HAVANA TIMES, Feb 22 — A goldmine of memories lie amidst the wreckage of what was once a great theater.
Perhaps it’s more than a myth that the corridors between the backdrops and curtains full of old stage equipment, or on the main floor of the auditorium, there still roam the spirits of those artists who in distant times presented their talents on that grand stage. If so, then those legendary figures who were applauded back then in the Oriente Theater of Santiago de Cuba must be sad souls.
A journey through the history of that theater requires us to review its chronicles and compare how it changed so often in both appearance and name. But what’s apparent is that it never had a phase as dark as the one it suffers today.
It was founded on the site that once occupied by the old Coliseum, which disappeared in the hurricane of 1847, began one Sunday in July, 1848, after a traditional ceremony in which it adopted “Isabel II” as its first name, though it later wound up being called El Teatro de la Reina (the Queen’s Theater).
Santiago resident Ivonet Manuel Heredia (the cousin of the poet Jose Maria Heredia) was its architect. It was inaugurated in June, 1850, when it opened and drew back its curtains to a masterful orchestral overture.
The capacity of the auditorium ranged between 1,300 and 1,400 spectators seated in 364 lunettes and 41 stage boxes in the first, second and third floor galleries (as well as a royal box in front of the stage).
In the Republican era (post 1902) the building underwent reconstruction and was renamed “Teatro Cuba,” becoming the scene for numerous musical and theatrical functions in the city, in addition to presentations by renowned foreign companies.
Almost all theater companies in Havana in those days contracted to perform in Santiago de Cuba at the Teatro de la Reina. Yet in 1915 it changed its name to the Oriente, bringing to the stage that April, when it opened under its new name, the opera “La Traviata” by Giuseppe Verdi, with artists from the main cities of the island.
In this way the Oriente decorated its billboard with the names of the most exalted figures from home and abroad.
Years later, it was used also as a movie theater in which a number of films and plays were premiered, this being a place frequently visited by all locales.
I had the opportunity to enjoy the magnificence of its main auditorium, complete with its exquisite decor. When I was little they even premiered the Cuban animated classic “Elpidio Valdez” there.
It was also there that I became delirious over the debut of the ballet “Ersili,” under the artistic baton of maestro George Lefevre an unsurpassed combination with the Royal Ballet Company of Belgium and the Cutumba Folkloric Ballet from my own city.
It was there I saw unforgettable works presented by the “Conjunto Nacional de Espectaculos” and the “Teatro Musical de la Habana.”
Nevertheless, more than a decade ago indolent attitudes took over this imposing building. Under the pretext of “reconstruction,” the auditorium was looted, its beautiful seats torn out, its giant curtains taken down, its tiles removed, the sculptures toppled, its massive doors made to disappear. In short, the entire facility was laid to waste.
I know that it’s still waiting for that “restoration,” but I have to ask: Who are the people responsible? We’ll never know. We only have the regretful images of what yesterday was a great dramatic arts center, but today is a theater in ruins.