Inside his Little Havana workshop, Pablo Cano makes a castle using cardboard cereal boxes. Behind him, a wall of shelves rises to the ceiling and is stacked with a dizzying collection of glass jars, cigar boxes, coffee cans, sundry containers, and Ziploc bags, each filled with a trove of treasures ranging from thrift-store finds to recycled urban trash and the wreckage of car crashes.
"I always keep my eyes open when I drive around," Cano says. "I particularly like plastic baroque things like ornate bed headboards that I find in the trash. I also love finding hubcaps on the street. Fender-benders always leave fragments of plastic chrome parts and red plastic tail lights I use in my work."
Cano's "work" — a new, intimate show staged at his home — is called the Red Velvet Theater. It's an experimental project that includes marionettes, choreographers, dancers, and musicians. He serves appetizers, champagne, coffee, and pastries while about a dozen guests become part of the lunacy. Beginning this Friday, he'll also present an exhibit at the Young at Art Museum in Davie and then head for the Pinecrest Gardens Gallery for a show opening May 10.
Cano is a night owl. Around 2 a.m., he can often be found in his studio with his three rescued stray dogs — Samson, Delilah, and Pancho — watching old slapstick comedies. He also enjoys catching Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, and classic horror movies as well as I Love Lucy, the Three Stooges, and Hitchcock episodes on TV while building his marionettes.
"I work from midnight to 6 a.m., then sleep until 10, get up, take another nap around 3 p.m., and start the cycle again. But I have been so busy lately that I have to take a whole day off to stay in bed once a month to catch up on rest."
For more than a decade, his lavish seasonal shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami have been a staple for South Florida families. His multidisciplinary opuses, such as Seven Wonders of the Modern World, Cavaletti's Dream, Viva Vaudeville, and City Beneath the Sea, typically transport both the young and old to otherworldly realms full of whimsy.
But last December, Cano crystallized his longtime dream of creating a salon-style experimental stage in his home. The first show, Kitch in Sax Blues, debuted last month. "This production is much more adult in nature than people are used to from me," he observes. "It is also less focused on me like the shows at MOCA and much more intimate in nature. I also plan on debuting my De Sade piece here at home sometime next year, probably Halloween."
Cano's home is located in a small residential enclave called Beacom Manor in a historic area of Little Havana. Built in 1903, the two-story white house looks like an opulently decorated cake with its richly ornamental wrought-iron entrance and fence. Two lions flank his front door, and an angel crowns the property's spinning weather vane. "I've adopted the angel as the mascot and symbol for my new project," he says.
Constellations of old Spanish guitars, chandeliers, plastic jugs, and ornate lamp shades dangle above the 51-year-old Cuban-American artist's head. Despite the sensation that one has stumbled onto the set of an episode of Hoarders, every item cluttering Cano's studio has been catalogued and painstakingly organized.
"I've got a box of stuff that looks like devils' penises," he mentions, reaching back for a labeled container from which he produces a plastic red chili pepper and a chewed plastic tube. "I do a lot of devils, angels, and she-devils."
Some of them will end up as part of his elaborate production based on the Marquis de Sade. "It's de Sade's castle I'm making, and each room will be differently themed," he says. "One will be Egyptian, another will be like a Spanish galleon.
"De Sade enjoyed having his adventures play out in different rooms. For the climax, I'm creating a room that reflects his fantasy of the final death, or great orgasm, in which I'll have copulating skeletons. I am also making mechanical automatons with which the audience can simulate sex acts."
Cano carefully replaces his collection of diabolical peckers. Nearby are plastic cases labeled "moons, planets," "lips, teeth," "mustaches," "doll's eyes," and "gold stars." They are filled with the detritus he has collected like a magpie. He has been compulsively drawn to glittering junk for the past 30 years. He uses the odds and ends to create conceptual marionettes that star in wildly imaginative productions in which he collaborates with choreographers, dancers, actors, playwrights, musicians, and even the audience.
Inside his parlor, Cano has arranged a sumptuous sofa and a dozen high-backed armchairs in a semicircle in front of the dining area he uses as his stage. The furniture is plushly upholstered in red velvet, giving the wood-floored area the feel of a Victorian-era room. It even has a working fireplace.
"I love the movie Midnight in Paris and wanted to create that sort of feeling here," he says.
In the foyer stands a ticket booth he built with furniture including an antique sideboard scavenged from the roadside.
For Kitch in Sax Blues, which opened last month, Cano collaborated with local choreographer Katherine Kramer and dancer Joanne Barrett. The production also features Matt Taylor performing on the saxophone and Bruce Johnston on the bass. "This is so different from all of my other projects," Cano says. "I wanted something more theatrical, with more entertainment, more like vaudeville, and this is much more like a coming together of many artistic minds than only focused on my work."
In fact, Red Velvet Theater's debut 45-minute production boasts a bit of everything. "Joanne Barrett is not only an incredible dancer but an excellent pastry chef," he says. "So she is actually baking apple tarts as part of the show, and we had the kitchen miked so the sounds of the grater and running water from my sink can be heard."
It also features a cast of ten eye-popping marionettes Cano created. There's Chinese Princess; a burlesque queen called Kandy Kane; characters named Bojangles, Boring Boris, and Poindexter Ant; and even Louis Armstrong and Fred Astaire.
Cano used a black-ribbed toilet float and a salt shaker to make his dancing ant's body. He fashioned its head with part of a hubcap. The insect's arms and legs are bits of purse straps. And Kandy Kane, which was censored from Cano's upcoming exhibit at the Vero Beach Museum of Art in 2013 for being too risqué, has a basket for a noggin and balloons for breasts.
"I had to make the rods for her very secure because she uses an ostrich feather fan in a dance. I also hand-sewed lingerie for her I made with found fabric and objects she tosses into the audience as part of her act."
The production is intimate, and only 15 guests can be accommodated during shows. Tickets cost $40, and when visitors arrive at the box office, they receive a strip of red velvet along with their stub. The price of admission also includes appetizers, pastries, coffee, and champagne.
When the lights dim, glowing candles scattered throughout the space and the scent of baking pastries delight the senses and whet the appetite. During the show, Cano, Kramer, Barrett, and the musicians each have solos in which they perform with the individual marionettes. They collaborate as an ensemble at other times. The audience is in the thick of the diversion as the performers engage them with their marionettes and movements in a mesmerizing way.
Kramer, who has worked with Cano on ten MOCA productions, credits the show's beguiling nature to the long collaborative history that she, Cano, and Barrett share. "We all have a close relationship and the freedom to bring our unique talents to the table," she says. "The magic of this production is that it draws in the audience in a visceral way. We are performing in and around spectators in a very playful yet sophisticated fashion. I think of it a little bit like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland getting together and saying, 'Let's make a show!'" Kramer muses before adding, "And we are having a blast."
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On an early afternoon last week before rehearsals, Cano sat on the floor of his parlor theater and fished a crushed blue-velvet bag from a cabinet. In it were a prized collection of vintage records by 1920s and '30s crooners who inspire the scores for his shows.
"I really love Irving Berlin, Eddie Cantor, Cole Porter, Al Dubin, Tin Pan Alley music, and old-time jazz. I also enjoy Connie Francis and Mama Cass and other singers with distinctive voices," he says.
Cano, who listens to the records on his collection of hand-cranked Victrola phonographs, says the oldies motivate him, as does his father, Pablo senior, a musician who has written music for his son in the past. And his family is very much involved in his creative efforts these days.
"My sister Isabel sewed Fred Astaire's suit for me, and my mother, Margarita Cano, who is an artist, is my biggest critic," he laughs. "The Red Velvet Theater, everything that is happening for me now, is like a dream. I've always wanted to do something like this. Red Velvet is a vehicle I wish I would have thought of before but maybe wasn't ready to execute yet. After so many years of working with actors, writers, dancers, musicians, and others at MOCA, those experiences expanded my imagination and approach to collaborating with others, so the timing for this project is right. Please, just don't call me a puppet master."