Magazine AM:PM
Articles Still from El Romance del Palmar with Rita Montaner and El Chino Wong in La Marquesina of the Saratoga hotel. Still from El Romance del Palmar with Rita Montaner and El Chino Wong in La Marquesina of the Saratoga hotel.

The Saratoga: music too

When Paseo del Prado was the main artery of the Cuban capital, La Marquesina of the Saratoga hotel was the most popular, crowded and even emblematic place, frequented by Havanans and tourists alike who knew how to appreciate from there what their eyes perceived as the postcard most real and precious of the Cuban capital. Music has always accompanied those gazes enlivened by sones, danzones, guarachas, boleros, in voices and instruments that are revered today; but then, they were nothing more than men and women clinging to a passion and a way of living and subsisting, and in this La Marquesina was a stage and a path, and thus has remained in the memories and anecdotes of our musicians. 

Since the 1930s, that elegant iron tent with resistant fabric awnings was assumed as part of the so-called Free Airs of the Prado, which ran in the east wing, from Saratoga itself, in Prado and Dragones, to the corner of Prado and San Jose. La Marquesina was, together with the terraces or outdoors of the Pasaje and El Dorado hotels, one of the most attractive and crowded places that ensured its place in the urban history of Cuban popular music.  

The famous and elegant covered terrace ran in the exterior area of the Saratoga hotel, with tables and comfortable wicker and rattan chairs, and glass windows that allowed the passage of the sea-scented breeze, offering a unique view of the monumental building of the newly inaugurated National Capitol, the Fraternity Park, and a little more distant, the Fountain of India.  

The building built in 1888 by the Santander merchant Gregorio Palacios, was initially intended for housing and commercial establishments; in 1911 it became the Alcázar hotel and finally in 1933, the brand new Saratoga hotel, now displaced from its previous location on Monte street, where today the ruins of the Isla de Cuba hotel stand. The new hotel immediately caught the attention of the press, who began to talk about La Marquesina del Saratoga as a place for social gatherings, good food and better music. 

The son continues to live very good times, the already booming septet format attests to the evolution of the genre and coexists with danzones and fox-trots, present in the repertoires of all orchestras that pride themselves on being competitive in public spaces.  

The Saratoga Hotel Marquee in the 1930s.

The Saratoga Hotel Marquee in the 1930s.

The Saratoga Marquee is a safe space for numerous musical groups; Its managers know the great attraction that music represents, especially for the North American tourists who frequent it, realizing that the pulse could be felt there and the sound of a real and friendly Havana could be heard. They never hesitated to present emerging musicians, which is why the growing movement of women's orchestras had Los Aires Libres del Prado as a true launching pad.  

That was one of the places where the mythical Castro Zaldarriaga sisters first performed, when they formed the septet, and then the ensemble and the orchestra under the already legendary name of Anacaona. Among its first members, the voice of Graciela Pérez Grillo stood out, the great Graciela, who would later make an era in New York, with Machito and his Afrocubans, the jazz-band formed by his brother Frank Grillo, macho and by the great Mario Bauzá.  

In the open air of the Saratoga and the Pasaje hotel, the girls from Anacaona became very popular, but above all visible: there they were seen by businessmen and promoters who translated into favorable contracts the good impression caused by the Chinese-mulatto women Castro Zaldarriaga, with their voices and instruments. It became a tradition for them to perform again at La Marquesina del Saratoga, every time they returned from an international tour. But it wasn't just the Anacaona: other women's orchestras experienced many of their best moments there: Ensueño, by the violinist Guillermina Foyo; la Renovación, directed by Carmen Franco and Rita María Rivero as lead singer; the Hermanas Álvarez (initially called Orbe), Hermanas González and Hermanas Mesquida orchestras —where Mercy Mesquida, mother of our great Leo Brouwer, sang—, among others. This site was definitely important for the development of the women's orchestra movement at the time.

With an impact on national cinematography, in 1938 important sequences of the film were recorded under La Marquesina del Saratoga. The Romance of Palmar, directed by Ramón Peón, the most significant in Rita Montaner's filmography. that's where he sings his amazing version of The manisero, accompanied on stage by the Hermanas Álvarez orchestra. Other moments of the film, such as the amusing image of the two Chinese peanut vendors, were also filmed in this legendary place, which at that point, the Navy Journal, in a hyperbolic exercise of patriotic pride, did not hesitate to qualify, when speaking of terraces and canopies, as "the largest in the world".

Still from Romance del Palmar showing the Hermanas Álvarez orchestra in the marquee of the Saratoga hotel.

frame of The international Romance of Palmar that shows the Hermanas Álvarez orchestra in La Marquesina of the Saratoga hotel.

In the 1940s, La Marquesina del Saratoga was still one of the great attractions of Havana at night, a point where musicians, artists, poets, journalists, businessmen, bohemians and upstarts met in lively gatherings or heated debates on current affairs. By 1946, the Cristal Studio had been installed there, from which various radio stations broadcast their programs, with performances by soloists, orchestras and ensembles that animated the afternoons and evenings of the popular site. Among the first to perform there are Orlando Guerra, Cascarita; Vilma Valle, Raúl del Castillo, Obdulia Breijo, Rodolfo Hoyos, and many others. An accompanying pianist was always ready among those hired, with Candito Ruiz and Francisco Melero standing out.  

The legendary Trio Matamoros performed at the Cristal Studio —sometimes transmuted into a septet or ensemble, depending on the case— and the famous Casino Ensemble, directed by Roberto Espí. In the final years of the decade, the Casino performed every night for several seasons at La Marquesina del Saratoga. Those were times when, on his payroll, the great percussionist Carlos potato Valdés, who also sounded his leathers under La Marquesina of the famous Cuban hotel.

Such was the popularity of the musical programs that were transmitted by CMQ, Radio García Serra and other stations from La Marquesina del Saratoga, that it became associated with one of the historically most persistent moments of everyday life in Havana: the cannon shot at nine o'clock, whose boom It was transmitted, in a singular initiative, by the waves of CMCU, the very popular radio station Radio García Serra. Minutes before giving the hour, the announcer, Manolo Ortega announced: "After the cannon shot we will go to the show that is offered from La Marquesina of the Saratoga hotel". And the show reached Havana homes through the radio.

But not everything was son, guaracha and fox-trot, jazz also had a presence there and no less than from the hand of the great Chico O'Farrill. With an ear attentive to the innovations that were taking place in the jazz scene in the United States, O'Farrill created the group Los Beboppers in 1947, one of the first small-format formations with which, curiously and early, bebop had an impact on musicians. Cubans. At that time Los Beboppers played daily at La Marquesina and then they were, in addition, Gustavo Mas (tenor sax), Edilberto “Eddy” Escrich (alto sax), René Urbino (piano), Enrique kiki Hernandez (double bass), Daniel Pérez (drums) and Chico O'Farrill on trumpet and conducting.

An event that occurred at Saratoga brought Bebo Valdés and Benny Moré together: the meeting that culminated in the incorporation in 1952 of Bárbaro del Ritmo to the legendary super jazz-band formed by Bebo to debut his batanga rhythm, also occurs at the Saratoga marquee . This is how the journalist and researcher Zenobio Faget told it in the book Benny Moré without borders: “One hot night in July, when Ibrahim Urbino and Francisco Gutiérrez, sitting at one of the outdoor tables at the Saratoga hotel, told Bebo Valdés that Benny [Moré] was in Havana looking for work, the composer first he thought it was a joke, but once he was convinced that the news was true, he came to the conclusion that a miracle of Divine Providence had occurred, because that was the singer he had dreamed of for his orchestra”. Thus, Benny Moré made his debut with the batanga orchestra on August 1, 1952 at the RHC Cadena Azul studio, in the prelude to what would be the creation of his Giant Band —inspired by Bebo's jazz band— and his time overwhelming by the Cuban music scene.

The footprint of Los Aires Libres del Prado and, in particular, of La Marquesina del Saratoga remained in the collective memory of Havanans and Cubans everywhere as a central reference site, a place of open concurrence, to share, always with a cold beer, something to snack on and Cuban music as the favorite accompaniment. The Saratoga marquee disappeared, Los Aires Libres were no longer what they were, but in the second half of the 20th century, Los Paragüitas de Prado took over its geographical location and tried, in my opinion, without success, to emulate the glory years of the sidewalk that runs in front of the National Capitol. 

Rosa Marquetti Torres Philologist. She is not a musicologist, but she loves to write about music and musicians. Freethinker. Addicted to caramel ice cream. Allergic to illustrated gossip and posturing. More posts

Leave a comment

View published comments
  1. Dora Aguirre Gonzalez says:

    An excellent article that masterfully illustrates an important part of our Cuban music history. Infinite thanks Rosa for the documentary excellence that you give us in these lines, a hug from the ranks of Anacaona.

  2. Nicolás Águila says:

    Excellent work. Thanks, Rose.

  3. Orlando Toussaint Fernández Pavón says:

    It will not be for studies but if you are an excellent musicologist for dedication

  4. Jaime Jaramillo says:

    Thank you Rosa for this writing about that legendary hotel that I hope you won't lose. Your research, full of precise information with the Anacaona, Ensueño and other women's orchestras as well as the filming of the movie with Rita Montaner, the performance of the Conjunto Casino, jazz, Chico O'Farrill, Bebo Valdes, Beny More is admirable and consolidates your already well-earned reputation as one of the people with the greatest knowledge of Cuban music. Congratulations

View published comments

We also suggest