The Palladium and Mambo Magic: The music made them do it

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“These men were total strangers to me and yet I could get on the dance floor with them and they could get me to do things I couldn’t do on my own, in front of all these people, because we were both connected to this rhythm and what the rhythm meant.”- Esmeralda Santiago, author

They dance possessed as if the floor beneath their feet were set ablaze, exploding with frenetic energy, flawlessly coming together, falling into each other’s embrace, separating and coming together once again, each with unrehearsed steps, intuitively fashioned, contrasting yet harmoniously synchronized. The trumpets scream unrestrained and the audience fervently responds, creating a symbiosis of energy between the live orchestra and those on the dance floor, unleashing primitive spirits, compelling patrons to dance their way out of social constrictions.

Well before Studio 54 made its debut, another New York hotspot came into being 30 years earlier, and much like 54, The Palladium fostered the mingling of stars the likes of Lena Horne, Marlon Brando, Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, Kim Novack, and Liz Taylor with everyday people. Originally a whites-only club, by 1948 The Palladium integrated races after its owner Maxwell Hyman saw the financial potential in a demographically diverse audience, drawn to a completely eruptive sound in music, the exotic and sensually infused Mambo.

Millie Donay and “Cuban Pete” (Pedro Aguilar)

“The subway was right outside the entrance of the Palladium… you could literally hear the music pounding from the from the stairway of the of the train and people started dancing on the pavement”- Aurora Flores,  producer, musician, journalist, activist and authority on Latin music/culture 

The Mambo, a derivative of  Afro-Cuban fusion, naturally tracing its roots to Africa, incorporated polyrhythmic drumming (rhythm which makes use of two or more different rhythms simultaneously), as well as instruments foreign to the mainstream. Because of its divergent sound from the popular music of the day, jazz, blues, boogie-woogie, big bands, and the approaching rock’n’roll, it attracted well-deserved attention.

People for the first time are seeing instruments that they’ve never seen or heard before in the theater setting. Bongo, claves, maracas, timbales, these rhythms that are very, very exotic to the average person at that time, They see an orchestra that’s multiracial, there is a trumpet player …he is a Chinese Cuban…some of the guys look Italian, some of the guys look Greek. It’s a perfect example of what the Caribbean is. So this was a very exciting thing. -Bobby Sanabria, musician

Musician, Machito (Francisco Raúl Gutiérrez Grillo)

However, The Mambo didn’t simply arrive on America’s doorstep. Due to WWII, Hollywood primed the American public during the 1940s promoting the Good Neighbor Policy through propaganda films. Audiences saw an influx of Hollywood’s hyper-fantasized and exotic versions of South America and the Caribbean neatly packaged in sparkling Technicolor which fueled international travel, and, without coincidence is when the Brazilian Bombshell, Carmen Miranda reached her career peak. 

The Mambo created a frenzied reaction resembling the invoking of ancestral spirits. Fortunately, footage of its liberated electricity still exists and is documented in the award-winning film  “The Palladium Where Mambo Was King” (2002), directed by Kevin Kaufman. Known as “The Home of the Mambo,” opening night of the Palladium’s integrated policy was an explosive affair. According to dancer Cuban Pete (Pedro Aguilar), “When I got downtown to 53rd Street and Broadway, do you know what was happening? Not one line. Two lines, around from 53rd street around Broadway up 54th street around to 7th avenue. Two lines! The cops had to close off 7th avenue…no traffic to go through…..all for that opening of the Palladium.” 

Singer, bandleader, Tito Rodriguez (Pablo Rodríguez Lozada)

The Palladium had three main house bands that kept music in constant rotation, known as  The Big-Three led by “The King of Mambo” and showman Tito Puente, revolutionary bandleader Machito (Francisco Raúl Gutiérrez Grillo) and polished lyricist Tito Rodriguez. Because of its exceptional orchestration, naturally, the Palladium attracted artists the likes of Sarah Vaughn, Dizzy Gillespie, and Sammy Davis Jr. As a result, hints of Afro-Cuban music would make its way into the Jazz scene. 

The Palladium’s in-house dancers were an ethnically mixed group, with its most famous, Puerto Rican-born “Cuban Pete” and Millie Donae who was of Italian descent. In recalling her first time at the Palladium watching an interracial couple take the floor, dancer Barbara Craddock stated, “It was like watching liquid velvet.”

“The King of Latin Jazz” percussionist, Tito Puente

In 1966 a police raid attributed to drug use closed the Palladium, sunsetting the era of the Mambo.   

A snapshot of the potential of what could be, The Palladium revealed an alternate universe.

Individuals that under the majority of circumstances would have been segregated instead found common ground uncovering truths that were even hidden to themselves. It took the transformational power of the music, and the channeling of their bodies, to allow the releasing of their souls, and its primal spontaneity resulted in instinctual perfection.