Cotton Club Meets Tropicana! 

"Youʼre gonna see Annie shake her fanny, 
Kelly shake her belly and 
you know what Kittyʼs gonna shake!"

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 musical revue that featured dancers, singers, comedians, and variety acts, as well as a house orchestra comprised of some of the most widely known blues and jazz musicians of their timeFor nearly four decades, the more-than-hour-long extravaganza of Harlem in Havana consistently left audiences across the U.S. and Western Canada mesmerized.

Touring company and training ground for the future heavyweights of American music, Harlem in Havana provided a foundation for the careers of Chuck Berry, Rufus Thomas, Fontella Bass, Redd Foxx, Dinah Washington, and Mercedes Valdes who wowed audiences with her interpretation of a “Mythical trip to Havana” in the 1950sThe show influenced legends like B.B. King, Elvis Presley and 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”.

"Las Diosas de Carne"
The Best Damn Girl Show on the Midway

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" (flesh goddesses) brought rumba and early salsa moves to American and Canadian audiences just before the Cuban Revolution.  “The Queen of the Harlem Revue” performed striptease on Claxton's 'Midnight Ramble' in the early 1960s. 

Coveted as the best gig in the world by the troupers, the Harlem in Havana 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.