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.

“I got my nickname ‘Miami Jack’ when I was a teenager” he laughs. “One summer I had a job working at my uncle’s Cuban restaurant in Boca Raton. Everyone one else there was a local white Jewish kid, I was the only Cuban from Miami. My friend Seth who I met working there came up with the nickname and it just stuck with me through the years.”

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

“In the beginning of my jai alai days back in the 50s, there was an elegance to the crowds that came to see us. It attracted a certain class of people with money, but over time that changed. There was always gambling on the matches, but early on it was more about the sport. The women were beautiful and the men were sharp. It was a magnificent time.”

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.

“I only met Santo one time. Anthony took me to a party on Trafficante’s yacht — it was a few weeks after I went to work for them. Santo took me aside on his boat and asked me a few questions about myself like where I was from and what my family did. He was a big fan of jai alai and knew about me having been a professional player, so we ended up talking about that most of the night.”

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.

“Zorita was an older dancer who had started in burlesque back in the forties. Her on stage act was performing with two snakes. By the time I met her she already had her own club called Zorita’s Show Bar and was booking all of the top dancers that passed through town. And believe me, they ALL passed through town at some time or another. South Beach had an energy all of its own in those days and for showbiz types and even all of the wannabes it was a must destination — particularly in the winter when things were really hopping. Zorita became like my big sister and we became very close friends. I was her confidante and she was mine. It was a great time for me and I look back on it with a smile. The city then was full of opportunity and I was connected with the right people at the right time.

Not long after I first started spending time at the Show Bar, I got involved one of the top dancers that performed there… Lili St. Cyr. She had her own stage act too, bathing in a tub on stage with soap suds while semi nude. People loved it and couldn’t get enough of it. She was one of the most famous burlesque performers in the country. Very much big time… in magazines, films, and television. She was so different from any other woman I’d been with, I’d known show girls and exotic dancers before but no one like her. Lili was a free spirit and my guess was that she had a man in every town she worked in but I didn’t give a damn, it meant nothing to me. When she was in South Beach she was mine and that’s all that mattered. I found her world to be so intriguing and exciting… dangerous too. I know she’d been arrested several times for breaking public moral laws, she was still fighting a court case to stay out of prison and was always talking on the phone to her lawyer in Chicago. For me that just added to her allure.”

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.

“What people don’t understand now is that in that era the life of a dancer like her was so outlaw, so on the fringe of regular society. Yet compared to what the strippers of subsequent years would soon be doing on stage… dancing totally nude, Lili’s act was so tame. Men I knew fantasized about her, and women I knew admired her for running her own life and career. And on top of it all, she was a star! People would recognize her on the street because of the films she had appeared in and all the publicity from her court cases around the country. Her engagements at Zorita’s always drew the biggest crowds. She believed that what Bettie Page did was pornography, and what she did was art.”

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..

“Yeah I had to work the gambling line for the Sonny Liston vs. Cassius Clay fight. There was big money on that one, and people even now still assume that Liston was on the take, and that he threw that fight. But here’s the deal… he didn’t, Clay flat out beat him. The New York mob and many of the bigger gamblers wanted Sonny to throw it, so my job for the weeks before the fight was to negotiate all that business between everyone and keep the peace between the different gambling factions. It was tricky and difficult to pacify everyone’s interests, particularly the New York guys.

I never met Cassius Clay, but I got to know Liston a little. He had a rep as a thug but he was actually a sweet guy and fun to be around. He couldn’t read a word, he couldn’t tell what any contract he signed said, but he was street smart and very savvy. He’d done prison time for killing a man I think, at least that’s what the word on the street was back then. The mob had bankrolled his entire career so he knew they’d want him to take a dive in a fight down the road and he did just that a year later in his rematch with Clay. Their Miami fight was legit — he just got blindsided by Clay’s quickness, he’d never fought anyone like him before… no one had. The public was always against Sonny in his fights and he was always the villian. He was always the nasty bad ass guy with the steely eyes, I think he scared them with his intimidating persona. I also think that Sonny didn’t train hard enough for the Miami fight and that caught up with him.

Oh, and The Beatles. Yeah, I saw them at the Deauville the night they came to South Beach for the Ed Sullivan Show. Couldn’t hear much, all the young girls were screaming. Truthfully, I didn’t much care for them. My friend who worked at the hotel talked me into going with him. Not my kind of music back then, I was listening to mambo. And I still do.”

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.

“Rontana came to me one day and said Santo’s extortion racket was expanding into the burlesque clubs, the strip clubs on the Beach. These joints always made good money but they had taken off in the sixties when celebrities began going to them and the clubs started to get written up in some national newspapers. There were headlines like ‘Joey Bishop with His Wife Sylvia at Miami’s Club 23 Enjoying Daquiris’ in Earl Wilson’s gossip column in the New York Post, and instantly there were lines around the block to get into the place.All of the clubs played ball with us except for this one on South Beach so we had to burn it down. After the word got around about that there were no more problems with any of the others. My troubles began when I began to cut Zorita a break on her payments to Santo and I started skimming Santo’s extortion money from the Show Club. I never should of done that, it was a huge huge crazy mistake that I regret making to this day. We were greedy, stupid, and it cost us so much later.

Also about that time, I got in pretty deep with Lili. It started off very casually between us but after a few months it got deep… real deep. Deeper than I’d every been with anyone before or since. Together we explored the highest levels of intimacy between a man and a woman. Lili began flying down from New York to stay with me when she was off the road and not working. Eventually she got a penthouse apartment in South Beach and I moved in with her, it was a nice setup for us. She spent much of that winter with me and we became very serious, even discussing marriage later that year as soon as her divorce came through.”

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.

“It all came down so fast, really in just a couple of hours. For a few days before, I had been sensing something was up with Rontana, but it was only a hunch. He was asking me a few more questions than normal about my money pickups at the various clubs. I have no idea who tipped those guys off about Zorita and I, because I hadn’t told anyone about what we were doing with Santos’ money. We were so fortunate that this connected guy who was Zorita’s friend told her that Rontana was on to her, otherwise we would both have been dead by that midnight. That connected guy didn’t have to do that but it saved our lives. To this day I haven’t connected the dots about exactly who knew what and how it all happened. I gave up long ago on that. I knew that’s how it worked in the business nd I knew that before I got into it. I’d seen what happened to the men that crossed Santo before. I also realized that I was incredibly lucky to walk away from Florida with my life.

Fortunately, Lili was on tour in Cleveland so when Rontana came looking for me at our place, no one was there. She didn’t know anything about what I’d been doing with Zorita anyway — not that it would have mattered to Trafficante, he was ruthless. By the time she came back to South Beach around four months later, Santo had moved on to other things and left her alone thankfully.

When I got to San Juan, I spent the next few months lying low. I was able to get my money out of my Miami bank right away before anyone could trace it or try to freeze it… Trafficante could have done that, he was that powerful a man. Those weeks in San Juan were tense, I was always looking over my shoulder as I knew Trafficante had people working for him that were there and were on the hunt for me. Lili had an engagement at the Gayety Theatre in Montreal early that December and when it ended she flew straight down to meet me in San Juan. She stayed with me a couple of weeks and it lifted my spirits and helped me get my head together. Finally, I felt things were starting to cool down that spring but I knew that I was finished in Miami and could never work there again.”

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.

“I thought about staying in Mexico City and working with Zorita but I really wanted to get back to the States. I got in touch with some folks in Los Angeles who had said a year before they had work for me there if I wanted it. Southern California wasn’t as mobbed up so I took them up on their offer and moved to L.A. in November 1967. This was over a year after I’d fled Miami. My thoughts were that if I stayed away from the hot spots like Miami, New Orleans, Chicago, and New York I could float under the radar. Sure, we’d ripped off Trafficante but really it was small time stuff compared to the other crap he was dealing with. He was fighting mob wars with rival crime families where they were all murdering each other! My situation wasn’t a big money conspiracy or long con where’d I be stealing from him for years. Still, what I’d done was enough to get me killed if he felt like pursuing it. When I first arrived in Los Angeles I stayed away from the places that I knew were dangerous and I didn’t make any kind of social scene where I’d be discovered. I had a couple of close calls at first, but I figured it all out pretty quickly. I had to.”

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.

I saw Lili a few times in Los Angeles but we couldn’t get our romance going between us like it had been in Miami. She’d gotten involved with a much younger man who I met later a couple of times and didn’t like or trust… I felt he was using her for her money and manipulating her. She and I stayed in contact for a while but then she got into hard drugs. Her slow decline saddened me and was painful to witness. After my first couple of years in Los Angeles I no longer saw or spoke to her. But I’ll never forget her. I still think about her every day.”

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.