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Havana hot spot still dazzles after 70 years

By David Ariosto, CNN
The gambling is gone, but cabaret singers and scantily dressed dancers still are big draws at the Tropicana.
The gambling is gone, but cabaret singers and scantily dressed dancers still are big draws at the Tropicana.
  • Once a playground for celebrities and mobsters, Tropicana still a hit with tourists
  • Guests often fill Tropicana's 850 seats to see singers, dancers
  • Tropicana used to be famed for gambling, which was outlawed after revolution
  • Entrance fee is about $80 -- nearly four times most Cubans' monthly state salary

Havana, Cuba (CNN) -- Clad in a gold sequined bikini and topped with a feathered headdress, a curvy cabaret dancer strutted onstage.

"Excuse me," she said, slipping past a group of ogling tourists who puffed expensive cigars and sipped freshly minted mojitos during a show at the Tropicana, one of Havana's premier nightspots.

Once a playground for American mobsters like Meyer Lansky and Santo Trafficante Jr., the famed Vegas-style haunt turned 70 this year and is still alive and kicking.

"We always wanted to come to the Tropicana," said one sunburned Canadian tourist. "It's supposed to be one of the best Cuban shows on the island."

The club first opened its doors in December 1939 near a Jesuit school that a wealthy landowner's then-13-year-old son named Fidel Castro would later attend. A glitzy reputation for showgirls and gambling quickly followed the opening of the Tropicana.

Much like the classic cars that still rumble down Cuba's roads, the place hints of a time long since past.

Baritone legend Nat King Cole performed there, and the place was once a favorite among golden-age Hollywood stars including Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor.

Video: Cuba's Tropicana still going
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In his 1958 spy novel "Our Man in Havana," British author Graham Greene recalled a scene in which "chorus girls paraded 20 feet up among the great palm trees, while pink and mauve searchlights swept the floor."

But at 70, the Tropicana is drawing a different clientele than the tuxedoed, celebrity-studded crowds from its heyday. These days, mostly European and Canadian tourists -- many participants in packaged tours, often sporting loud floral shirts -- are drawn to the Tropicana.

Cabaret singers and scantily dressed señoritas still perform a Latin-style extravaganza, but the sin and sizzle of its pre-revolutionary era are gone.

"Before the triumph of the revolution, this was a place dedicated to gambling and all kinds of games," said Tropicana director David Varela, standing where craps tables and roulette wheels were once only a few steps away.

After Fidel Castro's revolution in 1959, the Tropicana and other iconic nightspots came under state control and all bets were off.

The club's famed gambling and casinos were outlawed.

In 1960, all U.S.-owned businesses in Cuba were nationalized and the breakdown in diplomatic relations between the two countries that followed would echo for the next half-century.

Capitalizing on the nightclub's past international fame, Cuba now runs a more family-friendly version of the Tropicana at an entrance fee of about $80 per head, a price nearly four times the monthly state salary of most Cubans.

Varela said the club drew 200,000 tourists in 2008, but the global economic crisis squeezed tourism in 2009 and made it "a very hard year for us."

Still, guests often fill the 850-seat show and seem to enjoy themselves, despite the lack of gambling.

"It's very good music," said Sten, a Norwegian tourist on a package tour. "Dancers with not very much clothes, but very nice to see."