Bits & Pieces

August 31, 2009

El Teatro Variedades

At one time, the "Variedades" Theater was considered second to the National Theater in importance. Its owner was Tomas Arias, member of the Provisional Government of 1903. Construction began in 1910 under the direction of the known French architect Paul Chatagnon, who came to Panama under contract with the French Canal Company. In Panama, he married Agripina Mosquera, and remained in the city after the French Canal Company failed and sold its assets to the U.S. Government.

The artistic part of the theater was handled by the Panamanian painter Angel Maria Aguilar, who painted the main front curtain which, unfortunately, has been lost with time.

The theater is located on Calle 12 in front of Santa Ana Plaza and by October of 1911, the "Star & Herald" was reporting that it would be one of the fine buildings adorning the growing city of Panama. A glance at the interior, it continued, indicates that the theater will fulfill all the requirements desired for presentation of a variety of entertainment. The interior will have an orchestra section, an amphitheater, a gallery, and a balcony.

The building is made of reinforced concrete with steel columns. Wood has been used only on the staircases a, floor and adornments. The Star & Herald concluded stating that each floor will have its own restroom facilities and that the theater will seat 800 comfortably, with capacity for 1000 if necessary.

On January 21, 1912, on the 239th Anniversary of the founding of the city of Panama, the National Flag was raised for the first time on top of the Teatro Variedades. The band from the Cuerpo de Bomberos provided the music for the festive moment. On May 21 of that year, all the electrical installations were completed and don Tomas Arias greeted at the theater his friends and the general public which remained fascinated by the bright illumination of the building. The total bill for the project was $100,000 and included all the decorations which had been imported from France. The formal opening of the theater was on September 1, 1912 when a film was shown. That same day, its architect Paul Chatagnon died.

During the next 30 years, the Variedades was the stage of great shows: many famous theater companies performed, famous artist presented their shows and great concert individuals and orchestras used the facilities. By the end of the 1940s, the artistic presentations and the facilities began to decline and the theater became solely a movie theater. But during its heyday, it was also used for political conventions, school graduations and reunions of civic clubs of the city. While I may have seen a few movies in that Theater, the only one that comes to mind is one I went to see with my cousin Frank called "Operation Burma" with Errol Flynn. It was dubbed in Spanish.

Today, the theater exists as a mute witness of its glorious past.

Variedades Theater. Date unknown.

Left: beautiful picture of Santa Ana Plaza with the Variedades Theater in background- Circa1915
Right: Variedades Theater in 1986 after closing
Photos and story from Epocas, January 1986.

- Luis R. Celerier
Longview, Texas