If the 2014 Grand Prix took place in one of Havana’s most emblematic hotels – the Riviera -, the 2016 edition raises the stakes, as the competition will be organized at the legendary Nacional while most guests will be lodged at the recently renovated Capri. The first chapter of this two parts series on the hotels of the 2016 Grand Prix will focus on the latter.
The Capri is one of the handfuls of big money hotels built in the last years of Batista’s regime. Much like the Riviera, it benefited from a very attractive tax regime and was meant to attract American tourists in droves. Although it was built with Cuban money and designed by Cuban architect José Canaves Ugalde, it was effectively under American control – and not of the most pleasant kind. Indeed, its casino (at that time, no one could imagine a new hotel in Havana without a casino) was run by feared Tampa mob leader Santo Trafficante Jr. (who was already controlling the famous Sans Souci nightclub).
The 19-floor, 250-room Capri cost 5 million dollars at the time and was inaugurated on Thanksgiving Day 1957. Among its most stunning features was its rooftop pool with its ‘cabana in the sky’, its intimate bar called Skippy’s Hideaway and its cabaret meant to rival in splendour with the Tropicana (they gave it a good go but never managed to top what was then considered to be the best show in the world).
In terms of publicity, the management had a genius idea: they hired actor George Raft as the host. Raft had been one of America’s most popular actors in the 30’s and early 40’s, playing loveable gangsters in iconic movies such as the first Scarface. Actual gangsters imitated the way he dressed and sought his company. Although his career declined in the 50’s, he was still a popular figure and his connections with the underworld made him the ideal ‘greeter’ at the Capri.
Besides the cabaret revues, led by a choreographer called Carlyle, and featuring many famous local artists, the Capri also received a lot of press coverage when singers such as Tony Martin or Liberace came to sing in front of a star struck full house. Of course, all the cultural events could not hide the fact that the real money-maker was Trafficante’s casino so it came as no surprise that the revolutionaries made the Capri one of their primary, symbolic target upon arriving in Havana – a then 56 years old George Raft famously claimed that the revolution caught him in bed with Miss Cuba.
In fact, the Capri was so associated with the bad years of mob-infested Havana that it was denounced in the opening scene of Mikhail Kalatozov’s masterful 1964 movie ‘Soy Cuba’. After years of neglect, the hotel was closed around 2000. The only part that remained open was the old casino, now a nightclub popular with tourists called the Salon Rojo. Recently refurbished, the Capri is getting ready to welcome the 2016 Havana Club Grand Prix. We can’t wait to see what the place looks like today.