THE EVOLUTION OF CAMPOAMOR THEATER

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Every night, Reynaldo sits on a stool outside of the theater and listens to music on his phone until he gets sleepy and heads to bed. He especially loves American 70’s music; he showed me his favorite clip of a Stevie Wonder concert and we talked about what it would have been like to see him or Aretha Franklin perform live at Teatro Campoamor, the place that Reynaldo calls home. Due to his illegitimate status of residence in the theater, Reynaldo declined a formal interview but encouraged photographs of himself and the theater as it stands.

The Campoamor Theater is situated next to Cuba’s Capital building, el Capitolio, and the Grand Theater of Havana Alicia Alonso, on the corner of Industria y San José. Originally built as an opera house under the name of Teatro Albisu in 1870, the venue housed renowned performances for audiences of 2,500 at full capacity. According to the Historian’s Office of Havana, a fire destroyed the colonial theater in 1918 and in its place, Teatro Capitolio was inaugurated in 1921, property of Pablo Santos and Jesús Artigas.

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As the newspaper excerpt from February of 1921 reads, “the extremely modern theater ‘Capitolio’ will be inaugurated next month, created expressly to be dedicated to cinematography. The only American-style theater in Cuba, with all of the latest modern advancements from Broadway. Three floors with 2,000 seats and situated one block from Central Park, on the streets of Industria and San José.”

The theater was renamed to Teatro Campoamor a few years later, to honor the Spanish poet Ramón de Campoamor. In addition to cinematography, it featured many of the biggest names in Cuban music and dance, including Bola de Nieve (Ignacio Villa) and Ernesto Lecuona. Teatro Campoamor is known to have hosted famous Cuban Singer Rita Monater’s first big show in 1924 and served as one of Havana’s leading venues for over four decades.

In 1965, Teatro Campoamor’s curtains closed for the last time, apparently after a piece of the theater’s structure fell. The abandoned building was eventually reutilized as a storage lot for motorcycles and bicycle taxis.

Almost 30 years ago, Reynaldo found an employment opportunity to replace the previous guard of the storage lot and simultaneously sought shelter in the abandoned space. Once another big piece of the building fell, the bikes and motorcycles were evacuated and he had to look for new work, but continued living in the theater.

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Reynaldo has called Teatro Campoamor home for over half of his life; his personal belongings are set up in what was formally the theater’s dressing room. He maintains the rest of the large building the best he can, sharing the space with his cats and dogs, wild plants and large piles of debris.

Regarding the theater and his role within it with honor and dignity, Reynaldo says he feels like a part of the theater. He described that even though he can’t hear the music or see the performances, they are still fully present.

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In recent years, el Capitolio and the Grand Theater of Havana Alicia Alonso have undergone extensive renovation projects. Teatro Campoamor was tagged with a restoration notice a couple of years ago, and is now gated by sheets of metal with posters announcing renovation plans and illustrating a brief history of the building.

Reynaldo doesn’t know the details of the renovation project but doesn’t think it will start for another five or six years. When that day comes, he’ll have to find a new home. He said that he’s happy that the theater is going to be restored rather than torn down and he can’t wait to see it finished, even though he doesn’t know where he’ll be at that point.

 

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