The 1940's and '50s tend to be remembered as the time when America's jazz heyday waned and gave way to the Golden Age of rock 'n' roll. But as millions of young people across the country became transfixed by Elvis Presley's hip shaking, a subculture of young, Jewish, New York-to-Miami Beach transplants looked past the blues and country-tinged sounds coming out of the American South, leaning instead toward the tropical beat of pre-revolution Cuba.
They called themselves the Mamboniks, and while those who remain still dance at South Florida halls like the Goldcoast Ballroom in Coconut Creek, their story has seldom been told before now. Director Lex Gillespie will premiere his documentary film about the Jewish, mambo-obsessed scene and some of its most intriguing characters at Coral Gables Art Cinema during the Miami Film Festival on Sunday, March 3.
Gillespie, a Peabody Award-winning radio and television producer who's produced series about the history of different musical movements, most notably rhythm and blues and early rock 'n' roll in Let the Good Times Roll, first became interested in the topic when his wife, who is Jewish, told him about her grandmother, who was enamored with mambo as a young girl and yearned to visit New York's Catskills resorts to learn to dance at one of the epicenters of the movement. He soon found that her story was one of many, and his research led him to the Goldcoast, where he found many of the Mamboniks still dancing; most of them well into their 80s.
One of the dancers Gillespie encountered at the Goldcoast is Marvin Jaye, better known within the mambo scene as "Marvano." Film viewers meet him minutes into the documentary at Miami International Airport, where he boards a small plane to return to Cuba for the first time since Castro assumed power in the late 1950's. Once there, he makes himself at home, dancing to the music of mambo ensembles in Havana, reminiscing on the Malecon, and enjoying a serenade from a local taxi driver.
Jaye was a frequent visitor to Cuba before Castro's era began. In those days, he taught mambo dancing on Miami Beach, and he'd often visit the island in search of records to play during his classes. Before that, when the music wasn't as accessible, he and his friends got creative, picking up Cuban radio stations using unconventional methods. "We got a long, long wire — I don't know where the hell we got the wire — and we attached it to the radio," he remembers. "We ran it alongside the top of the outside of the studio and down to the end. And that reception came through fantastic."
Upon his return with film crews in 2011, Jaye led Gillespie and his team to many of his old haunts, though some no longer existed. "We saw Cuba through his eyes," says the filmmaker. "And he did a lot of dancing there. Everywhere, it seems, we'd walk in and there was music. It's almost a cliche that there's music everywhere [in Cuba], but we certainly found it."
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Gillespie's film unlocks a vibrant Miami Beach scene where mambo shows were so plentiful that bandleader Rey Mambo, who is also in the film, opted to travel from gig to gig by boat in an effort to beat street traffic. The filmmaker admits that prior to making the documentary, he thought of Miami Beach's music history primarily through the lens of Sinatra and his Rat Pack. "In terms of the music history, I didn't really think of what happened before that."
But Gillespie believes the story of these Jewish youths who became Mamoboniks is significant because it draws a straight through line to today's mainstream American fascination with Latin music. "Back when the mambo was starting, this music was really new... You take for granted that things were this way, but Latin music was just really kind of in its infancy [in the U.S.], and this whole scene pushed it along and helped it to get its foothold."
The Mamboniks at the Miami Film Festival. 3:15 p.m. on Sunday, March 3 at Coral Gables Art Cinema, 260 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables; 786-472-2249; miamifilmfestival.com.
7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 6 at Silverspot Cinema, 300 SE Third St. #100, Miami; 305-536-5000; miamifilmfestival.com.