Bits & Pieces

September 24, 2009

El Casino

Many a time we would hear the expression "cerca del Casino" or "por El Casino" without knowing the origin of these phrases.  El Casino was one of the most popular and distinguished centers of entertainment in the city of Panama.

Located in Vista Alegre, on the corner made by Via de las Sabanas and the old Corozal road (today Via Espana and Calle 35), it was built by the heirs of General Domingo Diaz: Mrs. Elisia Arosemena de Diaz and her children, the ex-president don Domingo Diaz A. and Isabel Diaz de Jimenez, on a parcel of the area known as Perry's Hill. Said name, as the years went by, became Perejil. The works were under the care of the builder Pedro Sarasqueta.

El Casino on opening day, 1915

Although not totally finished, the building was inaugurated on November 2, 1914. The opening of the "beautiful Palace of entertainment", said the Panama Morning Herald, was attended by a large crowd. The ballroom was the center of attraction and, in spite of an afternoon rain, the place was full with a selected group from Panama and the canal Zone, who enjoyed the "best dancing floor in the Isthmus".

El Casino included the largest dining room in the country and the arrangements were under the direction of Mr. R. Ferguson, who possessed great experience in culinary arts. Additionally, El Casino employed one of the best Chefs in the area. The building, consisting of three floors, was unique in its elegance and proportions. It was constructed of reinforced concrete with solid columns and spacious portals.

Night after night, numerous people would fill its halls to dine, dance, play games, eat ice cream and drink. Every afternoon from 5 to 7, there would be open air concerts and from 8 to 12, there would be dancing with an orchestra. The book "Panama in 1915" carried the following announcement: "El Casino. This great building, the best to be found south of the United States, includes a beautiful dance hall, a well provisioned bar, billiards, and a place for athletic activities. An excellent orchestra plays every night".

El Casino in 1986

However, within a short time, El Casino was converted into a hotel requiring major changes that destroyed the original facade. Its spacious portals were enclosed and converted into bedrooms and its panoramic and well ventilated terrace was covered by a roof. By 1926 it appeared as the Hotel Bella Vista and was know as the gathering place of many Colombians. In the 1940s, it housed the "Pension Pasos" and, later, it became a night club. Then, in 1954, it became the first home of the prestigious Instituto Justo Arosemena with 500 students. By 1986, it was still housing part of the institute. As of this writing, I do not know what has become of such a famous landmark during my youth in Panama. El Casino was a destination in my days.

- Luis R. Celerier
Longview, Texas