On a recent weekday morning, a steady flow of visitors at the Bass wove through the photo panels, costumes, personal documents, and rare film footage offering intriguing snapshots into Cruz's life. Throughout the gallery housing the popular exhibit, La Guarachera de Cuba's booming pipes pierced the air.
Strangers stood in front of the displays, sharing memories of their first Celia concert, their favorite Celia songs, her larger-than-life persona, and her outlandish style.
For me, Cruz's early album covers evoked recollections of growing up in Missouri during the Sixties, when my parents would play her records over and over again as part of what seemed a Saturday-night ritual. It was as if Celia's plaintive warbling was the only thing that made them feel rooted and closer to home.
During a musical career spanning five decades, Cruz enjoyed such rapport with her audiences that she became a deeply beloved figure.
Not surprisingly, Marvette Perez, the Smithsonian's curator of Latino history, easily bottles the singer's magnetic presence in this show. It unfolds chronologically with several creased sepia pictures of Cruz as a baby, as a schoolgirl, and as a teen posing with her family in the Santos Suarez neighborhood of Havana, where she was born in 1925.
Nearby, a photo panel and text describe how in 1947 Cruz won her first singing contest by belting out "Nostalgias," a tango, on Havana radio station Radio García-Serra's amateur show, Hora del Te.
Her big break came in the summer of 1950, when she was chosen to replace Myrta Sylva, lead vocalist with Sonora Matancera, then Cuba's premier orchestra. Cruz performed with the group through 1965, recording 185 songs along the way.
A video display shows rare footage from Cuban television during the Fifties in which Sonora Matancera and Cruz perform several hits, including "Burundanga," "El Yerbero Moderno," "Juancito Trucupey," and "Ye Ye Oh Oh Guama," a tribute to the Afro-Cuban goddess Ochun. In the film montage, Cruz appears slim and sparrowlike, but the emotional intensity of her voice comes across clearly.
Another display houses a blue bata Cubana — a rumba dress the singer wore during the period — and Pedro Knight's trumpet. Knight played lead trumpet with Sonora Matancera and later married Cruz in 1962, two years after they moved to the United States.
The show jumps to the late Fifties, when Cruz and the orchestra took Havana's cabarets by storm, and features memorabilia from the legendary Tropicana nightclub. A program from a 1957 New Year's Eve performance shows photos of Celia with Nat King Cole and Carmen Miranda.
It was in the elaborately produced, sizzling musical revues such as Mayombe, Tambo, and Carnaval Carioca at the Tropicana that Cruz first flexed her over-the-top aesthetic.
"¡Azúcar!" continues with artifacts from the singer's early years in exile, including a handful of albums recorded in Mexico and a poster for Amorcito Corazón, her first feature film. Copies of her marriage license and a telegram informing Cruz of her mother's death in Cuba — both from 1962 — also appear in this section.
The exhibit transitions to an enclosed nook re-creating one of the salsa star's dressing rooms. A vanity table is topped by a video screen on which Cruz is seen applying makeup and getting massaged while preparing for shows.
Whenever she traveled, Cruz regularly packed her own coffee cups and wine glasses, along with a pantheon of Cuban dashboard saints, transforming her dressing rooms into cozy, homelike spaces. This display also features her sunglasses, wigs, a monogrammed bathrobe, a makeup kit, a faux leopard skin stool, and a pair of paintings of La Caridad del Cobre, Cuba's patron saint. One of the singer's eye-popping gowns — a coral-hue feathered number with a beaded collar and matching turban by Mexican designer Willy Mena — rounds out the display.
Across from it a vitrine shows several of Cruz's stupendous one-of-a-kind shoes. For 40 years she had the same designer in Mexico City create the dazzling confections, which included her signature camouflage heels. The singer wore them to give the impression she was about to become airborne while strutting across the stage. One of the splashier pairs here are silver peep-toes outlined in rhinestones and sporting aluminum swan heels.
Some of the other costumes on exhibit include a blue beaded lace gown Cruz wore during the Latin Grammy Awards ceremony in 2002, and the light gray cashmere dress designed by Narciso Rodriguez she donned during her last public appearance, a tribute concert for the singer broadcast on Telemundo in 2003.