The TropiCaliente “Story”
Curious about the “history” of Club TropiCaliente? Read the TropiCaliente story — it’s too magnífico y fantástico to be true!.
Havana Heat in New England: Club ¡TropiCaliente!, 1942–1968
Back in the heyday of the glamorous nightclub, Americans flocked to the mythic Club TropiCaliente to rumba, mambo, and cha-cha-chá their way from WWII to the Age of Aquarius. For almost three decades, Boston’s TropiCaliente was the home of Latin music in the Northeast. Music legends Xavier Cugat, Tito Puente, Rita Montaner, Miguelito Valdés, Machito, and Tito “El Inolvidable” Rodríguez were regulars. Beloved vocalists Celia Cruz and Beny Moré made their American debuts on the TropiCaliente stage, as did bandleader Pérez Prado, the Father of Mambo. Countless other bands and singers shaped their careers at the club. Countless couples frolicked on its gleaming dance floor, countless singles met their mates at its bar, and countless financial magnates plucked their second wives from among the comely showgirls. Read on for the TropiCaliente story, just too amazing to be true!
Xavier Cugat Orchestra with Lina Romay and Miguelito Valdés
Long lines in 1943 soon after the club opened
Popular 1950s act Xavier Cugat and his wife Abbe Lane
Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper quipped that Club TropiCaliente was where “anyone who was anyone could be found on any night of any week of any year.” Soon after the club opened, it was flooded with notable socialites, literati, and stars from Broadway, Hollywood, and the “Golden Era” of Mexican film. Today the club is lauded for what, at the time, was an unusually integrated environment that attracted a wide range of patrons from Boston and beyond. Recent immigrants from Cuba and Puerto Rico danced hip-to-hip with South End Blacks, Beacon Hill Brahmins, West End Jews, North End Italians, Spanish Harlem musicians, as well as those necessary nightclub-hopping socialites and entertainment stars.
Rosemary Clooney and José Ferrer at their favorite table
Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis play hookie from their act at Manhattan’s Copacabana
By 1950 Mambo Mania had swept the country and TropiCaliente became so popular that it was dubbed “The Tropicana of the North,” referring to the infamous Tropicana club in Havana. Just as American socialites flew from Miami to Havana for a single night of revelry at the Tropicana, Manhattan socialites and entertainers hopped on an evening train to Boston for a night at the South End hotspot. On the early morning return train, New Yorkers would catch just enough shut-eye that they could stagger back to their offices in Midtown and on Wall Street. By 1952 Amtrak offered express service from Penn Station to Boston’s Back Bay Station on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday evenings. The express train was called “The Caliente Line,” while the express return trip on Thursday and Friday mornings was affectionately nicknamed “The Boston Hangover.” Amtrak continued the express service until 1964, and has never since managed to match the inter-city speed of those earlier trips, the fastest of which, according to legend, was 2 hours and 37 minutes, set on August 17, 1956.
The club logo c. 1950
Club TropiCaliente was the brainchild of Luis Cuevas, founder of Verne Records, and Sidney Siegel, founder of Seeco Records, the two leading labels of Latin music in the early 1940s. In late 1941 Cuevas and Siegel allegedly bumped into each other at the Park Palace in Spanish Harlem, and began to chat about ways to increase the market for Latin music north of Manhattan. They contacted Federico Pagani, the “Father of Latin Dance Promotion.” After a month seeking out investors, the three secured the financial backing and know-how of Michael Redstone, father of Sumner Redstone (of Viacom fame) and then owner of Bay Village’s Latin Quarter, a Moulin-Rouge style nightclub founded by Lou Walters, father of Barbara Walters. Club TropiCaliente was originally planned for a Bay Village location, but after the tragic Cocoanut Grove fire on November 28, a nearby South-End location on West Newton Street was quickly chosen instead.
Performers in Pérez Prado’s orchestra
Dolores Costello with the Lecuona Cuban Boys
Augusto Coén on a band break
The club opened on New Year’s Eve, to tremendous success, catapulting the club to the top of everyone’s social list. However, Redstone barely broke even on this cash cow of the calendar year—the club had not yet obtained a liquor license. Booze was brought in by patrons in their pockets and handbags. The police reportedly looked the other way, even though a bottle of rum famously smashed onto the sidewalk outside, having slipped from underneath the mink stole of an unidentified debutante.
The bands advertised for that memorable evening were the Xavier Cugat Orchestra, for the sets up to midnight, and for the sets after midnight, the Duke Ellington of Latin music, Augusto Coén y Sus Boricuas. The billing was a stroke of genius by Pagani, who used Cugat’s name to attract wealthy WASP patrons, Cugat’s being the darling of the white establishment, and Coén’s name to attract Latino, African-American, and Jewish patrons, Coén’s being half Afro-Puerto Rican and half Jewish-American.
Crowds packing the lobby
A couple dances until dawn
Couples dancing to Coén’s “Rumba TropiCaliente.”
Cugat and Lane backstage at TropiCaliente
Lane demonstrating the cha-cha-chá
Publicity photo for Lane’s song “The Anything Can Happen Mambo”
Pagani never intended Cugat to show up. Both he and Cugat knew that the Waldorf-Astoria, the home of Cugat’s orchestra, would hardly release him on New Year’s Eve. But Cugat went along with the ruse, and allowed his name to be used in posters and radio ads, and by the time the Waldorf-Astoria got wind of it in early January, Cugat simply shrugged his shoulders. Later in the month, “after the paint dried on the palm trees,” as he put it in a later interview, Cugat did make the trip north to play at TropiCaliente for a dozen sold-out shows. During the 1950s he famously frequented the club with his third wife, Abbe Lane, the “swingingest sexpot in show business,” whose sultry vocals in English and Spanish, cha-cha steps, and tight dresses made her a favorite with both the Hasty Pudding Club and the Boston Fire Department.
Frank “Machito” Grillo
Miguelito Valdés singing “Babalu” on opening night
Machito and his Afro-Cubans playing at Club TropiCaliente some years later
On that first New Year’s Eve, Boston Brahmins arriving at Club TropiCaliente were at first disappointed that Cugat was “detained in New York due to an unexpected scheduling conflict.” Soon, however, they were so taken by Coén’s Latin Big Band sound that they forgot all about Cugat and danced along side Coén’s longtime admirers. Pagani had another hot band waiting in the wings to go on after midnight as a surprise: vocalist Frank “Machito” Grillo’s relatively new band, Machito and his Afro-Cubans, famous by the mid 1940s. At 12:55 a.m., the audience and even Machito were surprised as the irresistible Miguelito Valdés, aka “Mr. Babalu,” burst onto the stage and into a song (another Pagani stunt). Valdés’s charisma was so overwhelming that three ladies and two men had to be taken outside for fresh air.
A 1943 performance of “The Geode Jive”
The “Bikini Fashion Show” which took place the first week of June throughout the 1950s
Cuban-born Ninón Sevilla, who went on to fame in Mexican cinema
During band breaks on that infamous night, TropiCaliente introduced their in-house entertainment act, the “Tropi Gals.” TropiCaliente’s answer to the white-bread Copa Girls at Manhattan’s Copacabana, the Tropi Gals spiced up the club like the rumberas of Mexican films and the showgirls of Havana’s Tropicana Club. In other words, they sang, danced, and wore skimpy costumes. That first night they performed three different numbers: first, a tribute to Rumba; second, a balletic interpretation of a Red Sox/Yankees game, and, right after midnight, an homage to the New Year, with the Gals in baby’s bonnets and “diapers”—draped bathing suits with giant diaper pins. Over the years the Tropi Gals, like the Copa Girls, were perused by movie agents and producers searching for the next Big Talent—the talent not always being directly related to the Gals’ vocal cords or hoofing skills.
Hundreds of Tropi Gals went on to successful entertainment careers, including Ninón Sevilla, Meche Barba, Rita Moreno, Chita Rivera, Lilia Prado, Diahann Carroll, Tina Louise, Barbara Eden, Ann-Margret, Lola Falana (who became the “Queen of Las Vegas”), and Florence Henderson. In 1966 Xavier Cugat “discovered” the young Charo on the TropiCaliente dance floor, and soon made her a star and his fourth wife.
Over the years, countless famous names graced the TropiCaliente stage. In addition to those artists mentioned before, TropiCaliente also featured bands and singers such as Noro Morales, Pedro Vargas, Sonora Matancera, Alberto Socarrás, Joe Loco, Daniel Santos, Johnny Pacheco, Charlie Palmieri, Joe Quijano, La Lupe, Yma Sumac, Pupi Lopez, and more! On occasion non-Latino stars who frequented the club—such as Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Harry Belafonte, Rosemary Clooney, and Josephine Baker—were urged to hop on stage and grab a microphone, and occasionally the club booked them for one-night performances.
Hollywood favorites also performed at TropiCaliente, such as Mexican-American crooner Andy Russell. Born Andrés Rabago Pérez in Los Angeles, and dubbed the “West Coast Sinatra,” Russell was a familiar voice on radio, film, and television in the post-war years. On Valentine’s Day 1944, Russell introduced “Bésame Mucho” at TropiCaliente, two months before it topped the charts and became his first big hit. The ladies there that night never forgot how his velvety baritone sent shivers down their spines and his large dreamy eyes distracted even a few of their dates. Throughout his life Russell attributed his rise to stardom to the generosity of Cuevas and Siegel, and performed at TropiCaliente every year on Valentine’s Day until the club closed in 1968.
A few years after Andy Russell’s debut, TropiCaliente featured the only joint stage appearance of film stars Carmen Miranda and Desi Arnaz. Brazillian-born Miranda began her singing career in the 1920s and became a staple of comic musical films and international nightclubs by the late 1930s. Before Arnaz’s well-remembered stint on 1950s television with his wife Lucille Ball, the Cuban-born Arnaz had achieved recognition in the Latin music scene in the 1930s, and national fame in Hollywood films in the early 1940s. At TropiCaliente, the duo’s act was billed as “The King of the Conga meets the Queen of Chick-A-Boom.” For a packed house they performed Arnaz’s hit “Cuban Pete” with Miranda’s rendition of “O Passo du Kanguru,” sung in the round.
As to be expected with this mythic nightclub, legends abound. November 13, 1948 was the night of the legendary Batalla de las Nalgas (Battle of the Buttocks), when two starlets of Latin film found themselves at the club on the same night. Reigning film rumbera María Antonieta Pons challenged mambo-darling Amalia Aguilar, aka La Bomba Atómica, to a contest to determine whether rumba still ruled or mambo was monarch. The crowd cheered Pons and Aquilar on, and Anselmo Sacasas’s Orchestra played for two long hours without a break. Finally, when one by one the horn section began to keel over, the kind-hearted Sacasas declared it a draw, and the two ladies shook hands and bought each other drinks.
Cuban bandleader, composer, and keyboardist Pérez Prado was at the height of his popularity when he played Club TropiCaliente on Saturday, May 14, 1955. His orchestra’s rendition of “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” was in the second of its ten week run topping the American music charts. Across the country lonely housewives kissed Prado’s 45s, and at cocktail parties suburban males imitated Prado’s trademark kick and guttural grunt — “Ugh!” The TropiCaliente staff was prepared for a lively crowd.
That cool spring evening the club filled quickly with guests of all ages, including two of Boston’s most distinguished dowagers, Mrs. George Cabot Lodge and Mrs. Henry Wigglesworth Lowell. The elderly Mrs. Cabot Lodge had not frequented nightspots in years, preferring to spend her waking hours working for charitable causes. The younger Mrs. Lowell, taken with “Cherry Pink” on the radio and convinced that Mrs. Cabot Lodge would benefit from a night out, helped her friend dust off her Deco diamonds and shake out her finest fur, before the family chauffeur transported them from Louisburg Square to the South End. Upon arrival they were escorted to their reserved table and treated like royalty, the club’s many guests paying homage to them as a Life magazine photographer snapped away.
A mellow marimba quintet was the first to perform, which pleased the dowagers, but twenty minutes into the set, the throngs of Prado fans began to chant, “Prez! Prez! Prez!” The quintet could hardly hear their own instruments, so they bowed out and Prado’s beruffled musicians scrambled into place. Eight bars into “Mambo del Politecnico” Prado leapt on stage, kicked and grunted, and the crowd went wild. “Quel sauvage!” cried an astonished Mrs. Cabot Lodge over the din. Then all heads turned as two dozen Smith College girls, celebrating Commencement, swarmed down from the balcony and onto the stage. Dressed in letter sweaters and short shorts, they exploded into a hip-shaking frenzy around Prado. Mrs. Lowell, entirely mortified, shouted toward her friend’s nearby ear, “Please forgive me, Dotty, I thought this was a black tie affair.” “But Marguerite!” replied a disoriented Mrs. Cabot Lodge, “Whatever happened to the fox trot?!”
Just then, a young gentleman dancing too enthusiastically beside them bumped their table sending Mrs. Lowell’s handbag to the floor and its contents scattering. Mrs. Lowell was reduced to retrieving her compact and lipstick from under the flying feet of mambo maniacs, and an incensed Mrs. Cabot Lodge marched up the stage stairs past the campus cuties to scold Mr. Prado for corrupting American youth. Just before she raised her pale arthritic finger to his shoulder, he turned his attention from the band to end the number with one last kick. His toe tapped her tiara, sending the family headdress flying toward the ceiling. The Smithies gasped, the dance floor froze, Prado cried out, “¡Cógelo!” and the tiara was caught at the edge of the balcony by a quick-limbed electrician from Dorchester. A minute later, the tiara restored to its bed of white curls, Prado signaled his orchestra to begin the melodic “Cherry Pink,” bowed an apology to the grand lady, took her in his arms and taught her the mambo. For weeks afterward, the joke at the bar was “What is rich, dotty, and blushing pink?”...“The White Apple Blossom who had her Mambo Cherry Picked.”
December 27, 1960 was the night of the “Rat Smack.” Frank Sinatra arrived with his Rat Pack associates, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, and Shirley MacLaine. Davis and Bishop dominated the domino tables, Lawford danced with all the ladies, Martin hung out at the bar, and Sinatra and MacLaine sat near the stage to watch the show. Performing the second set that night was Celia Cruz, who by then was an international star. According to onlookers, Sinatra was entirely taken with her dynamism and beauty and could not take his eyes off her. Cruz invited Sinatra to join her on stage, her powerful, perfect pitch massaging the throaty voice of the aging star. After “Mambo De Amor,” through which Sinatra mistakenly mixed Italian into the Spanish lyrics, they serenaded each other with “You Do Something to Me” from Sinatra’s and MacLaine’s latest film, “Can-Can.” Cruz later confessed she had assumed Sinatra’s onstage romancing was showbiz theatrics, so she had played along. Yet that was not the impression left on others in the room that night. According to observers, before the song was over, MacLaine had left the club in a huff with Bishop and Martin on each arm. Cruz and Sinatra ended the song with a long bow and an even longer kiss, after which Sinatra spied his table, where Sammy Davis was drumming his fingers and waiting to clean up the mess. Peter Lawford was no where to be found, although years later a retired Tropi Gal admitted that he had made his way to the Tropi Gals’ dressing room and had stayed there through Good Friday.
Perhaps the most legendary night was Christmas Eve 1957, forever remembered as Two Titos Eve. For years the Two Titos—fiery timbalero/bandleader Tito Puente and handsome singer/bandleader Tito “El Inolvidable” Rodríguez—had engaged in a very public feud that could be heard all the way to San Juan. When one bandleader was playing at the Palladium Ballroom, the premier Latin-music venue in New York, the other would inevitably be playing at TropiCaliente, each trying to attract fans away to the other city so that no one could attend both performances in one evening. In mid December 1957, Promoter Federico Pagani convinced Rodríguez and Puente to embrace the Christmas spirit and perform back-to-back in Boston. Hours before the first show, lines formed for ten blocks down Tremont Street, with bets being taken on whether the rivals might either shake hands or box each other. Betters lost all their money to the bookies, as the men exchanged neither handshake nor slap in the face. Rather Rodríguez sang his anti-Puente compositions “Avisale a Mi Contrario Que Aqui Estoy Yo” (Tell My Counterpart That I Am Here) and “Que Pena Me Da” (I Pity You), while Puente tried to drum him out of the club with a set of oversized timbales. Later that year Puente satirized that night on one of his album covers (bottom left).
Unfortunately, all good things come to an end, and this “Nightspot of the North” found its business drying up by the late 1960s. Independent nightclubs across the country found it hard to compete with the booming entertainment industry in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Young Americans turned from an adoration of Latin rhythms and songs of love to electric guitars and lyrics about chemical concoctions. And the new vogue among youth for long periods without bathing sealed the fate of the age-old tradition of dancing arm in arm. TropiCaliente closed its doors for good on September 28th, 1968; the final song “Vieja Luna” was played by Johnny Pacheco and the Fania All-Stars and sung by Celia Cruz. The Tropi Gals’ final number, which brought tears to the eyes of many longtime club patrons, was entitled, “Adios, Goodbye, The End.”
One Boston resident who frequented the club in the ’40s and ’50s remembers the club this way: “It was very hot there. I don’t just mean the bands. I don’t just mean the singers. I don’t just mean the Tropi Gals. I mean it was hot. Anybody who was anybody was there, particularly the hot ones, las guapas y los guapos! Hot on the dance floor. Warm at the bar. You didn’t need to fly to Cuba to get some Havana Heat.”
Except for the Boston dowagers, the characters portrayed and the names herein are not fictitious and any similarity to the name, character and history of any person, living or dead, is entirely intentional. The incidents portrayed herein are another matter altogether.
If you’re looking to dress in TropiCaliente style for the event or just wanting to get in the mood, check out these YouTube links.
If you like the classics:
- Celia Cruz sings “Guantanamera” (mid 1960s)
- Beny Moré sings “Como Fue” (c. 1953)
- Miguelito Valdés and his orchestra perform “Celina” (c. 1948)
- Xavier Cugat Orchestra with Lina Romay perform “She’s a Bombshell from Brooklyn” (1943)
- Rita Montaner sings “Mexico Lindo” with the Pérez Prado Orchestra (c. 1950)
- Machito and his Afro-Cubans perform “El Eco del Tambor”
- Lecuona Cuban Boys with “Maño” Lopez perform “Oye Me Rumba” (c. 1940)
Lopez plays his guitar with his mouth!
- Tito Puente Orchestra performs “El Cumbanchero” (1965)
If you like it hot:
- Pérez Prado Orchestra plays “Locas por el Mambo” with Cascarita (Orlando Guerra) lipsincing to Beny Moré’s vocals. La Bomba Atomica, Amalia Aguilar, dances (c. 1949)
- Abbe Lane sings “Malagueña Salerosa” with the Xavier Cugat Orchestra (c. 1960)
- Ninón Sevilla dances and sings “La Cocaleca” with the Pérez Prado Orchestra (1949)
- Lilia Prado dances to Pérez Prado’s “Que Rico Mambo” (1950)
- La Sonora Matancera with vocals by Celia Cruz and dancing by “Las Mulatas de Fuego” (1955)
- Miguelito Valdés belts out “Babalu” (mid 1940s)
- Pérez Prado Orchestra performs “Mambo Jose” (c. 1950)