November 17, 2021
Ibiza, Madrid, and Barcelona—these Spanish cities are known for their rich culture, music, and nightlife. But, those who are in the know look to the small Spanish town of Fraga for an exceptionally unique and unforgettable club experience.
A musical oasis, located off a beaten path near the charming Cinca river, awaits techno lovers and those with a penchant for partying. Beloved by dance music enthusiasts for over 70 years, Florida 135 is Spain’s oldest active nightclub. Since 1942, the windowless, 3000-sq-meter, dance hall-esque space has been owned and operated by the Arnau family—the club is a generational familial affair.
Originally founded as a cafe in the 1800s by José Satorres, the club was called Café Josepet and then Café Victoria as Antonio Durán, who married Maria Vilar, the founder's granddaughter, converted the entertainment space into an open-air theatre.
In 1924, newlyweds Juan Arnau Cabases and his wife Francisca Ibarz arrived in Fraga and founded a flour mill and several oil presses spanning the region. The hardworking pair was very sociable and loved entertaining.
The small and agricultural Fraga established itself as a mecca of music, film, and entertainment thanks to the Satorres, Durán, and Arnau families and eventually became the pole of attraction it is today by the hand of Juan Arnau.
The patriarch booked fabulous, faraway acts from Barcelona and Madrid to perform at the Garden Terrace Florida, later called the Saloon Florida, to the delight of regional and local audiences.
Extravagant shows at Florida put on by the Arnau clan featured a full orchestra band, worthy of a European capital city.
“I remember the first time Xavier Cugat came, the Spanish musician from Las Vegas...they worked so hard to bring him to Fraga. I was so small, I was eight years old. He arrived in Spain with 20 musicians and Evelyn, his wife... and when I remember that, the memory of that magnificent time, it’s a beautiful story to remember because I think this episode had more merit in our family history than what we are doing now with the DJs,” said Juan Arnau Sr.
Juan Arnau Cabasés sadly died just a day before the iconic Cuban bandleader, Xavier Cugat, played for the first time at Florida 135.
But his innovative and ambitious spirit lived on in his son, who married Duran’s only daughter, Pilarín, and together they drove the legacy forward—one that pioneered new sounds and produced cutting edge experiences, unlike anything global audiences had seen before.
“Every family, every generation... we’ve tried to be provocative without copying anyone, to get ahead despite being in a very small town and next to the Monegros desert, to get ahead. And it has worked very well for us. We have not gotten very rich, but we have had a great time and we are very happy with what we’ve done,” Arnau said.
In the late 60s, as electronic dance music popularized, live orchestras were quickly replaced by DJs and nightclubs became discotheques almost overnight.
After a fire burnt down Florida, the Arnaus enlisted renowned architect Javier Regás to design the club.
“We traveled all the way to India to meet up with the free-spirited hippie architect, who agreed to design our club, but said he’d only do it under one condition: that he be allowed to liberally replicate a New York street, one from the Bronx. Of course, we said yes,” said Arnau Sr.
To date, Regás’ Bronx-street, Blade Runner-inspired aesthetic has lasted well over 40 years and it still dazzles Florida 135’s audiences today.
“40 years later, it still looks just as sensational as it did back when he designed it. I see young people dancing in the club and they marvel at the sight of the real buildings they can step onto and the New York street that they’re dancing on.”
Today the club has bars that serve alcohol, coffee, cocktails and has everything one could imagine seeing on a night stroll in the Big Apple.
“Javier told us that the advantage of having this type of design was that it would not need a modernization, that with the passage of time, it would be more current, and it has been,” said Arnau Sr. “We’re seeing it right now...young people, the new generations, when they enter the club they see a club designed in the eighties, but that feeling of being in a uniquely-designed club has not gone out of style,”
Upon the club’s reopening, it quickly established itself as the first nightclub in the region to host DJs who played electronic music thanks to the Arnau’s fresh taste and determination to always stay ahead of their peers.
Though he passed away in 2012, the “grandfather of techno,” Juan Arnau Ibarz, and the rest of the Arnau clan successfully steered the nightclub through three decades of musical trends: disco, a stint in Madridian pop and rock music, house, and ultimately techno.
In an increasingly globalized world, where club-goers have endless options to travel internationally for music and parties, the “Cathedral of Techno '' remains to be just as relevant in the realm of live events and nightlife destinations as it was since its inception.
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Arnau Sr. attributes the club’s iconic factor and timeless relevance to the musical selection of the artists who visit them and above all else, the familial aspect of the club.
“The public knows that in one way or another they play an important part of a story that began in the same place where they are dancing now, in 1870, during my great grandfather’s time,” he said. “...that kind of feeling of belonging to a family is what makes us different from other clubs, not just in Spain."
For over six generations, the family has owned and operated the club, which is more of a dancehall than a traditional nightclub.
True to its stunning origins, Florida 135 has an open-air space where clubbers may enjoy commercial music, and four separate dancefloors: one that is an homage to the early days of French house and wax, one that’s exclusively for house and techno enthusiasts, a hip hop floor, and finally the iconic Bronx street that features electronic dance music played in front of a New York aesthetic.
The themes and DJs change often, said the patriarch. “We throw parties that we try to thematize depending on the artist and the musical project that will unfold itself in the space. We do this so that everyone has a place to dance according to their alternatives, if not what they prefer, all in the same night.”
Though every visit to Florida 135 is a unique experience, said Arnau Sr., clubgoers look forward to hearing from international DJs like Carl Cox and Laurent Garnier, which the family has called their friends for over 50 years.
“Our friends, these legends of electronic music, of which are what really helped us in those times. We were Club Florida, out in a small town in the desert...they arrived to Florida and made it the embryo of what later established the electronic music industry in Spain.”
The club was the first in the region and in the country to host DJs who spun records of “Kraftwerk-esque” music, said Juan Arnau Jr.
The change in sound was ultimately inspired by Arnau Sr. and his wife, Maria Cruz Lasierra’s three-year caravan through Europe’s clubs and raves in the 80s.
“They met Laurent Garnier at a party in Paris at the Rex, Sven Vath playing in illegal tunnel raves in Germany, Francesco Farfa playing at a crazy rave in Rimini, Italy,” said Arnau Jr. of the travelers’ journey.
The feeling of yearning to search for new sounds, for the next best thing, is something that has always motivated the patriarch and his family since the club’s inception, Arnau Sr. shared.
“It motivates us, this search... for what had to happen, not for what was happening or what had happened, but to imagine what would happen in just five to ten years.”
They traveled all over Europe, taking in the new sounds they encountered in Munich, Berlin, and England. “We met so many incredible DJs we knew we had to invite them to play at our club,” he said.
“Ultimately what we learned is that what is new is preceded by the mainstream, and so, we anticipate. And as such, we’ve always been in favor of visiting those clubs where they offer something different. This is the way we have always done it.”
In addition to owning the acclaimed Florida 135 club, today the family owns the wildly popular global party and brand, Elrow, and throws an annual desert rave in the Monegros desert.
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When asked whether his grandchildren will continue the Arnau legacy, Arnau Sr. shared he wasn’t certain. He said he hadn’t expected that Juan Arnau Jr. and his sister Cruz Arnau would join the family business but was elated when they showed excitement and eagerness to work in the industry.
“I wasn’t too sure if they were going to continue in the entertainment industry for one, because I never intended to. That is, I have always given them total freedom,” he said.
“I think that each person, each generation, has to travel their own path, not the path of their ancestors.”
Though Arnau Sr. grew up amidst a booming family business and surrounded by tastemakers, musical innovators, and entertainers, he said he never felt adequately prepared to work in the industry.
In college, he studied business at UCLA then attended graduate school for his master’s degree to study nutrition.
Then, due to a major family bankruptcy in the seventies, said Arnau Sr., he found himself at Florida 135 day in and day out, and the business became his life’s work.
Lucky for him, his business was also his family, he said. “The truth is that in this industry, you practically do not have a family life but in our case we do because the whole family is there. In the case of my children, and their partners too—Domingo is a DJ, my daughter Cruz works in marketing, my son also, and then there’s my wife and I.”
Arnau Sr. said he could not be prouder of his children’s business savvy and creativity.
“It brings me joy to see that my children, both my son and my daughter, genuinely enjoy it. And not only do they enjoy it, they also do it much better than me,” he said.
Florida 135 survived the pandemic and the Arnau family even gained two more additions to the clan in the last year, two new grandchildren.
The family remained positive though the future of the club was for a moment uncertain. For the first time in the family’s 150 year history, Florida 135 was forced to close their doors to the public, whom they call family.
“We were so sad..it is something very unusual, that dancing was prohibited, because dancing is so important,” said Arnau Sr.
“Dancing is an act of collective euphoria that allows you to vent. It is not having a drink, it is something very special. For people it is something very ancient that has existed all their lives, and seeing that people could not dance has really been hard.”
Florida 135 opened their doors last month for its first event in about three years. Once announced, tickets to the club’s Halloween event sold out within 10 minutes.
The club’s longevity is a testament to their commitment to entertaining and the love they have for their clients. “It is electric ... the love we have for the public, and knowing that everything you do is for them, it’s not for you,” said Arnau Sr.
The key to the club’s longevity? Being present, in all aspects, he said.
We are always present—and this our children have learned from me, I do not know if it is good or bad—it is that we like to be in the club, at festivals.”
“We don't like to be outside the club, we like to be with our clients and that has good points and bad points as well. We have never mixed our private life with the life of the club — we don’t drink alcohol, we don’t take drugs, which some clients sometimes partake in.”
Arnau Sr. shared that having a sober perspective at events puts the family at an advantage to better serve their clients with a more serene perspective, in comparison to other promoters who try to replicate the family’s business model.
“When you’re solely focused on making sure the client is enjoying themselves, it gives you a different perspective from those other promoters who do the same things that the clients do,” he said.
“You have to understand that you are working and that the clients are having fun. They are using part of their time to vent their saddest moments, their work, their studies, their love affairs...so we need to be always present, always be at the service of the public.”
After years of sleepless nights, parties, and plenty of music, Florida 135 continues to be as successful now as it was in the 70s.
“The truth is that both my wife and I have enjoyed it a lot. We have spent many nights, seeing and observing as our clients come and have a great time... and this is something that has differentiated us from the rest of the promoters and the rest of the clubs,” said the patriarch.
“It is a way of life our children have learned from us, and it is the humility of knowing that something better can always be done and letting ourselves be guided by what our clients do and by addressing any concerns they share with us, on the level of entertainment...After so long, we’re happy that at least we are alive.”