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Celebrating ''Mambo''

Celebrating ”Mambo” — We were on the scene at the gala for ”The Mambo Kings”

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They mamboed till they melted. Then they got up and mamboed some more.

The gala for The Mambo Kings, held at New York City’s Roseland Ballroom, was the most frenzied movie-premiere party of the year. Paying sweaty homage to the film — which stars Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas as brothers who start a mambo band in Manhattan circa 1952 — 1,500 people shimmied to Cuban rhythms so loud and electric that most conversations involved equal parts spitting and lipreading.

Car-wash blue Mylar spelled out ”Club Habana” and 4,400 yards of blue and gold lame swathed the walls and draped the stage, where Assante, with mambo maestro Tito Puente, drummed a duet so impassioned that the actor’s hair came ungelled and cha-cha’d across his forehead. ”The mambo,” Assante said, ”conjures up freedom. This movie is about the American dream.”

Banderas sang ”Guantanamera” with the godmother of mambo, Celia Cruz, and the rest of the cast; later, in a fit of mambo madness, he double-dipped a crew member and nearly dropped her on her fondillo.

Oscar Hijuelos, author of 1989’s The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, which brought the Cuban dance craze to the best-seller list and now to the screen, looked overwhelmed. He let the musical legends do the philosophizing.

”Mambo,” said musician Cuban Pete, ”is about love, hunger, survival, mama and papa — all those things.”

At Roseland, though, it was mostly about dancing.