Sin, Strippers, and Sonny Liston

Show Biz, the Mafia, and Exotic Dancers in 1960s South Beach

The staff refers to him respectfully as Señor Pérez. The silver haired man wearing a white guayabera shirt, brown polyester slacks, and white patent leather loafers moves slowly around the room saying hello to some lady friends who are watching television. He makes his way out to the patio where he sits down under a canopy and watches a group of elderly men play dominoes at a table. Slowly, he pulls a pencil out of his pocket and scribbles on his small note pad while reading a copy of the Miami Herald to learn about that day’s horse races. He’s able to enjoy and sustain his gambling habit (he refers to it his “hobby”) through shrewd betting and an expert knowledge of the sport. Betting on the horse races at Gulfstream Park is one of the joys of his day. Soon the afternoon will come and it will be time for his regular nap.

Hector “Miami Jack” Pérez is in his eighties now but he’s always carried himself with a sense of authority. His mind is sharp and so is his memory. The staff at the Hazelton Senior Care Residency know him as a doting grandparent who loves to spend time with his family when they visit him on the occasional Sunday afternoon. They also share rumors among themselves concerning his enigmatic past, and speculate on what is true and what is not. Was he a gangster? Was he an actor in a film with Ava Gardner? Didn’t he once date Jayne Mansfield?

“I prefer to let my past speak for itself” he first told me when I met him, but over time and a couple of mojitos I was able to get him to open up and share many colorful stories during a series of visits this past winter. To listen to Hector speak about his past in Miami is to learn about a history of the city that is not in any books. It’s an oral history that will likely vanish when men like Hector pass on. His stories of the city’s organized crime and entertainment scenes in the 1950s and 60s reveal a man who was a key player in the subterranean world that flourished in so many American cities of that era.

Miami Beach 1960

Pérez was born in 1935 in Havana, Cuba and migrated with his family to Miami in 1947. As a young man in his 20s, he was very athletic and became one of the area’s top professional jai alai players. He won championships at several South Florida tournaments and made a couple of trips to play in Havana to compete in international matches. But after a few years, he began to grow disenchanted playing the sport and all that went with it

Santo Trafficante

In the early 1960s, Pérez made a big career change and left his days of being a professional athlete behind forever. A cousin introduced him to a man who would play a big role in his life for the next few years. Anthony Rontana was originally from New York but had made a name for himself in Miami Beach as a “soldier” for the Santo Trafficante crime family. By the time Pérez began working for him in 1962, Rontana was a capo in Trafficante’s Florida mob. Pérez was married with two small children but he knew and was comfortable with the criminal element of Miami even before meeting Rontana. Through his interactions with the gambling community that surrounded jai alai, he already knew many in that world. And so it began for “Miami Jack”… the life of a professional criminal.

Rontana put Pérez to work in high stakes sports betting — prize fighting, horse racing, and of course jai alai. There were payoffs to be made to local law enforcement and the bribery of the athletes to fix the outcomes of games that insured big winnings for certain bettors. Sometimes he used the mob’s “muscle” to insure payouts from his client’s for their losing bets. It was all in a day’s work for Hector and he soon became at ease with the task and the lifestyle that went with it. This meant late nights at South Beach clubs, occasional runs to Tampa for money collections, and on one occasion a clandestine overnight trip to Havana (now firmly in the control of Fidel Castro) to transport a Cuban official who had paid Trafficante a large fee for his safe transport to Miami.

Hector made attempts to keep the nature of his activities from his wife, but they split for good in 1963 when she finally figured out exactly what he was up to with his new “career”. No longer a family man, Pérez began to run in different social circles and soon more than ever before was frequenting many of Miami’s popular night spots in South Beach. During the 1950s the city had become America’s glitzy vacationland, and the place to be for the big names of radio, cinema, television, theater and music. Big entertainment names from West Coast and Northeast started to buy houses in South Beach as well as become investors in commercial interests such as nightclubs. One of Pérez’ favorite hangouts in these years was Zorita’s Show Bar on Collins Avenue.

Lili had her demons and at times they could bring her way down to a dark place. She’d had a lot of bad luck with the men in her past and her romantic failures had already taken a large toll on her. She’d tried numerous suicide attempts and battled emotional instability most of her life. Now here she was, a white and very high profile woman in a “naughty” profession who had a Cuban boyfriend which only contributed to the controversy about her. Interracial couples were not unusual in Miami in the 1960s, but elsewhere around the country they were and many people remained opposed to the idea.

Sonny Liston fights Cassius Clay in the ring at Convention Hall, February 1964

One of the most important weeks during this era in Miami was in February 1964. Not only was the boxing championship of the world held in Convention Hall, it was also the month a then unknown pop group from England performed at the Deauville Hotel for a taping of The Ed Sullivan Show. Hector was in the middle of it all and offers a unique viewpoint..

Sonny Liston with fan.

Things changed for Hector later in ’66 when Trafficante started extorting money payouts from many of Miami’s exotic dancing clubs such as Place Pigalle, Gaiety Club, Club 23, Copa City Lounge, and Zorita’s Show Bar. This created a conflict for Pérez as he already had a close relationship with Zorita, but now he was employed by Trafficante as a “collector” for the Show Bar along with most of the other clubs.

The events of October 7, 1966 are seared in Pérez’ mind. What began as a typical day changed quickly for the worse. A friend of Zorita’s with connections to the Florida mob tipped her off that Trafficante was on to her holding back money on her extortion payoffs. That fingered Hector right away as her accomplice. Zorita immediately reached out to Hector and they quickly developed a plan to leave Miami Beach for an indefinite amount of time. That night, Pérez caught a flight to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Zorita caught a flight to Mexico City.

Hector remembers that night.

Living in San Juan wasn’t a long term solution for Pérez. In June 1967 he relocated to Mexico City where Zorita had reinvented herself with a new identity and was managing a night club in the city’s Zona Rosa district. Mexico City was wide open from the claws of the American mob and Hector felt safe for the time being. However, after a few weeks he realized it was time for him to move on.

Lili performing.

And then there was Lili. Hector still couldn’t let her go. Shortly after he arrived in Los Angeles to play an engagement he did see finally see her, but things had changed forever between them. St. Cyr soon was battling a tragicly dangerous drug addition and he felt powerless to do anything about it. She was different… only a shell of the empowered woman he had loved on South Beach in what now seemed like an eternity ago. He looked for answers as to how to help her but there were none. It was an era where drug rehab was not common, and he saw no way to help straighten her out.

Back at the Hazelton Senior Care Residency it’s 5pm and the staff start to prep their dinner service for the residence’s last meal of the day at 6. Señor Pérez is feeling spry after his afternoon nap so he stops by the room of his lady friend Louise to visit before dinner. She’s a retired school teacher from Whittier who lives with her two cats. They enjoy each other’s company and always have a laugh together. Many of the women at the Residency find Hector attractive with his charming good looks, elegant ways, and mysterious past. But no matter how much they chat him up he always speaks so little about himself.

Artist, producer, songwriter, excellent Mexican food enthusiast, collector of assorted memorabilia.