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Disneyland with a Libido

Mango's presents its version of Latin culture to the world -- for better or worse
Steve Satterwhite

The faces of the men nursing their beers at Mango's Tropical Café fill with wonder, like children watching a fireworks display. Brazilian bartender Nice Taber has just mounted the mosaic-tile bar that opens on to Ocean Drive like a proscenium stage. Wearing space-age silver boots with six-inch platform heels, Taber is a mountain of muscle, covered only by fishnet stockings and a lizard-print leotard. Part Barbarella, part Wild Wild West, Taber tops the braids that frame her thirtysomething features with a cowboy hat, and steps into the center of a Hula-Hoop. Powering the hoop with a subtle pulse in her torso, she beckons to a group of Irishmen just coming through the door. Winners of a sales-incentive trip sponsored by the Dutch brewery Oranjeboom Lager, the hard-working beer distributors from Dublin make a beeline for the bar and stand three-deep at Taber's feet. "Every year I take all 80 distributors to a different place," explains Oranjeboom supplier-cum-tour-guide Reinier. "Miami is definitely the best: the weather, the women. It's a place they've seen on television, Miami Vice and all that. And the people are so friendly, all that sangre caliente." Never mind that Taber's native language is Portuguese. The Dutchman's Spanish turn of phrase conveys these tourists' fantasy of Miami as an adults-only theme park with a Latin accent. The Tropical Cabaret at Mango's caters to a taste for the exotic, serving Latin culture as steamy as the jungle, and Latino dancers as erotically primitive as the animal prints they wear. A magnet for tourists, journalists, and television crews, Mango's heavily made-up face represents Miami to the world, for better or worse.

The blood at 900 Ocean Dr. did not always run so hot. In 1955, when Ian Wallack bought the matching Park Sea and Surf Sea Hotels, the modest apartments attracted equally modest travelers looking for affordable accommodations. By the 1970s the twin structures became, like much of South Beach at that time, a sanctuary for the elderly. Wallack's son David, then a law student at the University of Miami, converted the space into an adult assisted-living facility. Faced every day with the drama of human mortality, David turned to Asian philosophy to cope with his after-school job and renamed the buildings "The Eastern Sun." He recalls, "Death and dying became my life." Then one morning in 1976, during his daily swim in the Atlantic, the young Wallack looked back to the shore and had a vision of paradise. Streaked with the first lights of dawn, he saw the Eastern Sun transformed. No longer a last stop on the road to eternal rest, the buildings came alive with raucous colors, loud music, and buxom women. Like Ponce de Leon, Wallack believed he could find the fountain of youth in South Florida. Unlike the unhappy conquistador, when Wallack didn't find paradise ready-made, he applied for a building permit.

Lawyer, artist, businessman, seer: Wallack saw the future of South Beach , and it looked tropical. By 1977 he had secured a mortgage, relocated the elderly, and opened what would soon become Mango's Tropical Café. In the central courtyard, Wallack built Mango's signature fountain. And the crowds came. After more than twenty years in business, Wallack estimates that between 10,000 and 20,000 people currently pass through Mango's every week. Although unwilling to disclose exact sales figures, Wallack claims that Mango's alone antes up some 22 percent of the total resort tax for beverages paid by all the restaurants and bars on Ocean Drive. If that's true (Florida law prohibits the City of Miami Beach from releasing the sales figures of any establishment), then customers swilled down nearly eight million dollars in drinks in 1998.

Add to this massive body count the number of spectators watching Mango's Tropical Cabaret on television. Proud owner Wallack tells tales of dancers being stopped on the streets of cities from Manhattan to Lima by fans who have seen the Tropical Cabaret on cable TV. In 1996 People magazine bestowed on Mango's the dubious honor of helping make the macarena famous. In January 1999 Fox Television featured Mango's as the official party of Super Bowl XXXIII. Clearly too big for the Twentieth Century, Mango's rang in the new millennium with Peter Jennings at ABC, transmitting Wallack's vision of Latin culture and its South Beach incarnation worldwide.

With this much exposure, the management considers all employees to be "cast members." Just like the Magic Kingdom's more domesticated animals, the staff of more than 100 employees must be in costume and ready to perform at all times. Employees also must attend a weekly dance class, where manager Vera da Souza teaches a series of easy-to-follow ensemble routines in the courtyard bar. If some stuffed shirts have described the macarena as a "Latin version of patty-cake," then Mango's dance repertoire runs the gamut from "Say, Say, Oh, Playmate" to "Miss Mary Mack": There appears to be oh so many ways to clap hands while executing a pivot turn. In addition to these group dances, employees are assigned specific numbers according to a "casting" by management. Select couples enthrall patrons by sliding effortlessly across the mosaic tile, twirling hand over hand through the complicated figures of salsa casino. By contrast the female soloists have little use for arms or legs, excelling instead at circling their hips and pumping their chests. The expectations of the cast appear in a whimsical document all new employees must sign that celebrates the "many, many beautiful people" from "many, many beautiful cultures" at work and play in Mango's. Shuffled in among the W-4 forms, this document helps employees make the thorny distinction between sexy dancing and sexual harassment. It's a small world, after all -- and scanty cat suits might just bring us all a little closer.

Take the example of a smartly coiffed antique dealer from London, flushed from a series of pelvic thrusts directed just shy of her face by a thickly muscled, Cuban-born bouncer. Convinced she has found the essence of island culture, the Brit maintains, "If you take Mango's and duplicate it many, many times, that's the Caribbean." For twenty college students from Greenland, Mango's marks the last stop on a tour of Florida's flora and fauna. While the Nordic youth move clumsily about the dance floor to an ear-splitting merengue, their tour leader hazards a scientific theory: "This kind of music belongs with this weather."

Certainly this kind of music belongs in Mango's, where the house bands rely on electronic sequencers to simplify the simplest of Latin pop. Many European and Anglo-American visitors leave with the impression that this music for the drunken masses is the real Latin thing. Yet many Latin Americans who ostensibly know better still find the tropical imitation thrilling. "If you want real Latin culture, then you have to go somewhere [else]," admits a Kodak representative on business from Puerto Rico. "But Mango's is a party. It isn't just about Latinhood." Sitting next to him, a Cuban immigrant couple is less interested in hearing music that brings them closer to their homeland than they are in bringing their barstools closer to the dancers. "My wife gets jealous," says the retired businessman with a laugh, "but I don't." "That's because I like to look," complains his wife. "He likes to look and touch." Head of security Mark Johnson confesses that groping the "cast" is an equal-opportunity endeavor. Reflecting on female patrons who can't keep their hands to themselves, he notes, "Women get away with murder."

David Wallack gets away with murder, too. Millions of dollars fill his high-tech cash registers while the spotlight of the world shines on his daiquiri-spouting stage. Mango's has the opportunity to showcase the most vibrant Caribbean music and dance Miami has to offer. Instead the Tropical Cabaret sells once again the myth first peddled by the Spanish conquistadors more than 500 years ago: The Caribbean is a primitive playground designed for Europe's pleasure.

If the myth still sells, it is because the people of the Caribbean have a quality that survives even the crassest commercialization. A hip Nuyorican in his early twenties sums up that quality as he leaves the club. "People might think we're fresh or dirty," he says, adjusting his dark sunglasses to take one last look at the young woman gyrating on the bar, "but there's an innocence about the body and about dancing in Latin culture that you see here. And I think it's beautiful." The outsider too often sees that innocence as something exotic and primitive. Mango's Tropical Cabaret kills the beauty of Latin culture by dressing the dancers as sexual animals who can breed new life into a weary civilization. The fountain of youth, cascading down the rocks behind the courtyard stage, cannot be heard over the tinny din of the synthesizer.


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