Brown-Skinned Showgirls, One Legged Tappers and a Lucumi Ritual Dance

Preserving the History of An American Entertainment Legacy: HARLEM IN HAVANA
By: The Harlem in Havana Project
April 26, 2011 - PRLog -- DURHAM, N.C. - The last remaining of the great entertainers from one of America’s most successful traveling shows are finally telling their stories in LEON CLAXTON PRESENTS HARLEM IN HAVANA, the new documentary film from producer/filmmaker Leslie Cunningham. Part of a larger work known as the HARLEM IN HAVANA PROJECT, Cunningham is working to archive this explosive chapter in American entertainment through a diversity of mediums including the documentary film, a companion book of historical non-fiction- Harlem in Havana: Memories from the Black Side of the World’s Largest Carnival Midway by associate producer John Cunningham, a photo exhibit- “Harlem in Havana - 1935-1967” and an interactive website- “The carnival stage is often overlooked when recalling the history of black and latin entertainers and their impact on American popular culture,” says Leslie Cunningham, producer. “This is a never-before-told story of a little-known legacy that will enrich the whole of our cultural knowledge...We are engaged in the necessary work of cultural preservation. If we don’t talk to these entertainers now and mediate the telling of this story, the history will die with their memories and their generation.”
Coveted as ‘the best gig in the world,’ the Harlem in Havana carnival showcase presented black and latino entertainers to audiences across a nation divided by segregation 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.

These pioneering artists and the visionary creator and producer of Harlem in Havana, Leon Dunkins Claxton,Sr., influenced popular entertainment and culture across North America and their incredible legacy is the subject of the new documentary film, HARLEM IN HAVANA, dedicated to preserving and honoring the largest, longest running and biggest grossing “brown-skinned” stage revue in American history.

Under the ‘big-top’ at the heart of the world’s largest midway, Leon Claxton’s HARLEM IN HAVANA was one of the top attractions at the Royal American Shows for more than 30 years. Unlike anything on stage in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, HARLEM IN HAVANA was a high caliber vaudeville/cabaret production comprised of the most talented black and latino, amateur and professional acts from the U.S. and Cuba. Incorporating chorus lines of ‘exotic’ dancing girls, an orchestra of jazz and Afro-Cuban musicians, tap dancers and lindy hoppers, solo singers and Doo Wop quartets, comics and an ever-changing cast of cabaret talent, a HARLEM IN HAVANA show was an hour long extravaganza that from city to city, year after year, left audiences amazed.

Running from 1935 to 1967, HARLEM IN HAVANA traveled by railway each season on a 15,000 mile tour across North America, performing for segregated audiences that totaled more than 20,000,000, annually. HARLEM IN HAVANA consistently broke industry records and introduced the world to entertainment greats including Rufus Thomas, Lester Bowie, Merceditas Valdes, Rocky Wynder and Fontella Bass.  A star-studded, all “colored” musical, there simply was not, and still is, no other production like it on earth!

Currently in pre-production, the documentary film will pay a long overdue tribute to Leon Dunkins Claxton Sr., one of America’s top show producers and a pop culture pioneer. Cunningham and associate producer, Alana Jones are currently collecting stories from the last of the living performers to grace the HARLEM IN HAVANA stage. Interviews are being conducted with subjects across the American South and West focusing first on Knoxville, Nashville, and Memphis followed shortly by Tampa, Miami, and Cuba as the search for fiscal sponsorship and funding sources is underway. Slated for release in early 2013, the documentary film will be available on DVD and submitted for distribution to television and film festivals at that time.

Leslie Cunningham, project producer and documentary filmmaker, realized her interest in showcasing unknown talent comes to her rightfully (or genetically) when she discovered her family’s legacy and her grandfather’s work on Harlem in Havana. A journalist and publisher of the award-winning indie entertainment publication TRIBES Magazine, Cunningham has devoted her life to independent artistry and community activism through the arts in her other films including She’s Slammin’ (2010), Triangle Black Pride (2010), Rev It Up (2009), Domestic Violence: Healing Through Spoken Word (2009), Trees on Fire (2009), and Greensboro Hip Hop and a Side of Pancakes (2008).

John Cunningham, primary HARLEM IN HAVANA informant and associate producer, is a musician, artist, writer, retired businessman, and ex-carny raised on tour with Harlem in Havana. Son of Leon Dunkins Claxton and Shirley Bates, lead Harlem in Havana dancer, Cunningham’s historic collection includes exclusive photographs and program booklets spanning three decades. Comprised of more than 100 historical photographs illustrating this essential period in American entertainment and popular culture, the forthcoming traveling exhibit, “Harlem in Havana - 1935-1967" will be submitted for display at national galleries and art museums in North America and the Caribbean.

In his new book, HARLEM IN HAVANA: Memories From The Black Side of the World’s Largest Midway, John Cunningham also displays these powerful images of the past as he takes readers on a riveting journey into the world of carnival life from the black perspective.  Ready for publication, the book offers keen insight into the world of the “brown-skinned” carnival shows in the 1940s and 50s and the impact they had on American carnival history. John Cunningham is currently seeking publishers for the work, available for purchase soon.

Alana Jones, associate HARLEM IN HAVANA film producer, is an entertainment journalist, fiction writer, editor, and cultural anthropologist with a focus on 20th century Latin America and contemporary American racial politics.

HARLEMINHAVANA.COM is an interactive element of the HARLEM HAVANA PROJECT. Recently launched, the website offers information about all HARLEM in HAVANA documentary components while acting as an online community for HARLEM IN HAVANA performers, their families, former patrons, historians, and new fans of the iconic show.

For more information about the HARLEM IN HAVANA PROJECT, please visit or email Leslie Cunningham at

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The HARLEM IN HAVANA PROJECT is a series of documentary works created in order to honor the greatest “brown-skinned” stage show in American history. Visit

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