So Fidel Castro walks into a bar and this guy says. . .

Sam Smith

My first job in 1959 was as a newsman at Washington’s radio station WWDC, which had just introduced the Top 40 format to the area, would start the first Washington news service for independent stations, and would later be the first station to play the Beatles in America.The station had also hired Steve Allison, a Philly talk show host known as “the man who owned midnight” for his late night program and who helped launch modern talk radio.

The other day, while working on an article I stumbled upon an amazing tape of the Steve Allison show.

One night in April 1959 he was conducting his program as usual – sometime between ten thirty and one am – at Cores Restaurant, 1305 E St NW, when the recently victorious Fidel Castro and his aides came into the restaurant looking for something to eat without any idea a radio program was underway. Castro had come to Washington to speak at the National Press Club, right around the corner from the restaurant.

 
Castro in Washington, 1959

Here is the tape of what happened next as reported on the program that followed. It is extraordinary:

At the time I was finishing my senior year at Harvard College. I had worked at WWDC a couple of summers earlier, had been promised a job when I graduated, and in two months would join the staff full time.

Then, eleven days after this tape, Castro showed up in Cambridge. Here’s how I described it later:

The most noteworthy figure to appear at Harvard during my tenure was the newly victorious Fidel Castro, who spoke to 8,000 enthusiastic faculty and students (including one from Brandeis named Abbie Hoffman) at Dillon Field House. Castro was still considered a hero by many Americans for having overthrown the egregious Batista. While those of us who had taken Soc Sci 2 knew that not all revolutions were for the better, there was about this one a romance that took my thoughts far from Harvard Square as a top Castro lieutenant, sitting in front of my little recorder in the Hayes Bickford coffee shop, told me of his days with Fidel in the mountains. Castro was booed only once according to my broadcast report later that evening, when he “attempted to defend the execution of Cuban war criminals after the revolution. Castro asked his listeners, ‘you want something else?’ and proceed to give them a fifteen minute further explanation.”

My story for Harvard’s WHRB, where I was news director, also noted:

Some of Castro’s aides expressed a feeling of relaxation during the Harvard tour in comparison with the formal diplomatic visit to Washington. Leaving the faculty club, Castro’s air attaché was cheered for his snappy uniform by the students who surrounded the area. . . WHRB will rebroadcast Dr. Castro’s speech on Monday at midnight. WHRB’s recording of the event will also be broadcast by the Voice of America and Station CMQ in Havana.

DC MEMORIES

P.S.

A year later, Castro would return to the United States:

The Militant, 1995 – In September 1960 Fidel Castro traveled to the United States to address the United Nations General Assembly. . . Castro did not receive a warm welcome from the U.S. government during his visit to New York City in 1960. The Cuban delegation moved to Harlem after being kicked out of the Shelburne Hotel amid a racist slander campaign in the press that included baseless charges – repeated to this day by the Associated Press – of plucking live chickens at the hotel.

Ralph Mathews, New York Citizen Call, 1960 – To see Premier Fidel Castro after his arrival at Harlem’s Hotel Theresa meant getting past a small army of New York City policemen guarding the building, past security officers, U.S. and Cuban. But one hour after the Cuban leader’s arrival, Jimmy Booker of the Amsterdam News, photographer Carl Nesfield, and myself were huddled in the stormy petrel of the Caribbean’s room listening to him trade ideas with Muslim leader Malcolm X.

Dr. Castro did not want to be bothered with reporters from the daily newspapers, but he did consent to see two representatives from the Negro press. . .

We followed Malcolm and his aides, Joseph and John X, down the ninth-floor corridor. It was lined with photographers disgruntled because they had no glimpse of the bearded Castro, with writers vexed because security men kept pushing them back.

We brushed by them and, one by one, were admitted to Dr. Castro’s suite. He rose and shook hands with each one of us in turn. He seemed in a fine mood. The rousing Harlem welcome still seemed to ring in his ears. . .

After introductions, he sat on the edge of the bed, bade Malcolm X sit beside him, and spoke in his curious brand of broken English. His first words were lost to us assembled around him. But Malcolm heard him and answered: “Downtown for you it was ice. Uptown it is warm.” The premier smiled appreciatively. “Aahh yes. We feel here very warm.”

Then the Muslim leader, ever a militant, said, “I think you will find the people in Harlem are not so addicted to the propaganda they put out downtown.”

In halting English, Dr. Castro said, “I admire this. I have seen how it is possible for propaganda to make changes in people. Your people live here and they are faced with this propaganda all the time and yet they understand. This is very interesting.”

“There are twenty million of us,” said Malcolm X, “and we always understand.” . . .

On his troubles with the Hotel Shelburne, Dr. Castro said: “They have our money. Fourteen thousand dollars. They didn’t want us to come here. When they knew we were coming here, they wanted to come along.” (He did not clarify who “they” was in this instance.) . . .

On U.S.-Cuban relations: In answer to Malcolm’s statement that “As long as Uncle Sam is against you, you know you’re a good man,” Dr. Castro replied, “Not Uncle Sam, but those here who control magazines, newspapers…”

Dr. Castro tapered the conversation off with an attempted quote of Lincoln. “You can fool some of the people some of the time,…” but his English faltered and he threw up his hands as if to say, “You know what I mean.”

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