A 1915 Barrio Viejo building, Teatro Carmen on Meyer Street, is returning to its roots.
Crews are taking down the stucco encasing the façade to expose the original brick. With it will come a new outdoor, garden venue.
It’s just another step in a major renovation for the building, which will be used once again as a theater. This step in the renovation is made possible by a $350,000 Heritage Fund grant awarded by Arizona State Parks and Trails. This adds to a $150,000 grant from the nonprofit Stratford Art Works.
“We’re going back to 1915 here,” said Herb Stratford with Stratford Art Works, which has helmed historic-building restorations, such as the Fox Tucson Theatre.
Stratford is working with the architectural firm, Poster Mirto McDonald, and is partnering with Pima County, which owns the structure and the property on which it sits.
Teatro Carmen has a storied history. In 1915, Carmen Soto Vasquez opened it to bring in Spanish-language movies, plays and operas from Mexico and Spain, according to Scott O’Mack, a program manager at the Pima County Cultural Resources and Historic Preservation Division of the Office of Sustainability and Conservation.
The theater closed around 1931, but was purchased by the Black Elks Club, which used the space from the 1940s to the 1980s. The club has its own outdoor entrance, but is connected to the theater by a shared wall. An interior door allows entry to the theater portion.
For the last couple of decades, the space was used as storage for Tucson’s Rollings family, who owned it and is responsible for restoring much of Barrio Viejo.
The theater’s façade is only part of the project. The interior is a large empty space with a worn proscenium and wood bar.
The walls in the Elks Club part of the building have all been removed and what remains is simply the studding. The lights and wiring will be refurbed as well.
Next to that is an empty, enclosed lot where a Chinese grocery store once stood.
The newly restored Teatro Carmen will feature a garden venue where a lot sits vacant. Patrons may sit there in the evening while they watch a movie or listen to live music, all while snacking on food truck fare.
“Basically, by next spring the outside will be done, and then we keep working on the inside,” Stratford said.
One proviso, however. Stratford said it is unlikely there will be restrooms available by then.
This is not the first step in this project, which includes watchful eyes for historic artifacts. To renovate correctly, crews must study photos. In fact, that is how Stratford knows what the original theater looked like.
He has a photo taken in about 1918 that he found at the Arizona Historical Society. It’s the only photo he’s been able to find of the original building. He also has a flier for an opera and some Spanish language newspaper clippings. Otherwise, nothing.
“This was, frankly, in the brown part of town and so it got less exposure, but in 1915 Tucson was 30,000 people and 15,000 of them were Mexican, and this was the nicest theater in Tucson before the Rialto opened in 1919,” he said.
The infrastructure, such as wiring and plumbing, need to be examined, and ADA codes must be followed. Funding must be secured as well, as the team has been collecting for three years.
There is some concern that passersby may be worried or angry about the changes to the façade, fearing that a beautiful old relic is being torn down. The current façade, which includes the theater’s name painted on the front and a mural on the Elks Club side, is not, in fact, original.
“(Teatro Carmen) has undergone a lot of changes over the years but there is a lot of historical fabric intact in that façade on that portion of the building,” O’Mack said.
“The original brick façade will be restored to look as it did at the time it was built in 1915. What’s covering it right now is stucco.”
Stratford added, pointing to the front of the building, “What a lot of people don’t realize about the façade is this.
“That was all done for the movie, ‘Boys on the Side.’ They filmed on the outside here. This was the location of the bar where Whoopi (Goldberg) was playing in the band she was in.”
The plans call for the theater to be a 250- to 300-moveable-seat venue. The space features a flat floor, alluding to a possible orchestra pit. Stratford said if there was, it will be restored. The original tin ceiling will remain.
“We’re going to put a full stage back in and a full fly loft,” Stratford said.
It will be named the Ronstadt Family Stage.
“The family has a 140-year musical history in this community,” Stratford added. “I wanted to honor the family. Lalo Guerrero was born in a house down the street, about two blocks, so we’re going to honor his legacy in some capacity, too. This is important to us, to tell the story of the building and also of the community that surrounds this building.”
The other structures will also be renewed.
“This left side (the Elks Club side) of the building will have new bathrooms and dressing rooms for the theater,” he added.
What Stratford and lead architect Corky Poster want to acknowledge is the importance of the block’s place in Tucson and neighborhood history.
“All of the work that Herb (Stratford) and Pima County are doing are really to restore the primacy, the really important role of the Teatro Carmen in Barrio Viejo,” Poster said.
“The Teatro Carmen was actually only the Teatro Carmen for a relatively short period of time, probably 15, 16 years, from 1915 to 1931. But it was really, really important during that period of time. It was a brick building when it was that important.
“We thought, from a cultural point of view and just from an accuracy-of-history point of view, that restoring that façade to how it was the important Teatro Carmen would be the most respectful way to treat that building.”
Stratford added, “In this building there’s not just going to be the Hispanic history, the African American history, but because the Chinese market was on the corner, that’s going to be part of this history, too.
“Really, this is a microcosm of Tucson and that melting pot of different cultures and races in this one block. It was very vibrant.”
Although Poster is the lead architect, he quickly added that others at his firm are working on the project.
Meanwhile, the work progresses. When it is done, Stratford wants the venue to be used for other types of entertainment that might not be found at commercial movie theaters or Downtown.
“Part of my passion is going to be doing film here, maybe silent film or Spanish-language film — things that we’re not seeing anywhere else because there isn’t a place for it or it’s too big or things like that,” he said.
Finally, Stratford is asking for Tucson’s help. He’s looking for photographs, programs or other ephemera that came from the theater, the Black Elks building or the Chinese market.
He wants to tell the building’s history from the point of view of those who used it. He is also interested in oral histories of this particular block of Meyer Street.
“Sometimes it’s buried in grandma’s scrapbook because anybody that was here when it was the Carmen is deceased, because they’d be 100 years old right now,” he said.
“I think there are next generations who might have things. We have no pictures of the inside of the theater until the late 1950s, early 1960s, and those were by Jack Sheaffer, the Arizona Daily Star photographer. This is very much a work in progress, and we want people to be a part of it. It’s important for us to tell that story.”