a kid he was a lion tamer for a while and traveled Cuba with the circus. His next gig was as a singer for small-time orchestras.
In 1946, inspired by the movie Gilda, starring Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford, who played a gigolo, Alvarez Guedes left Cuba for New York; he was nineteen years old. In a 1988 New Times interview, he told a reporter that back then he aspired to become Ford's character. Instead he ended up washing dishes in a restaurant and performing other odd jobs until immigration authorities caught up with him, sent him to Ellis Island, and deported him back to Cuba in 1949.
During the Fifties Alvarez Guedes worked in radio and television. His big break came when a program director from Cadena Azul, a radio-station chain started by a Cuban cigarette mogul named Amado Trinidad, asked him to audition for a show. But Violeta Casals, a trained actress who was directing, was aghast at the young man's spontaneity and turned him down. Alvarez Guedes persisted and eventually landed a role on Union Radio for a show called Red Chronicles.