Harlem in Havana
SEX, SIN & SAWDUST
HARLEM IN HAVANA
Long before there were a Six Flags America or Busch Gardens, there was the Royal American Shows, the World's Largest Carnival Midway and my home for the first ten years of my life during the 1940s. Based in Tampa, Florida, Royal American, the “Show” for short, played major State Fairs and Exhibitions from Florida to Oklahoma, Louisiana to Minnesota, and Alberta to Ontario, Canada. Because Carnies lived a nomadic lifestyle, whatever Fairground, Midway or Lot we set up on literally became our temporary home.
Leon and Gwen Claxton, my aunt, and uncle produced and performed in an all-black musical revue called Harlem in Havana, one of Show’s, main attractions. Harlem was a Las Vegas-style show with a ten-piece band, dancers, singers, and comedians and featured some of the top black acts of the day. Entertainers like Chuck Berry, Red Foxx, Singers Fontella Bass, and Cuban Diva, Merceditas Valdez. There were thirty people in Harlem's troop, and my momma was the lead dancer and choreographer. Momma and I left the show in 1949 and moved to San Francisco, but during the summer of 1958, I got a chance to go back on the road with the Show one last time. I was seventeen then and longed for the old days.
Even now, at seventy-seven, I can still smell the fresh sawdust, cotton candy and grilled burgers and onions wafting over the Midway. I can still hear the sounds of whistles, bells and Bumper cars, the laughter and screams coming from the old Funhouse and the hum of the big Diesel generators that powered the Midway. On occasion, late at night, off in the distance, you can hear the whistle of a working, freight train which stirs the imagination and if you listen closely, you can hear the Midway Barkers calling out, “Hurry, hurry, hurry, step right in, it’s showtime at Harlem in Havana.