entertainmentFringe Theater

Ben Harrison’s New Musical Showcases an All-Star Band

El Isleño 1921: The Untold Key West Story


It’s December 1921 and business has never been better at The Red Rooster Tea & Coffee shop, Key
West’s local speakeasy and sporting house. Love, Lust, Ragtime and Jazz fill the air until a fated night
with a mackerel sky.

El Isleño 1921: The Untold Key West Story, which opens at the Fringe Theater next month, is the legend
of Manuel Cabeza (El Isleño) reimagined by musician/playwright Ben Harrison. With opening night
already sold out, Fringe Theater is looking at a booming two week run of this roaring ragtime musical
production, February 15-25 th at 600 White Street.


Photo Caption: Key West musicians Larry Baeder, Ben Harrison, Michael Robinson, and Pauli Walterson meet weekly to work on Harrison’s newest musical, El Isleño 1921. Photo Credit: Helen Harrison
Photo Caption: Key West musicians Larry Baeder, Ben Harrison, Michael Robinson, and Pauli Walterson meet weekly to work on Harrison’s newest musical, El Isleño 1921.
Photo Credit: Helen Harrison

It all began when Ben volunteered to be a Friends of the Cemetery tour guide. His assignment one chilly
Sunday in January 2019 was El Isleño’s grave:

R.I.P. Manuel “El Isleño” Cabezas, born New Years Day 1887; died Christmas Day 1921.

Ben, who has lived and performed in Key West since the 70s, has a fondness for storytelling and a keen
interest in the history of the island. Through research in the archives of the Monroe County Library and
conversations with master local historian, Tom Hambright, Ben discovered the story of that one fateful
night on the eve of Christmas Eve in Bahama Village in 1921.

By 2021, exactly one hundred years after the original events took place, the project of creating the
musical was well underway.

“I was excited about writing music from this era because it is filled with enthusiasm, movement, and
life’s promise. On the other hand, writing songs for a moment this intense was like going from light to
dark and back again,” says Ben, “The rough and tumble history of the island in 1921—this was like
putting a human puzzle together—riveting. It’s taking the available facts and walking the streets of Key
West in the character’s shoes.”

The large all-local cast will share the stage with a live band that incorporates piano, traditional
Afro/Cuban drums, guitar, upright bass, trombone, and flugelhorn. Local musicians, Michael Robinson
(Musical Director/Piano), Larry Baeder (Guitar) and Paulie Walterson (Percussion), will be joined by
accomplished New York City jazz bassist, Santi Debriano, and Grammy award winning trombonist,
Xito Lovell. Together, they are the Red Rooster Ragtime Band.

In fact, the local members of the Red Rooster Ragtime Band regularly meet each Monday and have been
doing so for months. “We musical compadres believe what we are doing is more than just reliving the
past. To get ready for the show, we sing and play the songs of the character’s lives determined to tell
their —untold—story to the best of our abilities. I care about these characters. I want to do them
justice,” says Ben.

On the topic of his musical compadres, Ben states, “Michael has the patience and ability to work with
my strengths and do what I can’t— arrange and expand the music. Paulie’s groove shapes the songs. He
knows the musical history and persuasions of Key West percussion, which has a lot to do with the
Afro/Cuban rhythms. Larry is a serious musical historian and period player.”

El Isleño: The Untold Key West Story is Ben Harrison’s third fully-produced musical based on Key West
history. Its story of mystery, grit, tragedy, and redemption makes this show a must see!

FRINGE THEATER: El Isleño 1921, The Untold Key West Story
PERFORMANCE DATES: February 15-25 at 7pm in the Key West Armory

Tickets are $35 and $50 and are available at fringetheater.org or by calling the Fringe Theater Box Office
at 305-731-0581. Seating is limited, so audience members are encouraged to get their tickets early.

For more information, please contact info@fringetheater.org.


Geoff Bergey

Florida Native, Traveler, Photographer, Lover of Life, Clouds and Key Lime Pie.

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