What Happened At The Tropicana Didn’t Stay At The Tropicana – Part III
Santo “Luis Santos” Trafficante, Jr. was dispatched by his father to Havana and the Tropicana casino in 1946, five years before Fox would take over the operation. The Tampa godfather Santo Trafficante, Sr. envisioned an open market and ideal climate and setting in which his empire could expand. The Tampa mob family had interests in Cuba and Havana and Trafficante, Jr. was to secure the family’s connections.
When Santo, Sr. died in 1954, Junior took charge of the family’s Tampa and Cuban interests. Shortly after his father’s demise, Congressional probes focused on the Trafficante bolita racket and Trafficante Jr. took up residence in Havana along with sidekick Meyer Lansky, another upper echelon Mob boss.
Lansky would go on to become the top mob boss in Cuba and Trafficante would serve him as his second. It did not take the mob or Trafficante long to grab a bigger piece of the pie. Within a few years, Lansky had forged stakes in the Tropicana and in the Sans Souci, the Tropicana’s biggest competitor.
The two cabaret – casino operations had similar business models. The take from the restaurant and bar more than covered the operating expenses and overhead. The income derived from the casino operation was pure profit. Cuba and Havana had other casinos and it was believed that Trafficante had interest in the casinos at The Seville-Biltmore, The Habana Riviera, the Capri, Havana Hilton and at the Nacional.
The new casinos were even more profitable as they did not offer the wondrous shows at the Tropicana or Sans Souci. In 1958, the US Treasury Department released a report indicating that the Tropicana and other Havana casinos were using “rigged equipment” including “bust-out dice.” The slot machines were said to be “rigged for a very low pay off, due to the extremely high take off of the proceeds by officials.”
On paper, the Fox family maintained control of the Tropicana but known mob figures like Harry “Lefty” Clark, and other Trafficante close associates worked the casino and Lansky and Trafficante invested heavily in expansion.
In 1956, Fox arranged a special Club Tropicana package that included Cubana Airlines round trip flights from Miami to Havana and the casino. The plane offered a wet bar. Travelers were returned to Miami the next day on a 4:00 a.m. flight.
The Tropicana fast became a “Magnet for international celebrities,” where famous musicians, gorgeous women and gangsters rubbed elbows, shared drinks and rolled the dice. The A List regular guests included Ernest Hemingway, Jimmy Durante, Maurice Chevalier, Maureen O’Hara, Sammy Davis, Jr., Marlon Brando and others.
The mystique of the Tropicana was captured quite well by Rosa Lowinger and Ofelia Fox in their book Tropicana Nights: The Life and Times of the Legendary Cuban Nightclub. When the Batista government failed and Castro took over, the Tropicana would serve as a model for shaping Las Vegas.
A bomb was exploded by the rebels at the club on December 31, 1956. While Trafficante declared that the Revolution would “blow over,” Lansky adamantly declared that “I know a communist revolution when I see one.” Cuba’s new president, Manuel Urrutia Lleo closed the casinos and nationalized the property just after Lansky swallowed his losses and left the country. Trafficante stayed on and unsuccessfully negotiated with Castro. He was incarcerated in the Tiscornia prison camp in Havana on June 21, 1959.
The Tropicana is open for business as a restaurant and cabaret today. Though not quite as glamorous and without a casino, the club offers a compelling glimpse into the glory that put Cuba’s cabaret style entertainment on the international map.
Will you visit the Tropicana on your People-to-People Cuba tour? Contact Dave or Yordi froe more details at Info@travelguidecuba.com.
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