From Cuba to the Catskills, the mid-20th century saw the rise of an improbable partnership between American Jews and the mambo. And with its popularity, a Yiddish-inspired term entered the lexicon to refer to its fans: Mamboniks.
A type of Afro-Cuban music as well as a form of dance, mambo had Jewish audiences moving their legs and shaking their hips to the rhythms of artists such as Tito Puente at the Palladium Ballroom in Manhattan, while honing their skills at Catskills resorts in the summer, a la “Dirty Dancing”). Some Jews even developed careers in the industry — dancers and DJs, nightclub owners and record company executives — as mambo became a national fad.
The story of this phenomenon is told in a new film, “The Mamboniks,” making its world premiere at the 36th Miami Film Festival on March 3.
Director Lex Gillespie, also a public radio journalist, says that before setting out to make the film five years ago, he “had no idea of the kind of connection between Jewish dancers and Latin music.”
As it turned out, this connection runs deep — as Gillespie discovered when he researched the history of Jews and mambo, and met several mamboniks in Florida, still dancing in their golden years to the music that captivated them in the 1940s and 1950s. He even accompanied one of them — Marvin “Marvano” Jaye — on a trip back to where it all began, in Cuba.
“Marvano” and his fellow mamboniks are the anchor to this film, showing their impressive dance moves at the Goldcoast Ballroom in Coconut Grove, schmoozing over bagels and coffee at Shelby’s in Deerfield Beach, or in Marvano’s case, making a return flight to Havana almost 60 years after Fidel Castro’s revolution (along with rock ‘n roll) helped end the mambo craze in the US.
“I would go to Florida, the Goldcoast Ballroom, my film was right there,” Gillespie said. “Everybody there had a story, they were all from that era, they all gathered there. They’re an animated, passionate group of people. The storyline was unique, the people were great, and so was the music.”
Mambo’s origins are complex — “in part the rhythms come from Africa, the instrumentation from Spain,” Gillespie said. And, he added, “it kind of combined Latin rhythms with American jazz and instrumentation. It’s a mix of many things.”
According to the film, mambo became popular in the US for different reasons that converged over time: American tourism in Cuba dating to Prohibition; the 1930 Perez Prado crossover hit “El Manisero” (“The Peanut Vendor”); and the melting pot of New York City that attracted immigrants of different backgrounds — Cuban, Puerto Rican, Italian and Jewish, with many becoming mambo enthusiasts. Gillespie said that this was the case for many of the mamboniks he interviewed.
“[Their] generation grew up at right [around] the tail end of the Depression,” Gillespie said. “They had gone through the World War II era. Of course, every family was touched in some way by the Holocaust. I think it was a time for them, [going] through such a bad, terrible period in history, I think music for them was kind of a release.”
Many have attempted to explain why the mambo caught the attention of young American Jews of that era.
“The Latin music had such a feeling to it that it appealed to the Jewish soul,” said mambonik — and Bronx native — Rhea Anides in the film. She said it evoked similarities between mambo and the lively Russian dance of the kazatka, with mambo even being played at weddings and bar mitzvahs.
“I think it was just in the air,” said Ben Lapidus, an associate professor of art and music at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a Grammy-nominated musician whose father and grandmother both performed in the Catskills. “It’s a really hard sort of question to answer.”
“It was in pop culture at that moment. Jews in particular were exposed and interested in it,” Lapidus said. “I don’t think necessarily one single event brought that about. In New York City in particular, it was a pretty big phenomenon. I think Jews really sought it out. It was not limited to Manhattan, but Brooklyn as well, particularly Jewish neighborhoods like Flatbush. Jews were interested in all aspects of Latin music from pretty early on.”
Lapidus cited a Brooklyn advertisement from that period for a mambo dance on Yom Kippur — and a performance by legendary mambo bandleader Xavier Cugat for a crowd of 2,000 one Thanksgiving at a synagogue in Keystone, New York.
Writer and editor Mark Schwartz, whose research into Jews and mambo included a blog called The Mamboniks, said that for young Jews, avid participation in national pop culture “was a way of asserting your place in American society.”
“Maybe another generation of Jewish-Americans would not go out dancing on Saturday nights, Friday nights,” Schwartz said, “but at this juncture, a lot of Jewish-Americans said, ‘You know what?’ The whole experience of their parents and grandparents was less appealing to them. ‘I’ll do something that feels good and right for me.’”
Schwartz noted that in general, Latin music was “a gigantic piece of pop culture” of the era, popularized by the TV show “I Love Lucy” and its stars Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.
“It was adopted by some of the biggest jazz bands of the day, which had a lot to do with it,” Schwartz said, including Dizzy Gillespie’s. “There were a bunch of Hollywood movies that happened in the ‘40s, early ‘50s, and really pushed these stories into the popular consciousness.
In 1950, you had [Perez Prado’s] band out of Mexico City with Mambo No. 5, which at the time blew the roof off the Latin kind of entertainment in American popular music. Massive numbers of people really loved it,” he said.
This created roles for Jews such as Holocaust survivor Max Hyman, who founded the Palladium at Broadway and West 53rd Street; and Sidney Siegel, who transformed his Spanish Harlem variety store into a record label, Seeco, and is credited with the discovery of Cuban legend Celia Cruz.
The mamboniks interviewed by Gillespie quickly took to the new phenomenon.
Mambo dancer Marilyn “Buttons” Winters calls herself “a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn who fell madly in love with the mambo” in the film, which shows her dancing with the celebrated Tito Rodriguez at the Palladium one night in the 1950s. She joined a female dance duo and recorded albums professionally.
“She really loved being interviewed,” said Gillespie, who accompanied her when she went looking for leopard-print clothing in Florida. But, he said, she “lived a hard life. I did not have time for a lot of backstory. She was a runaway. Her parents broke up … She moved back in with her mother … She got into music very young. I think it’s given her something.”
That was also true for Bronx native Allen “Lusty” Lustgarten, who provided Gillespie with some memorable footage of his own, including dancing with a coffee mug balanced atop his head and quipping that everybody at the Goldcoast Ballroom has orthopedic problems but that these all disappear on the dance floor.
“He learned about the music, as many did with the mambo, when he would go to the Catskill resorts and stay there in the summer,” Gillespie said. “A band was playing in the hotel. The kids would hear them.”
Famed screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein learned the mambo at the Catskills too, taking part in dance classes as a 13-year-old. In the documentary, she shares her experiences — which later inspired her to write “Dirty Dancing,” basing Patrick Swayze’s character on a real-life Catskills dance instructor, Michael Terrace, whom Gillespie also interviewed.
Bergstein was “very gracious with everything,” Gillespie said. “We met her at her apartment. It’s very nice, overlooking Central Park South. We could get on the balcony.” And, she told him, “Here’s the way to the Catskills,” pointing past Central Park in the direction beyond the Hudson.
Not only did Gillespie travel north to see the now-empty grounds where Catskills resorts once stood, he also flew south with “Marvano” Jaye to see a resurgent Cuban mambo scene shortly before the death of Castro in 2016.
“We had gone right when things were opening up,” Gillespie said. “Everyone in Cuba was very happy to see Americans.”
That included “La China” Villamil, a former dancer at the legendary Tropicana nightclub in Havana, who hosted Marvano and Gillespie and talked with them about mambo’s origins — its Afro-Cuban roots, including connections to the Santeria religion.
“She [lived] next door to a family that practiced [Santeria],” Gillespie said. “She knew, firsthand, the origins of the dance. She had kind of, not only an intellectual viewpoint, but also personal experience.”
He called meeting her “one of my favorite parts of the film.”
As Gillespie explains, “My film is really about different cultures coming together, a celebration of diversity into Jewish and Latino cultures.”