Cuba -- Gambling Mecca
of the New World
CABARET magazine Dec 1956 pp. 33-34, 45]
GAMBLING MECCA OF THE
ARE BEING DEPOSITED IN LARGE CHUNKS
AS MANY FUN-LOVING AMERICANS CHASE LADY LUCK TO WEST
By: Henry Durling
A NEW CONTENDER for Las Vega's title as the "Mecca of
Gambling" is raising its head on the Southern horizon.
growing in the azure waters of the Caribbean, where
island republics are rediscovering a non-dutiable export to
American money. The export is fun–enjoyed on the
carried home in memories not subject to the searching eye of
In Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, enterprising
vying with each other to show the American tourist–long a
important cash–new and more exciting ways to spend his money
faster. Cooperative governments have aided the effort
opening the door for a full scale rejuvenation of the
New casinos are popping up like exotic jungle blossoms
West Indies, and old ones are being rejuvenated in a full
to create a new Monte Carlo in the New World.
Leading the parade is Havana, long the premier metropolis of
islands, where but a few years ago the visitor could find
topnotch night club-casino to take his money. Today
three new or
newly-reopened temples of Lady Luck have been added to the
a fourth in the works.
In the Dominican Republic, a lavish casino has been set up
Trujillo at the city's premier hostelry, the Juaragua Hotel.
Even Haiti, oldest but least developed of the West Indies
getting its foot in the door and at least one casino–the
Club–is in full swing with official consent.
Keynote of the new operation is the same kind of luxurious
combined with a willingness to let the smallest fry play,
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
circulating in international café society and the gambling
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
diversions in the green and the gold tropical lushness of
it has always had a special attraction for well-heeled
after a day of sightseeing or sunning.
As early as 1919 its value as a tourist attraction was
the Cuban government, which offered a gambling franchise to
would put $2 million or more into an operation designed to
tourists. The plans backfired, however, when
irregularities–cheating, to put it bluntly– sent the tourist
often a shorn lamb than a satisfied sheep, and highly vocal
it. Wide-open gambling, along with other commercially
vices, there-upon fell into disfavor as more likely to
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
down on the profitable enterprises there. The other is
resulting willingness of Americans to move to greener
The introduction of American gambling methods–which rely on
to make the house nut–has given the attraction a new and
respectable look as a tourist lure. Though Miamians
capital have led the overseas trek, once the course was set,
interests moved in to share in the bonanza–especially the
operators from Nevada.
A good example of the "new look" is the casino opened this
Havana's plush Nacional Hotel. Chips cost as little as
in this palatial gold-and-marble room. And Wilbur
of Las Vegas' famed Desert Inn, is in charge to see to it
from a clerk on a package tour to a millionaire on a holiday
Clark opened the casino–first one in the hotel which has
long set the
standard for top-quality and top-price Havana hospitality–at
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
watch such top performers as Eartha Kitt, Jimmy Durante,
into the brilliant casino for an evening of gambling.
Clark is enthusiastic about the operation. "We have
night since we opened," he says. "It's far more
we could have imagined, and we are pleased and honored to
invited to open the room."
Clark does not habitually use first person plural when
himself, and his "we" refers to himself and the same four
co-own the Desert Inn with him.
Though large by Cuban standards, the casino itself is only
size compared to American rooms. It offers seven
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
American participation in the West Indies gambling rush: "We
same kind of clean-cut gambling that we run in Vegas," he
"And the same, fast, exciting American-style ‘action,' which
different from the more formal, slower continental style
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
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
Though Clark is silent about the dollars and cents end of
operation–reports are that some 4,000 players a week yield a
revenue in the hundreds of thousands–he is planning to shift
to a separate $1 million building on the hotel grounds
within a year.
His ideas about the market tapped by his operations are
however, by other operators in the field. "The West
is tired of Las Vegas," says one. "Business is falling
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
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
and the Sans Souci night club. Both are operated with
both are enjoying a new rush of business under new
Lefty Clark, veteran Miami gambling pro, has lent his name
to the Sans
Souci. The race track, onetime plush bailiwick of the
Cuban Jockey Club, is operating under Cuban management, but
that the cash for refurbishing it and arranging its opening
Native Cuban operators are not being left behind in the
however. The visitor who wants to rub elbows with the
Cuban café society will find a ready welcome at the
long-established Montmartre, favorite of wealthy Cuban
where the tables open at 4 p.m. and run all night.
"Cubans and continentals are much more serious about their
says Manager Mario Garcia Herrera, affable veteran of two
the casino business. "We have catered to such tastes
and we plan to continue doing so."
The Montmartre, he reveals, is also planning an expansion
enable it to take its share of the new business. Built
1920's as a combination casino and indoor dog track, it was
damaged in the political upheavals of the 1930's and later
remodeled. It will soon be enlarged by 45,000 square
But even at the ultra Cuban Montmartre, the American
felt. The club's extravagant shows are directed by
Carlyle, whose production numbers featuring American hit
tunes, make a
big hit with Cuban audiences and are enthusiastically
visitors. Two different productions are offered each
with a company of some 60 principals and chorines taking
For added interest, name performers like Dorothy Lamour and
Chevalier are featured in personal appearance spots
into the routines.
Herrera sees the pot of gold finally appearing at the end of
rainbow for the West Indies in the resurgence of
can never enjoy in your country what you can find here," he
"Miami or Las Vegas are merely resorts. Here we offer
pulse of a world metropolis, wide-open and alive.
make the piece de resistance but we have the garnishes."
He tells you that Havana once wasted an opportunity to
"world's greatest tourist city" when Prohibition cast its
pall over the states. "But in all of the political
nobody realized what the opportunity was, or how much we
missing. The new government is working now to capture
opportunity. They are spending money on
are allowing American concessions. And t hey are
anti-gambling regulations to allow it to expand."
Proof of this expansion is the fabulous Tropicana, an
half indoor and half outdoor, multi-million dollar club
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
tourist from Miami to the club for a night, pays his
hotel and gives him food and liquor, at a package rate of
typical of the aggressiveness of the expanding Caribbean
This aggressiveness is matched, however, by the Dominican
where Dictator Rafael Trujillo is reported to have issued a
giving gambling, and the necessary allied attractions top
the national plan. Murray Weinger, builder of Miami's
City night club, which faded when the Florida resorts
cracked down on
gambling, is reported in charge of gambling at Ciudad
Rumor is that Weinger, who operated the Copa City for three
profitably, leased it for two, then took it over for its
last gasp two
years ago, has been offered an attractive arrangement in the
and plans to operate there permanently.
More American money went into revitalizing the huge Juragua
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
for Americans in the West Indies gambling field. After
remodeling was finished, the Americans were handed their
back, and asked to leave. The hotel–and the casino
installed–are now operating, under native management.
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