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More on Shanghai Theater

[CABARET, Sept. 1956, pp. 20- 22, 44.]

[To see a full size photo, right click and VIEW IMAGE]

[caption]  Dance team of Lopez and Romero do apache number in which he strips the costume off Conchita.  She finishes her dance nude.



By: Jay Mallin

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FOR A LONG TIME, Havana has enjoyed the reputation of being the sexiest city in the Western hemisphere.  To nearly everyone–and Americans especially–her main commodities have been rum, cigars and women.

But the Americano expecting to find the ultimate in wickedness in Havana will be disappointed in at least one respect.  The famed capital of Latin vice has only one burlesque house.  It is the Shanghai Theater, located appropriately enough in Chinatown, among the narrow, winding streets of old Havana.

But if it's small in numbers, Cuban burlesque more than makes up for it in punch.  There is probably nothing–including the rawest of Parisian shows–that is quite as raw as the peculiar combination of blackout skits, sexy dances and stag movies that make up the Shanghai bill.

[To see a full size photo, right click and VIEW IMAGE]

[caption]  Girls of all nationalities, shapes and sizes work in the Shanghai.  In many numbers, girls remove costumes behind props like cardboard bunnies and then step forward.

There have been other burley houses in the city, but over the years they have succumbed to the onslaught of the law.  The Shanghai, however, continues to operate and pack ‘em in every night as it has for the past 24 years.

"We close only for revolutions," says Jose Orozco Garcia, a paunchy, affable fellow with a big cigar and the tailoring of a syndicate hood, including fedora.  He has managed the house since it opened.  "We aren't bothered by anything else," he says, smiling as he fingers his diamond stickpin.

A shabby, hulking building on Zanja Street, between Manrique and Campanario, the theater was originally built as a home for oriental drama.  In spite of a large Chinese population, the art form fell on evil days, however, and the theater changed hands to become a burlesque hall.

Seats range in price from 65 cents for a bench in the

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balcony to $1.25 for a stage side chair.  Inside, the house is surprisingly large.  It seats 750-400 on the main floor and 350 in the balcony.

The audience is almost entirely male.  It's rare occasion in more ways than one when a curious turista appears on the arm of an escort to see the show.

Groups of society women do however occasionally don masks and watch the proceedings from boxes discreetly ranged along the side of the house.

But everyone is much more comfortable when there are no ladies in the audience.  This is not so much a delicacy, but because weak-stomached Americano maidens have had to be carried from the house in a semi-hysterical state after seeing part of the show.  Just the same, Garcia sees to it that when a woman does come, she is treated with due respect.

"This is a nice place," he says.  "When never have any trouble with the tourists.  They like it very much, and we are happy to have them."

The rest of the audience–in fact the major portion–is native in the peculiarly cosmopolitan fashion of Havana.  Any night the house will be filled with Chinese, Spanish, Negro, Cuban and a half-dozen other nationality groups, and from all strata of society.  "Everybody in Havana knows the Shanghai," Garcia says proudly.  "And everybody comes here."

What they find is a show that is unique among even the most unusual Havana entertainment.  The program is a combination of American bur- (Continued on page 44)

Page 44
lesque, French Follies Bergere, Cuban humor, Latin dance and stag parties the world around.

The curtain, obviously a holdover from the decades-past Chinese drama, opens to reveal a stage filled with girls.  Tall, short, skinny, fat, light, dark, they pose on a series of platforms, modestly attired in shorts and bras.

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[caption]  Traditional rhumba is also part of Shanghai's show, but always winds up with strip act that leaves dancer minus G-string.

The orchestra swings into a fast rhumba.  The girls break their poses, form a chorus line and advance, smiling, to the stage apron.  There they demurely reach behind, undo a snap and doff their bras, dangling them enticingly as they two-step back to the rear of the stage.

With a tremendous fanfare from the orchestra, the curtain sweeps shut.  The orchestra begins another tune.  The curtain re-opens, to discover the girls, now nude, each covering herself modestly with a parasol.  Once again they advance, twirling the parasol, and doing a series of side-step maneuvers that parody the Radio City chorus line.  Then, suddenly, the lovelies all fold up their parasols and stand, completely revealed.

Blackout.  Fanfare.  Curtain.

This sort of display alternates through the show with three other main attractions.  Of these, the sexiest is doubtless the series of semi-apache dances done by Conchita Lopez and Alfred Romero.  The pair whirl around the state while Romero systematically strips the fair Conchita to G-string an bra.  Then, in a solo bit, she finishes stripping altogether.

Blackout.  Fanfare.  Curtain.

Occasionally, as an encore, the lights and curtain come up to reveal the many-shaped chorines in another nude tableau for an instant.

Third on the bill is one of a series of blackout skits which are almost impossible for the tourist to understand, but throw the native audience into convulsions of laughter.  Almost any French, American or Cuban work that can be cut and edited to make a sex "point" is grist for arranger Antonio Lopez.

Cuckoldry, adultery, a boy's first visit to a bawdy house, fairydom, and the amorous problems of old age are typical themes.  All of the playlets are liberally interlarded with topical references, colloquial ad-lib wise-cracks.  Frequently the players, who double, triple, and even quadruple in roles through the evening, don the makeup of famous screen or television stars.

Typical of the humor is a popular skit involving a boy and girl in a restaurant.  The two sit at a bare table, the waiter appears and pulls a pair of menus from his pocket.

The boy asks where the tableware is.  Without a word, the waiter pulls knives, forks, spoons, napkins out of his pocket and sets the table.  After some discussion of the menu, the girl orders coffee.  Out comes a cup and a pot and the coffee is poured.  Salt and pepper?  Si, senor, right here in the hip pocket.  Sugar?  Yep, in a bottle from the jacket breast pocket.

Where, then, asks the girl, is the cream?  The waiter leaves nothing to the imagination in answering that one.

Competing with the live entertainment are the interludes of stag movies, shown on a screen which drops in front of the main curtain.  There, flickering dimly before the hundreds of upturned faces, appear some of the most prodigious physical endowments in the world, with graphic demonstrations of their use.

"This is probably the only public place in the world where such movies are shown," says Garcia.  "So do not describe them in detail, for it would only cause difficulty."

Fearful that this fact may reflect on his native land, Garcia is quick to point out that none of the films are of domestic manufacture.  "We obtain them from all over the world–New York, Paris, and Mexico City," he says.

Keeping a show on the boards is a grueling task for the staff and company of the Shanghai, because, says Garcia, "We change the show every day."  The three-a-day schedule of performances is preceded by a full morning of rehearsals, in which the cast gets the next day's skits and dances in mind.  To maintain the schedule calls for a company of 60 girls and a dozen men.  In any one show, at least a dozen chorines, one or two principal dancers, and a half-dozen men may be involved.

"It is a difficult task, but we have never missed a performance in the 24 years we have been operating–except, of course, for revolutions," says Garcia.

Garcia says that the theater has been so successful lately, that plans are under way for construction of a new, modern house in another part of town.

"When the Follies Bergere played the Blanquita theater here earlier this year," he says, "They jammed the house even though it is the world's largest theater in capacity.

"A good Havana burlesque will stay out of the red as easily as a bad one, and we feel that nothing is too good for our customers.  When they come expecting to see an artistic performance, we will give it to them."

[To see a full size photo, right click and VIEW IMAGE]

[caption] Comic relaxes backstage with some of Shanghai's chorines, who have a tendency to be very beefy like many of Cuba's girls.

The Shanghai is not without some problems.  Garcia complains that showgirls are not easy to find.  He says: "Ours is a small country and there are not many girls who are willing to appear naked.

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