Melisa Campos, 96

Cowboy Center founder, entertainer and Boston nightclub fire survivor Melisa Campos dies at 96

Southfork-styled ranches, like those featured on the prime time TV soap Dallas, are not exactly commonplace in South Florida, least of all on a concrete plot of land in Miami at Northwest 79th Street and 32nd Avenue. The nearest “hitching post” is a Shell gas station that pumps fuel next door. Metrorail tracks and their stone gray beams that tower over some scraggly small trees serve as a vista out front.

Never you mind. Melisa Campos had sold cowboy gear at her one-story store, Cowboy Center, since the day she and late husband, Carlos Campos, walked into its doors in 1959.

“My grandmother bought my brother and I a horse. My mother and father went inside a little store to get some horse equipment and walked out owning it,” recalled daughter Cookie Haviland. “They knew their days were limited in the entertainment field.”

Campos died on Mother’s Day, May 11, at 96 and she was never afraid of a challenge or impressed with artificial pomp.

She found a way to sell her chaps, leather saddles and 10-gallon hats as the terrain changed to the Internet where wealthy ranchers from South and Central America placed their orders via a keystroke. Partygoers who still liked a Western theme also patronized her store.

“There used to be ground you could keep your horses on. There were horses everywhere. Then a lot of greedy people from the North came down,” Campos said in a 2008 Miami Herald profile. “There aren’t that many horse people left, because where can you ride in Miami?”

Aside from Horse Country off Miller Road in Miami-Dade and Davie in Broward, there aren’t many places to spot riders atop horses in South Florida. She was similarly unfazed when Gen. Manuel Noriega of Panama bought thousands of dollars worth of stirrups and tack from the Cowboy Center before his capture in the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989. Lackeys took care of his horses. Campos preferred owners who were hands-on.

After all, she was a star herself and prospered through hard work, perseverance and pluck.

Campos, born in Washington, D.C., began her career as a Flamenco dancer in New York when she was just out of her teens. She met her husband there, married him in 1942, and the two soon formed the Carlos and Melisa Band. Carlos was known as the Latin Bing Crosby. Melisa sang harmony, played bass and the maracas.

Those maracas would save her life that post-Thanksgiving November morning in 1942 when she used them to draw attention as she managed to snake her arm upward as she lay crushed amid bodies pinned against a door in The Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston. A fire inside claimed the lives of 492 people, the deadliest nightclub fire in history and one that forced the creation of safety standards, not the least of which was that public doors must open outward.

Bodies — Campos, pregnant with her son Kilos, and her husband, who was initially presumed dead — had been pressed up against the inward-opening door in the downstairs Melody Lounge. The Camposes were just about to take the club’s stage where a young pianist and a singer were concluding their performance. The Camposes were the only entertainers to survive the inferno that momentarily bumped World War II coverage from prominent front page news coverage nationwide. Her name is listed on a Boston Fire Historical Society website among the 166 injured survivors.

“She had a scar for many years on that arm but it saved her life,” Haviland said. Five years later, and through the 1960s, the couple had steady work as they performed their act on Miami Beach’s hotel row where Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack ruled. The Fontainebleau. The Raleigh. The Delmonico. And others.

“She had a wonderful voice…and was a lifelong member of the Miami Federation of Musicians,” Haviland said.

When entertainment tastes changed, the Cowboy Center would become the couple’s career focus until Carlos’ death in 1997. The Camposes were married for 55 years. She would continue operating the store.

“She was a remarkable woman who went to work every day when she could hardly walk,” Haviland said. “We will always remember her as an incredibly beautiful woman who looked years younger than her age, always alert and active until the moment of her passing.”

In addition to her daughter, survivors include grandchildren Leah, Kevin, Ryan and Nuna Campos, Sean Haviland and Alyssa Larson, and five great grandchildren. A private memorial was held.

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