Play it again, Sam, and again, and again

CASABLANCA, Morocco — On a dingy side street, the smiling landlord pronounced with historical certainty that one need look no further. The real inspiration for Rick’s Cafe in the classic film "Casablanca" stands before you.

“Yes,” said Abdeslamy Labiad, 70, gesturing to an oval sign above an arched doorway. “It’s the same bar.”

The sign was plastic, and smeared with bird scat. It said, “Rex Cabaret.”

Several saloons in this North African country have laid claim to the legacy of the great World War II movie romance, each with varying degrees of plausibility. Steered by locals or guidebooks promising the authentic Rick’s, tourists flock to one after the other. Sorting out which bar best imitates the real thing is complicated by the fact that, by all reliable accounts, no original existed in the first place.

Hearing this notion leaves Mr. Labiad — a fit, genial man who ran Rex Cabaret himself until 1980 — decidedly nonplussed. As does the small matter of the sign’s spelling.

“Yes, OK,” he allowed. Since the 1940s, “the big sign and the door — that’s been changed.”

The 1942 movie "Casablanca" was a Hollywood confection of the highest order. Filmed entirely on a sound stage, it contained zero location shots or actors of Moroccan descent. The airplane in the final sequence was a half-size wooden mockup; the studio cast midgets as mechanics to preserve the illusion of size. And the Moroccan saloon at the heart of the story is about as rooted in reality as the lounge aboard the Starship Enterprise.

According to Aljean Harmetz’s exhaustive book, “Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca,” the film began its life as a play written by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. In 1938, Burnett became committed to the anti-Nazi cause after a trip spent aiding Jewish relatives in occupied Vienna. Before coming home, Burnett passed an evening in a nightclub with a polyglot clientele where a black man played piano. There, he reportedly turned to his wife and said, “What a setting for a play.”

The nightclub was in the south of France.

In the play, "Everyone Comes to Rick’s," Burnett and Alison changed the location, and populated it with the hard-bitten saloon keeper, his lover and the like. After the play sold to Hollywood, Warner Brothers screenwriters changed the title.

If you believe the guidebooks, the real Moroccan center for World War II intrigue was the sun-splashed port of Tangiers, nearly 200 miles from Casablanca. Indeed, the Tangiers entry of the 2009 Lonely Planet Morocco promises “the anything-goes cynicism, the sense of personal fates enmeshed in political change, even the real model for Rick’s Cafe are all there, waiting to be rediscovered.”

That model, the guide says, was a bar called Caid’s, situated on the bottom floor of the upscale El Minzah hotel. On Caid’s patio on a recent afternoon, a lone tourist sipped a Casablanca brand beer with her Lonely Planet propped open on the table. A native New Zealander, Gillian Tidd, 60, last saw the movie 12 years ago, but she said it helped inspire her visit. “This is where I thought to come,” Tidd said. “For me that was absolutely the connection.”

Inside Caid’s, cafe-style tables were clustered around a piano whose tunes echoed off arched, vaulted ceilings reminiscent of the film. Behind the bar, a plain-spoken man in a white tux, Hassan Zghinou, 52, delivered a rather extreme version of the Rick's origin myth.

“The film Casablanca was made here,” Zghinou said confidently, pausing behind a row of rinsed glasses. “In Caid’s bar.”

Follow-up questions suggested Zghinou may not have seen the film, exactly. The story involved “the woman, the man, the piano player who was black,” he said, but after that the details got hazy. To bolster his case, he listed several of the hotel’s movie star guests, including Jean-Claude Van Damme.

El Minzah’s general manager, Hisham Al Jumaa, 62, told a more modest story. "Casablanca" was made in Hollywood, of course, but “the idea of the film started here,” he said, adding that he first learned this from producers for a German radio show. “They checked it and they proved it.”

How exactly, Al Jumaa wasn’t sure. “There is no document, nothing registered,” he said.

Al Jumaa, a busy man with a large hotel to run, said he was simply relaying what he’s been told. He made no claims of Casablanca expertise. Press Al Jumaa, and he’ll admit: his favorite movie is "Spartacus."

But the possibility that Rick’s Cafe was invented without reference to his hotel struck Al Jumaa as unlikely. “A writer needs to start with a little something real,” he said.

In the real city Casablanca, on the edge of the old medina, yet another bar bills itself as the true Rick’s — and spells the name correctly on the sign outside. Employees at this Rick’s had an unambiguous reaction to the claims of their Tangiers colleagues.

“Imposters,” said Mohamad Ladhem, 39, a waiter decked out on recent evening in a red fez and black tie. “That’s just a way of probably bringing in customers.”

Only five years old, this Rick’s Cafe was built by a former American diplomat, Kathy Kriger, inside a remodeled three-story Moroccan home. Like her cinematic counterpart, Kriger, lives upstairs from the place she runs. But her similarities with the Bogart character pretty much stop there.

“I never ran guns to Ethiopia,” said Kriger, 63, who spends days off with her small fuzzy dog, a 6-year-old Coton de Tulear named Pasha.

The only connection with the film Kriger claims for her place is that of homage. In case that’s lost on anyone, "Casablanca" plays continuously on a screen in an upstairs room.

The customers didn’t seem to mind that the restaurant had no link with the making of the film nor history dating to the war that inspired it. “So what?,” said Dave McGinnis, 49, from St. Charles, Ill., in a T-shirt that read Campus Rec Block Party 2008. “You’re in Casablanca and you’re at Rick’s. I mean that’s all you have to say.”

For McGinnis, the draw of the place and film were one and the same. “You want to escape,” he said. “Everyone wants to believe they would be brave enough to throw the beautiful girl away, go into the desert, fight the Germans and walk off into history.”

The scale of Kriger’s restaurant is more intimate than the sprawling cinematic Rick’s, but its decor pays scrupulous tribute to the film, from the arched ceilings, to the black-and-white tile, to the piano at the heart of it all.

Yet the piano player, Issam Chabaa, 43, offers a study in subverted expectations. A self-taught computer programmer with an affection for F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chabaa speaks a decidedly more schooled English than Sam, his aw-shucks movie counterpart.

Chabaa said his employer doesn’t truck in fakery — she serves a real clientele, who seek good music and good food. If occasionally customers refuse to let go of their preconceptions, well that’s just a minor hazard of the job.

“I remember once someone came to me and told me, ‘But you’re not black,’ ” he recalled. “I said, ‘I’m sorry to disappoint you. That’s the way it is.’ ”

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