Last week I had an appointment to visit Mexico City's Teatro de la Ciudad "Esperanza Iris" on tree-lined Donceles street in the Centro Historico. The front door was locked. The security guard told me to go to the offices located behind the theater on Cuba Street. I ended up entering the theater by walking right out onto stage. It is grand! There are 340 luxurious red-velvet seats on the ground floor, a mezzanine balcony, and several floors of intimate box seats. Elaborate plaster work finished off with gold leaf and curlicues, an enormous chandelier overhead; red carpet underfoot. I felt like I was stepping back a hundred years into the heyday of Latin American theater.
There were booming economies in this hemisphere in the late 19th century. At the turn of the 20th century, Merida, Yucatan, with fortunes based on henequen fiber (sisal) production, was the city with the world's highest percentage of millionaires. San José, Costa Rica was riding high on coffee exports. Manaus, a Brazilian Amazon river port was enjoying the rubber bonanza. Guanajuato was producing two-thirds of Mexico's silver, as it had been for several centuries. Even little El Oro, in the State of Mexico was, as its name implies, experiencing a gold rush. Indeed it was a very small part of the population that lived extravagantly in each of these places, but those that did wanted to show, or flaunt, their wealth and status. What better place to do it than at the theater?
Perhaps the most extravagant were the patrons of the Teatro Amazonas in Manaus who, if the story is to be believed, instructed their carriage drivers, waiting outside the theater, to serve their horses champagne in sterling silver buckets. There is no record that the carriage drivers were treated so well.
By the late 1800s electric lights were available to illuminate interior spaces, steam ships made for dependable itineraries, trains were running from the ports to capital cities. Those elements, along with a European opera season and, by the same token, an off-season when orchestras, singers, actresses and actors were left unemployed, spawned a brief golden era of theater in Latin America -- the Americas became the place in which theater troupes would spend that other part of the year. Grand theaters patterned on La Scala, or the Opéra in Paris --scaled down, of course --, opened in the late 19th or early 20th centuries in many Latin American cities.
Latin American ambassadors in European capitals who would vouch for the quality of the performers often contracted opera and theater troupes. Some troupes spent the whole season in a single city presenting various operas and theater presentations. Troupes with a more limited repertoire traveled through the Americas from north to south.
Mexico City's theater legacy goes back to Viceregal times. One of the foremost playwrights of the colonial period was Mexico's own Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Still today Mexico carries on with a theater and opera tradition making it number three, after London and New York as a theater center.
Before the city acquired it, the theater on Donceles Street was the Teatro Esperanza Iris, the name of the actress who built and owned the building, and lived there too -- in the foyer. She kept a box seat for herself from which she would watch the plays in which she wasn't performing. It was the premier theater in Mexico City until eclipsed by the Palace of Fine Arts when it finally opened in 1932.
My reason for visiting the Teatro de la Ciudad was in preparation for an homenaje (homage) for John Ross, the dean of foreign correspondents in Mexico who died on January 17th. Mexico City’s Secretary of Culture, Elena Cepeda, will host this rare event honoring a foreigner.
In May of last year Ross completed a 66-stop book tour which took him from San Francisco to New York, promoting his most recent book El Monstruo, Dread and Redemption in Mexico City (2009), which is not easy to find in Mexico, but is available on Kindle and through Amazon. One of his many obituaries calls the 493-page tome a “love letter to Mexico City,” and Mexico City is responding in kind.
My columns dated January 4 and 11, 2011 are about John Ross -- if you'd like a copy of them drop me a line and I'll email pdf's of them to you. Friends, fans, even detractors of John are all welcome to celebrate, and toast the life of the rebel journalist, through stories and testimonies of journalists who knew him, live jazz by the renowned Larry Russell, and John Ross himself on video.
John Ross, Una Memoria Combatiente (A Combative Memoir) will be Tuesday, February 22, at the Teatro de la Ciudad, Calle Donceles 36, Centro Historico, Mexico City. Free admission. Doors open at 7:00 pm. Parking is available across the street from the theater. The Allende metro station is on the other side of the block. I hope to see you there. In addition to honoring John, you will see for yourself the grandeur of Mexico’s early theaters. As the date approaches please check <homenajejohnross.com> for more information about John and updates about the homenaje.