In 1914, a determined tucson woman by the name of Carmen Soto de Vásquez set out to create a theater that would showcase Mexican culture.
The Old Pueblo was small in those days, with about 15,000 residents. More than half were Spanish speakers, but only a few of the town's 10 or so theaters showed Mexican plays or movies, and they did so only in between English language offerings.
Soto was eager to bring sophisticated Spanish and Latin American plays to Tucson, performed entirely in Spanish by traveling troupes from Mexico.
Soto owned a plot of land on Meyer Street, a bustling thoroughfare of the Mexican community, and she hired a mason to build her glamorous theater. On May 20, 1915, Teatro Carmen opened its doors to a packed audience, decked out in their finest to watch "Cerebro y Corazon" (Head and Heart). Notably, Soto chose a play by female playwright, Teresa Farías de Isassi, for the inaugural performance.
A critic in the El Tucsonense, a Spanish language newspaper, gave it a rave review, writing that the "comfortable, roomy seating, good lighting and magnificent artistic décor accompanied by the high level of artistic performance with which it was inaugurated provides a new note to our art and society."
A new note of art was exactly what Soto wanted, but she was also a good businesswoman. She paired serious plays with short comedies and music, and she quickly added the newfangled movies that were capturing the nation. She even put a boxing ring inside her elegant theater.
Despite these efforts, Teatro Carmen failed by 1922. It was sold in 1926 and morphed into a range of uses, including an adult school and, some say, a car repair shop. Soto died in 1934, and eventually the building was sold to an African American group, the Pilgrim Rest Elks Lodge No. 601. The Elks used it as a clubhouse for almost 50 years.
A few times, the old place was used again for performances. Borderlands Theater Company, specializing in Latino plays, mounted dramas there in 1987-1988—until the roof collapsed. Later, scenes in the star-studded 1995 movie Boys on the Side, featuring Whoopi Goldberg and Drew Barrymore, were shot inside and outside the theater.
But around 1996, the theater was bought by the Rolling real estate family, who own more than 20 buildings in Barrio Viejo. Soto's dream was reduced to a storage repository.
Now, Teatro Carmen is set to return to its theater roots. Herb Stratford, who spearheaded the rehabilitation of the Fox Tucson Theatre, now intends to bring back Carmen's theater to its original glory.
"It's pretty cool," he says enthusiastically: The theater is one of the oldest in Arizona. (Only the 1881 Bird Cage in Tombstone is believed to be older.)
Stratford's involvement started almost two years ago, when Demion Clinco of the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation called him up out of the blue.
"I have your next project," Clinco said.
Stratford rolled his eyes. Since he left the Fox, he's been, among other things, a consultant for historic theaters across the country and the director of the annual Film Festival Tucson. Busy as he was, he said, "I can't take anything on."
Then Clinco said the magic words. "Teatro Carmen."
What arts loving theater maven could say no?
"I started talking with Don Rollings," Stratford recalls. Rolling wanted to sell, and he was looking for someone with experience in theater and an ability to get grants. Stratford fit the bill.
This past June, the two parties sealed the deal, with nonprofit Stratford Art Works, Inc., paying $940,000, to Bacon Industries, Inc.
The 106-year-old building, easily visible with its cheerful yellow façade, is at 380 S. Meyer Ave., just south of the Tucson Convention Center.
In an interview on a sweltering summer day, Stratford showed me around. The inside has been swept clean—unlike the Fox, where in its abandoned days pigeons ruled and trash prevailed. But the Teatro needs plenty of work.
Adobe and brick still grace the façade, but the door will be remade to mirror the original entry. The sheet metal roof must be replaced and the indoor walls need attention. The actual stage was unfortunately torn down in the '40s or '50s, Stratford says. "We will build a new stage."
But the proscenium, possibly from 1915, is still there and so is the tin ceiling. And two prized 1920s "skyscraper" lights still dangle down from above.
A big room the Elks added on to the south end of the building also needs a roof replacement. Stratford hopes to turn the space into a restaurant and bar; he plans to add photos and memorabilia that celebrate its Black origins. An empty lot outside will be transformed into a patio, which could be used for outside events.
As for the theater itself, Stratford plans for just 300 seats.
"None of the existing theaters nearby hit that number," he points out. The Cabaret at The Temple has fewer than 100 seats and Leo Rich has 500. "There's nothing else downtown at the 300 sweet spot." And to make the Teatro Carmen more flexible, the seats won't be nailed down.
The programming will feature genres from live theater to movies and music and dance, performed by both touring and local artists. Local organizations will also be welcomed, Stratford says, and a new advisory committee is charged with "connecting with the with the neighborhood, future audiences and the Latino performing arts community." The committee already includes Dan Guerrero, son of Lalo Guerrero, and an entertainer in his own right.
Stratford also plans to invite people in to tell their memories of the building, a place he believes is "unique in its ties to both Hispanic and African American communities." Likely there are very few people still living who will remember the theatre in action, but he's hoping that African-Americans who had ties to the Elks lodge will contribute their own stories.
The theater won't be up and running any time soon.
"This is a multimillion-dollar project," he says, with an estimated price tag of $5.5 million. "It's probably a two- to three-year project. It will be six to nine months before we begin" working on the building.
The group has already reached out to federal and state officials for possible grants, and now that the nonprofit owns the building, the team will stage fundraising campaigns. Stratford hopes the public will be excited by an enterprise that blends the arts with culture and history.
As he has written, "Teatro Carmen is the last remaining unrestored cultural asset in the community, and the one with the richest, oldest and most diverse history."