Old Cuba, From Celia Cruz to Coca-Cola, on View at the Wolfsonian in Miami Beach

When Celia Cruz, the Queen of Salsa, died in 2003, a 200,000-strong crowd converged on Miami's Freedom Tower to send her off. That's nearly three times more than the 75,000 who gathered in Memphis to bid farewell to Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll, in 1977.

Way before Elvis climbed the charts with his blue suede shoes, La Guarachera de Cuba was already famous for her maní picao and collection of flamboyant footwear.

Celia loved wearing outrageous costumes too.

At the Wolfsonian-FIU museum this Friday, you can catch one of the show-stopping gowns Cruz wore while performing at the iconic nightclub and casino the Tropicana. The gold-sequined, curve-hugging dress with a revealing neckline is one of the highlights of the sprawling new exhibit, "Promising Paradise: Cuban Allure, American Seduction." The display also features historic promotional posters, rare artifacts, and hundreds of photos documenting the island's decadent nightlife and tropical tourist dives. Many of the items will be presented publicly for the first time.

The show is culled from a collection of more than a thousand works donated to the museum by Vicki Gold Levi, a New Jersey-born, 75-year-old collector of all things Cuban. The exhibit was co-curated by the museum's chief librarian, Frank Luca, and Cuban-American art conservator and scholar Rosa Lowinger.

Pictures on view include candid snaps of Marlon Brando on the bongos, Joseph P. Kennedy and Ernest Hemingway posing with a giant swordfish, and the notorious Chano Pozo, one of the creators of Afro-Cuban jazz, who was gunned down in 1948 in a Harlem bar by a dealer Pozo accused of selling him bogus weed. The exhibit also boasts pictures of Meyer Lansky and his staff at the gangster's Hotel Habana Riviera in 1958 and an early 1930s photo of a Prohibition-era American tourist guzzling a cocktail at the freshly minted Bacardi Quest Bar.

These images and others reference the cozy relationship between the Cuban government and American mobsters that helped transform the tropical island into a sinners' paradise where booze, prostitutes, drugs, and gambling could easily be found. The show concentrates on the era from 1920 through 1959, when Cuba and the United States lingered in a never-ending honeymoon and American tourists flocked to Havana to play roulette and dance the rumba before a nasty Cold War breakup ruined the romance. At a time when thawing Cuba-U.S. relations dominate the headlines and American tourists are returning to the island, the exhibit has special resonance.

Gold Levi grew up in Atlantic City watching Ricky Ricardo belt out "Babalú" on I Love Lucy. She mamboed her way through high school to the infectious beat of Pérez Prado, the peerless pied piper behind the popular dance craze. "I have Latin rhythms in my DNA," she says.

"This show shows how the U.S. and Cuba were as inseparable as uña y carne."

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Gold Levi, who has big brown eyes and looks, acts, and talks like a woman half her age, is a former picture editor for Esquire and a historian. She says her passion for the island's culture was rekindled in the late 1990s when she began collecting Cuban memorabilia online.

"It was during the early days of eBay, and I began buying rare travel brochures, promotional materials, posters, postcards, and photos in the $25-to-$500 range," she recalls.

At the time, Gold Levi, who also cofounded the Atlantic City Historical Museum and was a historical consultant on HBO's Boardwalk Empire, was researching a story on the high-diving horse that became a star attraction on the Steel Pier.

"When I found a letter mentioning the horse act had once toured Cuba, that sort of became the genesis for my Cuba collection," she says. "There were great similarities between Havana and Atlantic City of the '40s and '50s."

Soon she began reaching out to private dealers. There were covers of Social magazine, boldly illustrated by Conrado Massaguer, a caricature artist who died in 1965. He had a distinct Art Moderne style that was one of her early favorites.

But Gold Levi's rapture for Cuban music led her to pursue imagery of Pozo with the zest of an infatuated schoolgirl. "Chano Pozo was one of Cuba's greatest talents, and his collaboration with Dizzy Gillespie on their 1947 recording, Manteca, laid the foundations for Afro-Cuban jazz," she observes. "Finding anything related to Chano became my Holy Grail."

The Wolfsonian exhibit also explores how Cuban flavor sparked an obsession for Latin culture in the United States. The island's performers became household names, and its culture deeply influenced American music, sports, fashion, and film elite.

By 2002, the year she co-wrote Cuba Style: Graphics From the Golden Age of Design with author Stephen Heller, Gold Levi began traveling to Cuba. There, she purchased items such as an alligator hide purse and shoes. During a more recent trip to the island, she brought back a collection of five hand-painted ceramic signs the size of hubcaps. They advertise American companies that were once staples of Cuban life. "One sign says, 'Tome Coca Cola,'?" Gold Levi says. "Others promote companies such as Westinghouse or Hershey, which built a city for its executives and employees in Cuba."

Other vintage objects on display include four leather-bound books from the 1930s chock-full of original Cuban lithographic labels trumpeting expensive perfumes, chocolates, fruits, soaps, tinned lobster, and other luxury consumer items typical of the age. "I got the rare volumes from a private dealer in Spain," she says. "My breath was taken away by the immaculate condition they were in."

One of her favorite places to shop for vintage artifacts in Cuba today is a recently opened shop called Memorias, near Havana's legendary Sloppy Joe's Bar. It offers everything from antique books to movie posters, cigar labels, and photos.

"This show really provides a strong sense of how the U.S. and Cuba were as inseparable as uña y carne," says Lowinger, the show's co-curator.

Adds Luca, the Wolfsonian's librarian: "It also provides a cautionary tale of the corruption that happens when gangsters become part of the story."

"Promising Paradise: Cuban Allure, American Seduction"

Through August 21 at the Wolfsonian-FIU, 1001 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 305-531-1001; Admission is $10 for adults; $5 for seniors, students, and children ages 6 to 12; and free for Wolfsonian members, State University System of Florida staff and students with ID, and children 5 and younger. The museum is open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Friday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and Sunday noon to 6 p.m. It's closed Wednesday.

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Carlos Suarez De Jesus