Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The City at Night (Havana)

Becket, December 25, 2013

Before the triumph of Castro's revolution in 1958, the night of Havana was the stuff of legend and fantasy. From the hotels and casinos run by American mobsters--such as Santo Trafficante's Capri and Meyer Lansky's Riviera--to the nightclubs and cabarets like the legendary Tropicana, the city after dark was often portrayed as a place of vice and debauchery.

But no picture of Havana's nightlife in the 1950s could be complete without mentioning the "Teatro Shanghai". Unlike the glamorous hotels and nightclubs, the Shanghai was a rather rundown building in Havana's Chinatown (it was originally built for traditional Chinese theater,) just west of Old Havana behind the National Capitol Building. Its nightly shows included raunchy comedy acts, hardcore burlesque and pornographic movies.

And the greatest star associated with the Shanghai (although he may have performed mainly at the Mambo Club or other places) was a monumentally endowed male performer known as "Superman" (in Santo Trafficante words "His cock is supposed to be fourteen inches long.") This colorful character appears in many accounts of the period. Frank Ragano, Trafficante's lawyer, mentions Superman's sex shows with awe, but Graham Greene writes that his performance was "as uninspiring as a dutiful husband's." He even has a brief appearance--seen from the back with a cape--as a character in Francis Ford Coppola's second Godfather movie.

For the later chapters in the life of the Cuban Superman, there is a fictional--I presume--encounter in "Dirty Havana Trilogy", Pedro Juan Gutierrez's hugely successful 1998 book, where the main character in the stories finds Superman during the "Special Period" (following the fall of the Soviet Union) on a sidewalk of Centro Habana, as a reminiscing 80-year-old bound to his wheelchair, diabetic, the lower part of his body gone.

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