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Cuba -- Gambling Mecca
of the New World

[REF: CABARET magazine Dec 1956 pp. 33-34, 45]



By: Henry Durling

A NEW CONTENDER for Las Vega's title as the "Mecca of American Gambling" is raising its head on the Southern horizon.  It is growing in the azure waters of the Caribbean, where dollar-hungry island republics are rediscovering a non-dutiable export to attract American money.  The export is fun–enjoyed on the premises and carried home in memories not subject to the searching eye of the U.S. Customs Service.

In Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, enterprising operators are vying with each other to show the American tourist–long a source of important cash–new and more exciting ways to spend his money faster.  Cooperative governments have aided the effort by quietly opening the door for a full scale rejuvenation of the long-neglected gambling industry.

New casinos are popping up like exotic jungle blossoms throughout the West Indies, and old ones are being rejuvenated in a full scale effort to create a new Monte Carlo in the New World.

Leading the parade is Havana, long the premier metropolis of the islands, where but a few years ago the visitor could find only one topnotch night club-casino to take his money.  Today three new or newly-reopened temples of Lady Luck have been added to the lineup, with a fourth in the works.

In the Dominican Republic, a lavish casino has been set up in Ciudad Trujillo at the city's premier hostelry, the Juaragua Hotel.

Even Haiti, oldest but least developed of the West Indies republics, is getting its foot in the door and at least one casino–the International Club–is in full swing with official consent.

Keynote of the new operation is the same kind of luxurious atmosphere combined with a willingness to let the smallest fry play, that is characteristic of the best Las Vegas spas.  This is largely due to the vital part American operators–many from Las Vegas itself, others f rom Miami, New York and Chicago–are playing in the renaissance of the gaming table.  Their presence lends substance to the report now circulating in international café society and the gambling crowd that "Las Vegas is going to the West Indies."

Gambling is, of course, nothing new to the Caribbean.  It is a vital part of every Latin's life.  And combined with other diversions in the green and the gold tropical lushness of the islands, it has always had a special attraction for well-heeled tourists tired after a day of sightseeing or sunning.

As early as 1919 its value as a tourist attraction was recognized by the Cuban government, which offered a gambling franchise to anyone who would put $2 million or more into an operation designed to attract tourists.  The plans backfired, however, when irregularities–cheating, to put it bluntly– sent the tourist home more often a shorn lamb than a satisfied sheep, and highly vocal about it.  Wide-open gambling, along with other commercially available vices, there-upon fell into disfavor as more likely to discourage than expand the vital trade of respectable tourists.

A reversal in official attitude has been made possible, however, by two factors which appeared on the scene in recent years.  One has been the decline of Miami as a gambling center, as reform elements cracked down on the profitable enterprises there.  The other is the resulting willingness of Americans to move to greener pastures elsewhere.

The introduction of American gambling methods–which rely on percentages to make the house nut–has given the attraction a new and more respectable look as a tourist lure.  Though Miamians and Miami capital have led the overseas trek, once the course was set, other interests moved in to share in the bonanza–especially the experienced operators from Nevada.

A good example of the "new look" is the casino opened this year in Havana's plush Nacional Hotel.  Chips cost as little as a quarter in this palatial gold-and-marble room.  And Wilbur Clark, operator of Las Vegas' famed Desert Inn, is in charge to see to it that everyone from a clerk on a package tour to a millionaire on a holiday gets a fair shake.

Clark opened the casino–first one in the hotel which has long set the standard for top-quality and top-price Havana hospitality–at the invitation of the Nacional's owners.  It is operated in conjunction with the ultra-high-priced Café-Parisienne, a blue-and-cream-satin lined room where patrons can dine on pressed duck, watch such top performers as Eartha Kitt, Jimmy Durante, then stroll into the brilliant casino for an evening of gambling.

Clark is enthusiastic about the operation.  "We have built every night since we opened," he says.  "It's far more successful than we could have imagined, and we are pleased and honored to have been invited to open the room."

Clark does not habitually use first person plural when speaking of himself, and his "we" refers to himself and the same four partners who co-own the Desert Inn with him.

Though large by Cuban standards, the casino itself is only of moderate size compared to American rooms.  It offers seven roulette, three blackjack tables, one crap game, and 21 slot machines ranging from five cents to a dollar a play.

Clark's analysis of the room's success probably holds the key to American participation in the West Indies gambling rush: "We offer the same kind of clean-cut gambling that we run in Vegas," he says.  "And the same, fast, exciting American-style ‘action,' which is different from the more formal, slower continental style these people are used to.  We play simpler games, but we can play ten of them in the time it takes a Monte Carlo croupier to run one."

Obviously pleased with the setup, Clark finds nothing in it to peril the Nevada gambling empire.  "The situation is entirely different," he says.  "Las Vegas is purely a resort, while this is a metropolitan center.  We are tapping a new market, not the same one."

Though Clark is silent about the dollars and cents end of his operation–reports are that some 4,000 players a week yield a gross revenue in the hundreds of thousands–he is planning to shift the casino to a separate $1 million building on the hotel grounds within a year.

His ideas about the market tapped by his operations are disputed, however, by other operators in the field.  "The West Coast crowd is tired of Las Vegas," says one.  "Business is falling off.  They'd like to draw the East Coast crowd, but those people can fly here in half the time and at less cost than it takes to go West."

"They have to come down here if they're going to stay in business.  It's the same market.  The only difference is than down here it's easier to operate, and there's a lot more for the people who come here than Las Vegas can ever offer."

For this season, American money and brains are reported behind at least two other revitalized Cuban operations, the Oriental Park race track and the Sans Souci night club.  Both are operated with casinos, both are enjoying a new rush of business under new management.

Lefty Clark, veteran Miami gambling pro, has lent his name to the Sans Souci.  The race track, onetime plush bailiwick of the exclusive Cuban Jockey Club, is operating under Cuban management, but reports are that the cash for refurbishing it and arranging its opening came from Chicago interests.

Native Cuban operators are not being left behind in the dust, however.  The visitor who wants to rub elbows with the cream of Cuban café society will find a ready welcome at the long-established Montmartre, favorite of wealthy Cuban gaming fans, where the tables open at 4 p.m. and run all night.

"Cubans and continentals are much more serious about their gambling," says Manager Mario Garcia Herrera, affable veteran of two decades in the casino business.  "We have catered to such tastes for years, and we plan to continue doing so."

The Montmartre, he reveals, is also planning an expansion soon, to enable it to take its share of the new business.  Built in the 1920's as a combination casino and indoor dog track, it was severely damaged in the political upheavals of the 1930's and later remodeled.  It will soon be enlarged by 45,000 square feet.

But even at the ultra Cuban Montmartre, the American influence is felt.  The club's extravagant shows are directed by American Joe Carlyle, whose production numbers featuring American hit tunes, make a big hit with Cuban audiences and are enthusiastically received by visitors.  Two different productions are offered each evening, with a company of some 60 principals and chorines taking part.

For added interest, name performers like Dorothy Lamour and Maurice Chevalier are featured in personal appearance spots skillfully worked into the routines.

Herrera sees the pot of gold finally appearing at the end of the rainbow for the West Indies in the resurgence of gambling.  "You can never enjoy in your country what you can find here," he says.  "Miami or Las Vegas are merely resorts.  Here we offer the living pulse of a world metropolis, wide-open and alive.  Gambling may make the piece de resistance but we have the garnishes."

He tells you that Havana once wasted an opportunity to become the "world's greatest tourist city" when Prohibition cast its blue-nosed pall over the states.  "But in all of the political excitement, nobody realized what the opportunity was, or how much we were missing.  The new government is working now to capture the present opportunity.  They are spending money on advertising.  They are allowing American concessions.  And t hey are relaxing the anti-gambling regulations to allow it to expand."

Proof of this expansion is the fabulous Tropicana, an ultra-modern, half indoor and half outdoor, multi-million dollar club opened last year.  It offers glittering extravaganzas on the stages of its two main rooms, succulent food at the table, and a fast-moving casino.  Its arrangement with Cubana Airlines, which brings a tourist from Miami to the club for a night, pays his transportation, hotel and gives him food and liquor, at a package rate of $70, is typical of the aggressiveness of the expanding Caribbean gambling industry.

This aggressiveness is matched, however, by the Dominican Republic, where Dictator Rafael Trujillo is reported to have issued a dictum giving gambling, and the necessary allied attractions top priority in the national plan.  Murray Weinger, builder of Miami's famous Copa City night club, which faded when the Florida resorts cracked down on gambling, is reported in charge of gambling at Ciudad Trujillo.  Rumor is that Weinger, who operated the Copa City for three years profitably, leased it for two, then took it over for its last gasp two years ago, has been offered an attractive arrangement in the republic, and plans to operate there permanently.

More American money went into revitalizing the huge Juragua Hotel, when a syndicate of Miami hotel men reportedly paid a half million for a ten year lease, spent $100,000 remodeling.

And here some pessimists find what they feel is a hint of the future for Americans in the West Indies gambling field.  After their remodeling was finished, the Americans were handed their lease money back, and asked to leave.  The hotel–and the casino which they installed–are now operating, under native management.

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