The Roaring 1970s: The Making of an Era - Introduction

For Cuban theater in Miami, the 1970s burst with a level of theatrical activity not seen before in any other U.S. Latino community. In addition to venues that sprung up across town, a considerable number of companies emerged - some professional, some semi-professional, but all feverishly working to propose live theater as the favorite pastime of the community. Emerging theater companies in Miami made great efforts to achieve a repertoire that was Cuban in style and spirit but also would reflect fashionable productions on Broadway and European centers of theater, as many of the first exiles were accustomed to in Cuba.

Their enthusiasm stimulated other areas vital to the healthy life of theater arts such as theater criticism. The Miami Herald started publishing El Miami Herald in Spanish in 1975 with Cristina Saralegui, then editor at Cosmopolitan magazine, as one of its first theater critics. She was soon followed in that role by the actor turned journalist, Norma Niurka, whose column "Entreactos" ("Between Acts") first appeared on January 12, 1977.

Broadway is Around the Corner

  • Broadway is Around the Corner

    In large part, the theater companies of Cuban origin that emerged in Miami in the 1970s were organized following the model of a professional theatrical enterprise. The producer thus often became the guiding force behind the group. Unlike other U.S. Latino theater communities, who consciously and in general revolted against commercial theater, Cubans bred in it, becoming its leading exponents.

    Broadway, off-off Broadway, and even accomplished imports from Europe were staged in Miami with evident success. By the same token, radio, television, and movie stars from Latin America, particularly from Mexico and Spain, were enticed to perform in local productions.

  • Teatro Carrusel
    In 1973, producer Enrique Beltrán renamed the Coral Gables "Carrousel Theater" as Teatro "El Carrusel." Beltrán wanted to modernize theater and bring the best of Broadway to Miami, adapting "American" production codes to Spanish-language theater. His mission was to bring to the developing exilic theater movement "the new and the eternal" in theatrical terms. With La Mamma, by André Roussin, featuring Velia Martínez in the leading role and directed by Mario Martín, Beltrán opened the doors to an exciting first season. El Carrusel's fourth production, Miedo a la oscuridad (Wait until Dark) by Frederick Knott, with Griselda Nogueras as the protagonist, arrived in Miami after a long trajectory in the theater world and the movies. It opened on Broadway in 1966, with great acclaim by the public and critics alike, and was followed by a movie adaptation in 1967, which earned a best actress Oscar nomination for Audrey Hepburn. It also had stagings in London in and Madrid in the early 1970s.

  • Teatro Carrusel
    Another Broadway import, Las mariposas son libres (Butterflies Are Free) by Leonard Gershe, opened in 1974 at El Carrusel and would become a favorite with South Florida audiences. This Spanish version by Mario Ernesto Sánchez was directed by María Julia Casanova and starred Sánchez, Alina Interián, Rosita Ginorio and Chamaco García. At the beginning of the 1980s, the actress Rosa Felipe staged it again and took it on a tour to Chicago, as pictured here.

  • Teatro Carrusel
    El Carrusel celebrated its second anniversary in 1974 with the high-end Broadway comedy Cuarenta quilates (Forty Carats) by Jay Allen, adapted from the French original by Pierre Barrilet and Jean-Pierre Gredy. Theater activity was so vibrant in Miami that they had to wait a few months to be able to present it at Dade County Auditorium because all other theater venues were fully booked for the month of March.

    They also looked into European drama to enrich their repertoire. Produced by Enrique Beltrán and Dany Bardisa, El Carrusel presented La ramera respetuosa (The Respectful Prostitute) by Jean-Paul Sartre in 1979. The play had its premiere in Paris in 1946 and enjoyed a very successful run on Broadway six years later.

  • Repertorio Español
    Founded in New York City in 1968 by producer Gilberto Zaldívar and artistic director René Buch, both Cuban exiles, Repertorio Español is one of the oldest Hispanic theater companies in the United States. In 1973, Miami's Sociedad Pro-Arte Grateli teamed up with Repertorio to present in Miami René Buch's Spanish version of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Viginia Wolf, which premiered in 1962 on Broadway. This partnership was part of Grateli's larger efforts to diversify their productions. They brought from Mexico the great Cuban-born actress Carmen Montejo for the role of Martha. She came back to Miami in 1975 to perform in Jacinto Benavente's play La malquerida (The Bad Mistress).

    Los fantásticos (The Fantasticks), with music by Harvey Schmidt and lyrics by Tom Jones, opened off-Broadway in 1960 and was the longest-running musical in the history of the New York theater. Repertorio Español produced it in Miami starring Ana Margarita Martínez-Casado.

  • Musical Theater
    Grateli's 1976 staging of the Broadway musical Gigi by Anita Loos and based on the French writer Colette's 1945 novel of the same name, was one of the highlights of the genre embraced by producers as well as Miami audiences during the decade. María Julia Casanova directed and adapted the play, with Ana Margarita Menéndez (Ana Margo) in the title role.

    Other popular local productions of Broadway musical theater staged in Spanish included Grease in 1975; and El sonido de la música (The Sound of Music) with Marta Pérez in the role of the abbess and El rey y yo (The King and I), both in 1976.

  • Teatro La Danza Estudio
    Choreographer Armando Navarro and entrepreneur Roberto Miñagorri opened in 1972 a dance studio where they not only staged plays like El Arquitecto y el Emperador de Asiria (The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria) by Fernando Arrabal but also offered dance, acting, and singing classes. In 1976, they created the Teatro La Danza Estudio with María Julia Casanova as its artistic director. The group lasted seven years with a focus on American theater, including plays such as Nuestro pueblo (Our Town) by Thornton Wilder, starring Marga López, Guillermo Murray, and Osvaldo Calvo.

A Little Light Comedy

  • A Little Light Comedy to Ease the Pain

    As the 1970s and new waves of Cuban exiles arrived in Miami, the city's Spanish-language theatrical enterprises openly tried to attract newcomers by stepping up to lighter-fare productions whose primary goal was to entertain. Many of the companies featured in this section turned from serious, dramatic plays to subtle urban comedies and vaudeville to fill their theater spaces.

    The stages became packed with a variety of character-driven, soapy dramas in the midst of usually well-to-do but typically disarrayed families. In addition to the appearance of latent homosexuality in the comedy of errors format, the eternal battle of the sexes received innumerable farcical new twists, parading mistaken identities, disguises, and above all, infidelities.

  • Las Máscaras
    The continued box-office success of Las Máscaras was due to the popular tendencies of their repertoire. Although they had previously staged Hugo Boniche's El Acorralado (The Cornered), it is with 1972's Los apestados (The Plagued) by José Sánchez Boudy that Las Máscaras began to stage Cuban playwrights in a concerted effort. They also started offering classes in directing, acting, and a variety of subjects related to the field. By 1973 they had their first graduation.

  • Las Máscaras
    Las Máscaras steadily replaced their "art theater" plays with vaudevilles that had a large following among Miami's Cubans and Latin American tourists. The key ingredients of this type of theater were humor with sexual and political satire. Co-founder and producer Alfonso Cremata noted that their audience would buy tickets without even knowing what play they were showing.

  • Las Máscaras
    In 1972 Las Máscaras formed a board of trustees, the Patronato del Teatro, which was comprised of well-known local personalities and community leaders. Trustees included not only Maurice Ferré, the first Hispanic mayor of Miami, but also members of the Spanish media and of Camacol (The Latin Chamber of Commerce), which would become one of the most influential minority business groups in the United States.

    By 1973, Las Máscaras had outgrown their first space and moved to a location on Miami's Northwest 27th Avenue. They presented shows from Thursdays to Saturdays and two on Sundays. By the end of the 1970s, Las Máscaras opened a second space and produced a comedy in one space and serious theater in the other, or a light comedy in one and a more risqué show in the other. This is demonstrated by the flier shown here.

  • Las Máscaras
    Sometimes theater companies strategically changed the original titles of the plays they produced to avoid paying copyrights or conflicts with other producers, a practice decried by some theatergoers and critics, including El Miami Herald's Norma Niurka. In this vaudeville, La balada de los tres inocentes (The Ballad of the Three Innocents, 1973), by Pedro Mario Herrero, Las Máscaras changed the title to ¡Qué fama tiene mi cama! (What Fame My Bed Enjoys!). Originally set in Italy to evade Franco's censorship, the action was also moved back to Spain.

    This 1976 Las Máscaras souvenir anniversary program contains information on their shows that reached an outstanding amount of performances given the population size of the community at the time. Among them, La herida luminosa (The Luminous Wound, 1970) was the first play in Miami to reach 100 shows, and Sé infiel y no mires a quien (Be Wanton and Tread No Shame) reached 150 performances and was seen by 18,000 spectators.

  • La Comedia
    Director Mario Martín and Ernesto Capote, the entrepreneur who launched Teatro Martí, were associated with the opening of this space downstairs from Cine Teatro Martí in 1975. La Comedia specialized in light comedies, vaudeville, and variety shows. Eventually they devised a perfect formula for their two theater spaces: a safe, light comedy in one, a more risqué, adult-only vaudeville at the other, with showings on Thursdays at 9:00 p.m. and then Fridays and Saturdays at midnight.

    La Comedia
    La Comedia's 1977 production of En mi cama mando yo (In My Bed, I'm in Charge) by Jan de Letraz was billed as "an amusing, scandalous vaudeville." It was first performed by the acclaimed French actor Louis de Funes on the Parisian vaudeville circuit.

  • La Comedia
    La Comedia's Mi hijo no es lo que parece (My Son is Not What He Seems), which opened at the end of the 1970s, was the Spanish-language play to have the longest run on a U.S. stage. It lasted four and a half years with over 800 shows. Even though sexual connotation, innuendos and double entendres were common, as suggested by Asela Torres' photograph of the 1980s production ¡Qué negocio tiene Ambrosio! (What a Business Ambrosio Has!), open homosexuality was repressed.

End of an Era

  • End of an Era and the Taking over of the Vernacular

    Even though at the end of the 1970s there were more Spanish-language theater productions than ever and more establishments dedicated to their presentation - including an array of awards designed to promote its growth - the theatrical boom of the decade did not generate an organic theater movement. By increasingly trying to satisfy the popular demand for slapstick humor, it lost its potential for a more serious, integrated theatrical practice.

    By the end of the decade the vernacular genre, had become political satire with an inclination toward the grotesque and the vulgar, and it became more and more popular. Comic situations with stereotypical and exaggerated characters prevailed. The language also started to rely more on choteo (joking or mockery) characteristic of lighthearted and even bawdy situation comedies staged in Havana's legendary Teatro Alhambra in the 1930s.

  • Spanish Theater Guild
    The Spanish Theater Guild was founded by Rosa Felipe, Griselda Nogueras, Roberto Soto y José M. Hernando. It originally adopted the stage name Teatro 80 because of the year they opened up their first season. This page from Teatro 80 (Spanish Theater Guild)'s first play La zorra y las uvas (The Fox and the Grapes) by G. Figueiredo, lists ten Spanish-language theater spaces active at the time.

    The Closing of an Era
    With a 53-week run, La Danza's 1981 production of Alejandro Casona's Corona de amor (Crown of Love) was probably the last successful play for some time on Miami's Cuban theater circuit that was not vaudeville or a light comedy. It was directed by María Julia Casanova and starred Evelio Taillacq and Aurora Collazo. Of this production, Casanova affirmed that it marked "the culmination of an era of theater splendor" in Miami.

  • Theater Awards
    A significant element of the theatrical and cultural production of Miami in the 1970s was the creation of important prizes in order to recognize the artistic work done in Spanish by local artists. Different individuals and organizations began to organize prizes: the editor of Downtown newspaper Chin Martínez established the "Chin de Plata / Silver Chin" award in 1970; and in later years the editors of Puerto Rico's Estrellas newspaper presented entertainment awards in Miami.

    The Carbonell Awards, South Florida's premiere theater and arts honors, began in 1975. Their short-lived Hispanic Theater Awards were not instituted until 1991 and were discontinued by 1994. The first Hispanic productions to be nominated for a Carbonell award were Manolo Godines' Les Folies and Les Violins' Tropical Heat Wave in the category of Best Night Club Revue 1977-1978.

  • Theater Awards
    The most important prizes of the decade were those given by the Asociación de Críticos y Comentaristas de las Artes, or A.C.C.A. (Association of Arts Critics and Commentators). This association, created in 1975 by Josefina Rubio and several journalists, revolutionized the city by offering awards that promoted Hispanic artistic creation and preserved Latin roots in the U.S. Although the prize was based in Miami, artists from anywhere in Latin America who had worked in the U.S. could be nominated for awards in the areas of theater, music, literature, visual arts, television and radio. A.C.C.A. resembled the Asociación de Cronistas de Espectáculos (Association of Entertainment Critics), created in New York in 1967.

  • Ernesto Capote
    Ernesto Capote has been nicknamed "the worker" because of his unstoppable career in theater. He built a small empire of movie houses and theater spaces in Miami which are known as the Circuito Cineteatral Capote, or CCC (Capote Film/Theater Circuit). He started with Teatro Martí in 1967, to which he later added Teatro Martí II, La Comedia I, La Comedia II, Teatro Miami (in Westchester) and the Apollo Theaters (six movie houses and two theaters). Capote found the key ingredients to box office success: light comedy sketches that predominantly made fun at the social and political situation of Cubans, on the island and in exile, and featured popular performers.

  • Armando Roblán
    One such performer was Armando Roblán, who became famous for his characterizations of Fidel Castro. He began to impersonate the Cuban leader in Havana. The first time he appeared on Teatro Martí's stage in Miami as Castro was in 1979 in No hay mal que dure cien años ni cuerpo que lo resista (There's No Ill that Lasts 100 Years Nor a Body That Can Withstand It) by Alberto González and directed by Miguel de Grandy II.

    Roblán went on to imitate Castro in numerous shows throughout the years with titles like Se le fue por el Mariel hasta el santero a Fidel (Even the Santero Left Fidel through Mariel) and En los noventa Fidel revienta (Fidel Bursts in the Nineties).

  • Café-Teatros
    By the end of the 1970s, a new type of theatrical entertainment took off, the café-teatro (café-concert). These consisted of short risqué sketches with obvious sexual content, including nudity and "questionable" adult language. The model in the U.S. came mostly from the avant-garde, off-Broadway review Oh! Calcutta! by Kenneth Tynan (1969).

    Néstor Cabell revealed in an interview how he was influenced by María Julia Casanova who, upon returning from Buenos Aires, where she had seen café-concerts, suggested to him the idea of doing something similar in Miami. With Desnudo y con violin (Naked and with a Violin) starring Jose "Pepe" Yedra, Cabell opened a café-teatro at Miami Beach's Hotel Versailles, which he managed for 13 years.