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Tampa-based Harlem in Havana made entertainment history

— The show was called Harlem In Havana, but Tampa could stake as much a claim to it as the city in Cuba or the Manhattan neighborhood.

This was the variety show’s winter headquarters, plus Tampa’s Cuban heritage helped inspire the decision to combine in one troupe the music, dance and comedy of the island nation with the show’s African-American roots.

What’s more, Harlem in Havana helped launch the careers of such stars as Chuck Berry, Mercedes Valdez, Redd Foxx and Fontella Bass, but its major attraction was the producer and ringmaster — Tampa’s own Leon Claxton.

“My grandfather was the Tyler Perry of his time,” said Claxton’s granddaughter, Leslie Cunningham, 40, who is producing the documentary “Jig Show” about Harlem in Havana. From the 1930s to the 1960s, the show traveled some 25,000 miles a year by rail performing at state fairs.

The Florida State Fair is underway in Tampa, boasting its usual, eclectic, two-week schedule of top live entertainment — country, Latin rock and hip hop music, along with dance and stand-up comedy.

The story of Harlem in Havana is a reminder of a time when African-Americans didn’t enjoy that selection. During its 32-year run, in an era of segregation, Claxton’s show was often the only live fair entertainment available to blacks — and they were always limited to one day, “Negro Day.”

The man who ran the show was a mix of P.T. Barnum, Robin Hood and civil rights activist.

“The biggest stars wanted to be part of his shows,” Cunningham said. “And if you had talent and wanted to become a celebrity, you knew his show would help you obtain that fame.”

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Claxton was a showman who became one of the few African-American millionaires during the Jim Crow era. And he was happy to share his riches with those in need while using his celebrity status to challenge racial barriers.

“If you were black and lived near where the show went, you saw it,” Cunningham said.

Tampa historian Fred Hearns can attest to that.

“I waited all year for Harlem In Havana,” said Hearns, a 65-year-old Tampa native.

“Everybody I knew at one point went to see Leon Claxton’s show. There wasn’t another show in the country like it, and it was from here. That was special.”

Harlem In Havana mixed the musical, comedic, dancing and acrobatic talents of the African American and Cuban cultures into a variety show modeled on those from Las Vegas and Havana night clubs.

White audiences loved it, too, so the show ran the duration of the fair even if blacks only had one day to see it.

Among its biggest fans was Elvis Presley.

Whenever he performed at state fairs, the rock ’n’ roll icon would implore his white audiences to catch Claxton’s show.

“It was one of the few chances for someone like me to see African-American entertainers and I loved it,” said Rene Gonzalez, 76, Tampa native and founder of the Spanish Lyric Theatre. “Mix that with the Latin music, and I was in entertainment heaven.”

Harlem In Havana gained such fame that in 1965, when Gonzalez met Maurice Hines Sr., he recalls telling the musician who managed sons Gregory and Maurice Jr. that he was from Tampa. Hines replied, “Tampa — that’s Leon Claxton’s town.”

Folk singer Joni Mitchell saw the show in her native Canada and wrote a song, “Harlem in Havana.”

A highlight from the lyrics: “At the far end of the midway by the double Ferris wheel there’s a band that plays so snaky you can’t help how you feel.”

Claxton was raised in show business.

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Born in Memphis in 1902, his father was Overton “O.C.” Claxton, percussionist for W.C. Handy, considered the father of the blues.

The band toured the southern U.S. and Cuba and brought young Claxton with them.

As a teen, he launched into an entertainment career by joining Ringling Bros. Circus, working as a water boy for the elephants while learning contortion and acrobatics.

He later moved to Chicago and performed in African-American vaudeville shows in the city’s burlesque houses.

Next he began producing his own shows and amassed such a following he became known in Chicago as the “Bronze Ziegfeld,” a comparison to the Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld Jr.

In 1934, his production was a featured attraction at the Chicago World Fair. In 1935, he was hired as a manager by Royal American Shows, producer of midways for state fairs across North America, and moved to its headquarters city of Tampa.

The midway would store its equipment in Tampa for six months, and many of its entertainers lived here.

April through October, they’d hit the rails for the 25,000-mile tour of the southern and Midwestern U.S. and Canada.

The African-American “side show” during Claxton’s first year with Royal American Show lost money, said granddaughter Cunningham.

It was the least-attended attraction wherever it played.

But Claxton was convinced he could turn it around. So in 1936, he purchased the show from its promoter for $900 and hired the best African-American talent he had met over the years — musicians, circus performers, burlesque dancers and comedians.

“There were not a lot of options for black entertainers at that time,” Cunningham said. “They were shut out of mainstream venues.”

One of Harlem In Havana’s top attractions was a burlesque act performed by the Bates Sisters. Gwendolyn Bates later married Claxton, and they had two children.

Then he had an affair with another of the Bates’ sisters, Shirley, who bore him a son. John Cunningham was Leslie Cunningham’s father.

“I was raised traveling with Harlem In Havana,” said John Cunningham, who is writing a book about Claxton. “But for years I was told Leon was my uncle. I was the family secret.”

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Claxton also had a daughter with another of Harlem In Havana’s dancers.

“He liked the ladies from what I hear,” Leslie Cunningham said with a laugh. “There is no animosity between the families. It was what it was, and we all get along.”

Claxton’s idea to add Cuban talent, she said, was probably inspired by the years he spent traveling to the island nation with his father and partly by Tampa’s heritage.

“We were honored that they were on our show,” said Laura Sedlmayr, 56, of Tampa, granddaughter of Royal American Shows’ founder Carl J. Sedlmayr Sr. “As a little girl, one of my favorite acts to watch practice was Leon’s. The music had this hypnotic Latin and Caribbean rhythm, and the dancers were amazing.”

After a few changes to the show’s name, including one stint as “Cuban Boogie,” Claxton settled permanently on Harlem in Havana and, according to his granddaughter, it became Royal American Shows’ highest-grossing act.

Harlem In Havana sold out its 1,600-seat outdoor arena for almost every show in almost every city it performed, according to articles from the era in “Jet Magazine,” grossing over $150,000 during each annual tour.

Claxton and his performers who lived in Tampa supplemented their incomes during the off-season by booking dates at local African-American nightclubs and theaters.

Claxton owned a home in West Tampa that was among the largest in the city and employed a personal chef and driver, his granddaughter said.

“Can you imagine the reaction to a black man having servants back then?” she said. “Wow.”

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But his charitable contributions helped him gain at least grudging acceptance among whites, she said.

He was the first African-American member of the Tampa Shriners and was named the city’s Citizen of the Year in 1959.

Still, outside of Tampa, Claxton experienced brutal racism, son John Cunningham said.

In some Southern cities, he and his performers were threatened with stoning if they came into town and were warned against even looking out the train windows as they traveled through.

“When we were in those types of places, they wouldn’t even perform,” John Cunningham said.

Many cities did not have hotels or restaurants that served African-Americans so the performers would sleep in the train’s boxcars.

That may be why he opened Claxton Manor, a hotel on Cypress Street that catered to the African-American community, his granddaughter said.

Among its guests over the years were Martin Luther King Jr., boxer Joe Louis, entertainers Ike and Tina Turner and Ray Charles, and all the African-American members of the Cincinnati Reds when they came to Tampa for spring training.

The hotel was how he spent his retirement after he left show business and shut down Harlem In Havana in 1965.

His son said he blamed the decision on the costs of mounting the show and the difficulty in hiring Cuban performers once the U.S. severed relations with Communist Cuba in the early 1960s.

“For a while, he would have Cubans meet us in Canada for the shows and then easily smuggle them into the U.S. with us on the train,” John Cunningham recalled. “But I guess that got too difficult.”

Claxton died in 1967. Newspapers across the U.S. honored him with tributes.

“He did so much and meant so much to so many people,” Leslie Cunningham said. “I hope he is never forgotten.”

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