THE GLORIOUS LEGEND OF
THE HARLEM IN HAVANA REVUE
The Best Damn Girl Show on the Midway!
Youʼre gonna see Annie shake her fanny,
Kelly shake her belly and
Under the biggest tent at the heart of the world’s largest carnival midway, Leon Claxton’s Harlem in Havana Revue was the biggest touring attraction on Royal American Shows’ traveling carnival exhibition from 1936 to 1967. Surpassing anything comparable then, or now, Harlem in Havana was a magnificent midway musical featuring dancers, singers, comedians, variety acts, and an orchestra comprised of the most widely known blues and jazz musicians of the time. For nearly four decades, the more-than-hour-long extravaganza consistently left audiences across the U.S. and Western Canada mesmerized.
Touring company and training ground for the future heavyweights of music, Harlem in Havana provided a foundation for the careers of Rufus Thomas, Fontella Bass, Redd Foxx, Dinah Washington and Mercedes Valdes. The show influenced legends like Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Canadian folk icon Joni Mitchell who wrote, “There's a band that plays so snaky you can't help how you feel,” recalling her youth in Saskatoon as a patron of the "Black burlesque experience" in her poetic ode “Harlem in Havana”.
Cotton Club Meets Tropicana!
Arguably, the best girl show in North American carnival history, Harlem in Havana introduced some of the first women of color to perform in the flesh in the burlesque era. The Bates Sisters innovated exotic dance on the hallmark girl show in the early 1940s. The Cuban Dancing Dolls- four eye-catching imports from the Tropicana nightclub known collectively as "Las Diosas de Carne", brought rumba and early salsa moves just before the Cuban Revolution. “The Queens of the Harlem Revue” performed striptease and drag on Claxton's show in the early 1960s.
Coveted as the best gig in the world for colored performers then, the Harlem in Havana traveling showcase presented these brown-skin entertainers to segregated audiences and played a major role in offering Jim Crow America, pre-communist Cuba, and Canada new images of Black and Latino identity while spreading Afro-Cuban and African-American rhythms across the region.
Headquartered in Tampa, Florida for nearly 40 years, the Harlem in Havana troupe traveled more than 25,000 miles by train each season, playing state fairs and carnivals across North America. Claxton's popular outdoor attraction was witnessed by millions of people annually who came to check out the buzz, while international press touted it as the “must-see” for carnival-goers.
Labeled a ‘Jig Show’ by the outdoor entertainment industry and media of the day, Harlem in Havana nevertheless, rose above the constraints of a racially divided society to set new industry standards and break all the records for traveling show attendance and revenue. For the many patrons across North America who witnessed the one of a kind spectacle, and still remember it today, Leon Claxton’s Harlem in Havana will forever be one of the greatest midway attractions in North American traveling carnival history.
- Learn about Leon Claxton
- View a list of Past Performers
- Learn about the Show Route
- Learn about the Feature Documentary Film project
- Visit the Harlem in Havana store
- Contact us today