By Mayté Solano Gómez
The Campoamor Theatre, in Havana, is perhaps one of the least known today, despite being in one of the most central places in the capital. It stopped being used as a theatre more than 5 decades ago, falling into oblivion consequently for the majority of Cubans. However, this will change soon, once the recently started restoration work of the building are completed.
Very centrally located, there are many casas particulares nearby, where you can stay and enjoy every tourist attraction in the zone, such as the San Rafael boulevard, the Capitol, the Obispo street and the Old Havana historic centre. Casa Mabel is one of these guesthouses.
The history of the Campoamor theatre in Havana
The building is located in the central Havana area of Industria and San José, next to the Capitol and behind the current Great Havana Theater ‘Alicia Alonso’, formerly the Galician Center. It was built, as it is today, in 1921 and inaugurated in October of the same year, with the name of Capitolio Theater, which can still be seen in part at the top of its façade.
Before that date, the place was home to different buildings, all with the purpose of entertaining. In 1829 the Diorama Theater was inaugurated in this space, first conceived as a kind of art gallery, but it ended up being a theater. It was improved in 1834 but demolished in 1846 after the serious damage caused by the 1844 hurricane.
In 1871, the Albisu theater was inaugurated here, a mecca for Spanish zarzuela musicals in Havana and one of the temples of Spanish fundamentalism. That building was destroyed by a fire in January 1918 and the Campoamor theater was then built here, named after Ramón María de las Mercedes Pérez de Campoamor y Campo Osorio, a Spanish poet who was highly esteemed and popular in that time.
It had a capacity for 2,000 spectators arranged in a horseshoe shape. It was decorated with golden borders and its railings sported fine bronze work. In it, shows of high artistic value were presented in an atmosphere of distinction and comfort, thus becoming a cultural symbol of the city in the 30s and 40s.
A partial collapse led to its closure in 1965. Since then it has been out of the cultural focus of the capital of the island.
A venue for great artists
A venue for zarzuelas and operettas, famous Cuban and foreign musical companies and artists of great renown graced the Campoamor theater’s stage, and batá drums, characteristic of cults of African origin, were seen there for the first time in a public show. In 1936 a Poetry Festival was organized, with the presentation of the universally famous poet Gabriela Mistral to read an investigation on the Simple Verses of José Martí. Comedy shows were also put on, which satirized, most of the time, the politicians of that moment.
Among the main artists who performed at the Campoamor theater are the Andalusian singer Lola Flores, the Argentine singers and actresses Imperio Argentina, Libertad Lamarque and Bertha Singerman. From Cuba, Rosa Fornés, Candita Quintana, Rita Montaner, Esther Borja, Bola de Nieve, Ernesto and Ernestina Lecuona and many other Cuban artists of international fame at that time showed off their artistic gifts and entertained the capital’s public and everyone who visited the place.
Films were also shown at the Campoamor, notably the screening the screening of the first commercial feature film with synchronized sound entitled The Jazz Singer, produced by Warner Brothers. To make this possible, it was necessary to install the Vitaphone audio system – sound recording on a disk – installed for the same purpose in movie theatres in New York, Chicago and California.
As an interesting fact, in the Campoamor Theatre, ushers appeared in the country for the first time, which became common in movies and theatres from then on.
The restoration of the Campoamor Theatre in Havana
The Campoamor theatre restoration project, led by the Office of the City Historian, is one of the great dreams of the eternal Havana Historian Eusebio Leal. Carried out by the Restaura and Puerto de Carenas companies, the main purpose is to keep as many original elements as possible.
It is expected that the institution will have between 470 and 500 upon its reopening; originally the theatre had a greater capacity, but today it is necessary to comply with standards of comfort, spacing and safety.
The rescue of Campoamor, and the restoration of its architectural magnificence, is of vital importance for the Office of the Historian of Havana because, together with the Payret Cinema Theater, it closes a cycle in the project of recovery of cultural and governmental buildings of this area of the capital, by virtue of which the National Capitol, the Martí Theater, and the Alicia Alonso Grand Theater of Havana have already been reopened.
After more than 5 decades, the restoration of the Campoamor theatre, already underway, will be vital to place it back in the focus of Havana’s cultural life … or at least that is what many of us who inhabit the capital of the country hope.