Produced by award-winning showman Leon Claxton, The Harlem in Havana Revue was a high caliber, fast-stepping showcase of Black and Cuban music, dance and comedy that played state fairs and carnivals in the U.S. and Western Canada as a part of the Royal American Shows carnival exhibition from 1935-1967.
Cotton Club Meets The Tropicana! Harlem in Havana featured the best colored amateur and professional acts from the U.S. and Cuba. The hallmark girl show on the North American midway for nearly 40 years, Claxton's wildly popular multicultural stage production always featured the most beautiful brown-skin showgirls from around the world.
You're gonna see Annie share her fanny, Kelly shake her belly, and you know what Kitty's gonna shake!
Comprised of the best musicians playing popular blues, jazz, Latin, R&B and early rock-n-roll tunes of the times, Claxton's big band could be heard all over the midway! Touring company and training ground for the future heavyweights of entertainment, the show featured Cuban vocalist Mercedes Valdes, who took audiences on a “Mythical trip to Havana” in the 1950s. The Harlemettes danced to the “Jinx Stomp”, and female impersonator Fay Lawrence wowed audiences in a sexy rendition of the “Naughty Lady of Shady Lane”.
Accompanied by an endless array of vaudeville acts and zany comedians, these headliners competed for box office just a tent away from burlesque icons Gypsy Rose Lee, Sally Rand, and a host of all-white Las Vegas-style cabaret shows. Culminating into an hour+ long extravaganza, this brown-skin human circus of the 20th century consistently left billions of fairgoers across North America amazed.
The spectacular show helped launch the careers of music icons like Fontella Bass, Rufus Thomas, Chuck Berry and Mercedes Valdes, and many more.
Leon Claxton's tent show show had many iterations, including the Brown Skin Vanities Revue and the Cuban Rum Boogie Revue. Producer Claxton changed his show name to Harlem in Havana in 1942.
Labeled a 'Jig show' by the outdoor entertainment industry and media of the day, Harlem in Havana, nevertheless, rose above the segregated carnival stage and achieved mainstream and international attention. Harlem in Havana financially toppled its competition, smashed industry records and garnered nation-wide and international publicity as one of the finest revues ever presented under canvas.
Harlem in Havana was a needed platform during a time when mainstream entertainment was closed to African Americans and other performers of color. Claxton presented these entertainers of color 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. Brown-skin émigrés from all over the Caribbean performed on Claxton's showcase and their work was promptly absorbed into mainstream American culture.
Most Notably, the Harlem in Havana show was for African American audiences during a time when mainstream entertainment was off-limits to Blacks. Harlem in Havana was most often the only carnival venue people of color were permitted to patronize under Jim Crow law. In cities like Tampa, Memphis and Little Rock, practically every black person in the city went see to Claxton’s stage revue on Negro Day.
Harlem in Havana also confirmed a willingness of Cuban and Black American alignment before the Cuban revolution. But, when Batista is ousted by Castro, it became increasingly harder for Claxton to outmaneuver the political realities that threatened his show’s existence.
“This Castro has loused up a lot of things. We were known all over the continent for “Harlem in Havana”. It was a show name like Ringling Brothers” said Claxton in an interview with the Calgary Herald. On January 1, 1959, Fidel Castro took over Cuba's government, consolidated powers, seized properties and sought independence from the United States. When the U.S. severed diplomatic relations with Cuba, Claxton made the decision to change the show’s name. To make matters worse, finding new Cuban talent was becoming a challenge for Claxton.
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The Harlem Revue
For his 30th tour with Royal American Shows, Claxton added an all new lineup for the Harlem Revue that included a jazzy new band led by Maurice Fontane, The Fouchee Dancers; The Five Pennies, and two startling new attractions, Greta Garland, a female impersonator, and the new Queen of the Harlem Revue, striptease artist Kim Gaye.
Still fast moving, the show remained a popular attraction on the midway, especially among the old timers who returned season after season to be entertained in traditional Claxton manner. This Harlem Revue officially played its last tour dates in 1967, the year Leon Claxton passed away.
For the many people who witnessed Claxton's stage shows, and still remember today, Leon Claxton's Harlem in Havana will forever be the greatest midway attraction in North American carnival history.