The Legend of Panama Red and her bar, Cantina Rojas
She was a strikingly beautiful baby girl, born to the most interesting couple in Panama. Her father, Juan Cansino, originally from Spain, was considered to be one of the finest Latin musicians and dancers in the Americas. Her mother, Rosa, was also a gifted dancer, known for her Tango and Flamenco.
Rosa was studying dance in Spain when she met Juan. Captivated, Juan left his homeland to follow Rosa to Panama where they were married. They were exciting times in Panama, as it seemed travelers from around the globe came to gaze on the marvelous canal. Within a year, Rosa and Juan Cansino experienced a different kind of marvel – the arrival of their daughter, Carolina.
The Cansinos made quick friends of an American couple, Tom and Elsie Ogelsby, who had come to Panama from Alabama to lend their expertise to the Canal project. Juan and Rosa were frequent guests at the lavish parties held in the Ogelsby home. The two women also shared a passion for the game of Bridge, becoming partners, playing several times a week. Elsie, having no children of her own, took these opportunities to dote on the Cansino’s lovely daughter. It was Elsie’s habit to bring Carolina books, written in the languages of English, French, German, and Spanish. By the time Carolina was a teenager she could converse in all four languages.
It the years that followed it became clear to all that Carolina had inherited her mother’s beautiful features, but also her many musical talents. To the delight of her parents and their hosts, Carolina would often perform at the Ogelsbys’ parties. Frequently in the spotlight and in the company of cultured adults, the beautiful Carolina grew up quickly, proving herself to be worldly and wise beyond her years.
Blossoming into womanhood, Carolina was seen on the arm of many of Panama’s most eligible bachelors. It came as no surprise when Carolina began to see a well-known and extremely handsome gentleman who worked in the import/export business. Juan Carlos Esquivel was an entrepreneur with a mysterious background. Like Carolina he spoke many languages and was considered a great visionary thinker. A man of international intrigue, Juan Carlos was the “pride of Panama.”
At a time when the world was on the brink of war, the young man’s international contacts served him well and Juan Carlos became increasingly wealthy. Sadly, it is said he disappeared without a trace, leaving Carolina heartbroken. Though they had not yet married, wedding plans had been made. For many months Carolina grieved over her lost love.
Germany had just invaded Poland about the time Carolina was approached by a lawyer. It was then that Carolina learned that Juan Carlos had died from illness – and that he had not forgotten her. Upon his death, he left her several properties, including a magnificent old bar in the Casco Viejo. With the help of her parents Carolina quickly remodeled the building into an intimate nightspot with a stage where she could perform. She named the place Cantina Roja’s. Juan Carlos himself had called her “Rojas,” a pet name, referencing her beautiful auburn hair.
Red and her bar came to the attention of Buddy de Sylva and Herbert Fields of Broadway fame. They created a Broadway play and subsequent Hollywood movie they titled “Panama Hattie.” In the show, Hattie – like Red – is a bar owner and entertainer in the Casco Viejo of Panama. And like Red’s Place, American soldiers and sailors frequented Hattie’s bar.
The movie was star studded. Anne Southern starred as “Hattie.” Dan Dailey played the part of a Naval Commander based in the Canal Zone. Red Skelton, Ben Blue, and a very young Roger Moore, who would later take the role of James Bond, were also in the film. Lena Horne, in her first screen appearance for MGM, played herself. She sang Cole Porter’s song “Just One Of Those Things” in a scene filmed in another Panamanian bar the moviemakers called “Phil’s Place.” The film came out as America was fighting a World War and was popularly received by audiences. It is supposed that the movie inspired an American bomber crew to name their B-17 the “Panama Hattie.” However, the crewmember that painted the voluptuous redhead on the nose cone of the plane must have been a patron of Red’s bar in Panama. Anne Southern, the Hattie of Broadway fame, had been a blonde.
By now Red’s Place had become the number one nightspot in Panama to see and be seen. One never knew who might show up on any given night or emerge from the audience to give an impromptu performance. Sightings at the bar included Ernest Hemingway with his third wife, writer Martha Gelhorn, and John Wayne, down from Hollywood to fish for black marlin. One July night it was a musician from Nashville that captured the applause of the crowd and the heart of Red. For the second time in her life Red fell deeply in love. Within a year Red followed her heart and Red’s Place was closed forever. Though some say they can see her still – behind her bar in the Casco or beachside watching a Panamanian sunset – as they sip a smooth “Red Sky.”
In tribute to Red and the fine rum she served, we gave our own one-of-a kind rum her name, Panama Red 108.