Santa Clara is mostly known to the average traveller as the place where Che Guevara’s human remains are laid to rest, in the company of his diseased guerrilla rebels and martyrs. Their final resting place is a grand mausoleum erected in their memory, where Che’s figure stands out in the form of a gigantic bronze statue overlooking this evocative memorial.
Yet, as impressive and captivating as Che’s memorial monument may be, that’s not all there is to see during a stop in Santa Clara. If you make an effort to stop in the capital of Villa Clara enroute to the famous beach resorts of Cayo Santa Maria or Cayo Ensenachos (linked to mainland via a 48-km causeway), make sure to devote some of your time to view an older, perhaps even more fascinating wonder. A theatre that has stood the test of time and adversity, the Grand Teatro de La Caridad is a marvel of Cuban architecture worthy of admiration, and one of the very few remaining of the great eight original colonial theatres. It is to this one grand and nostalgic piece of glorious times gone by that I turn my attention to in this post, as I tell you the tale of how it came to be and continues to exist and charm visitors today.
A philanthropist´s dream
In the early 1800s a great theatre was born in Havana, one that everyone talked about nationwide and beyond. The Teatro Tacon, built in 1838 by command of General Tacon, with the structure, elegance and capacity of the Teatro Real de Madrid and the Liceo de Barcelona. Such was its fame of luxury and grandeur that a popular rhyme went:
“Tres cosas hay en la Habana que causan admiracion: El Morro, La Cabana y la arana de Tacon”
Translating loosely as “Three things in Havana are worthy of admiration, El Morro, La Cabana and the spider of Tacon” in reference to the ornate lamp brought from Paris whose shape resembled a spider. With Tacon´s enormous success and prestige other Cuban cities were keen to follow suit and add a great theatre to their metropolis, and Santa Clara was the first to lead the initiative by building a theatre to match and rival Havana´s.
The person behind it all happened to be one of the city´s highest members of the aristocracy, also famous for generously contributing to the Independence cause with hefty donations and her personal activism and involvement. We´re talking about Marta Abreu, a remarkable lady and one of the most influential figures of her time who, due to her constant aid to the poor, donations to the city and varied philanthropist work was known as “the great benefactor”.
But her most outstanding contribution to the city was the Teatro La Caridad, which was built solely with her money and which she kindly donated to the city. Not only that, she was 100 per cent behind its construction and was the one who saw through it every step of the way. In December 1883, Marta Abreu´s husband, Don Luis Estevez y Romero, who unconditionally supported her wife´s projects and numerous philanthropic pursuits, had bought land on which the theatre would be developed. Shortly he received the council´s approval and two years later, in August 1885 the Teatro de la Caridad was ready to welcome visitors. Its inauguration took place on 8th September and was attended by the crème de la crème of Santa Clara´s high society.
And just before you think that was a ludicrous business venture that would only fatten Marta Abreu’s pockets for her and her own family’s benefit, you should also know that all of the theatre’s profits were destined for charity works, a kind gesture to honour the memory of Abreu’s parents. The theatre’s inauguration also marked a day for celebration for many Cubans, as it’s the day of Cuba’s patron saint, Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre (Virgen de La Caridad del Cubre), Queen and Patroness of all Cubans. No doubt a great day to launch a charity project of epic proportions in honour of a charity saint for a theatre whose name, La Caridad, also translates as “Charity” or “The Charitable”.
Famous past visitors
With it being the second great theatre in Cuba, La Caridad had no shortage of famous guests and famous performers along its centenarian history. From Enrico Caruso to Lola Flores, Libertad Lamarque and Amelia Gallipursi to prestigious local artists of international fame like Alicia Alonso and Chucho Valdes, as well as companies like the Ballet Nacional de Cuba and the Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional (National Symphonic Orchestra).
A National Monument and one of Cuba’s Eight Great Colonial Theatres
La Caridad is one of the Eight Grand Theatres of Cuba’s Colonial Era and the second of the remaining five have been built that still stand today. The original eight great were Teatro Tacon in Havana (1838), Teatro Brunet in Trinidad (1840), Teatro Principal in Camaguey (1850), Teatro Oriente (1850) in Santiago de Cuba, Teatro Manzanillo (1856) in Granma, Teatro Sauto (1863) in Matanzas, Teatro La Caridad in Santa Clara (1885), Teatro Milanes in Pinar del Rio (1889) and Teatro Terry (1890) in Cienfuegos. Of these only five great classical theatres remain in their original state: Teatro Milanes, Teatro Principal, Teatro Terry, Teatro Sauto, and Santa Clara’s Teatro de La Caridad. The last three were built during the late 19th century, kick-started by the success of the Teatro Tacon in Havana (which would grow to eventually become what now stands as the Gran Teatro de La Habana).
But La Caridad was also an exquisite mould others would copy, especially the Teatro Terry in Cienfuegos (whose ornate interior closely resembles La Caridad’s) and the Teatro Sauto in Matanzas, who would also take after it in terms of the neoclassical façade and exterior. Yet none is exactly quite like the other, and in any case, it was Santa the one who set precedent.
In 1999 it was declared a National Monument, along with the rest of the architectural gems found in the vicinity of the centric Parque Vidal it overlooks, a point of reference for all “santaclarenos” and one of the most popular hangout places in the city by people of all ages and all backgrounds.
Teatro La Caridad today
History goes that on inauguration day back in August 1885 many festivities surrounded the theatre’s official opening, with all of local society present and some very special guests, including the Governor General of the island who was sent out a formal invitation to attend. The following day it was the turn of the one person behind it all to make a grand entrance, and indeed she did in an unforgettable way. Thankful citizens awaited Marta Abreu at the foot of the theatre and carried her inside on a chariot over a carpet of flowers before she proceeded to give the theatre’s keys to the City Council, in a gesture of goodwill but also with plans for a joint administration of the theatre so that part of the money always went to local charities. The theatre’s first show was aptly named “Family Bonds” (Lazos de Familia) and was a resounding success.
Changes, conversions and back to its roots
Over its first 75 years of existence, the theatre went through several changes, most of the time in detriment of its original design. Yet by the 1960s, shortly after the triumph of the Revolution, all efforts went into restoring it back to its original style. The last restoration took place in 1964, giving back most of the original splendour and features once lost. Forty years on and the theatre remains as beautiful as ever but perhaps some maintenance in the building wouldn’t go amiss. The problem is that lack of funds from local authorities to carry out repairs haven’t made the task possible yet. Not that it’s currently showing any visible sign of decay but back in 2007 a loud sound in the roof resulted in the theatre closing down for inspection. Shortly after they found that the centuries-old timbers in the roof were corroded but they were swiftly repaired and the theatre opened again.
In the spaces previously occupied by the barber shop, restaurant and recreational area, now stands Santa Clara’s most popular bar, La Marquesina, a hit with locals as much as with tourists. It’s not by chance that TripAdvisor has bestowed it their Certificate of Excellence time and time again after the great reviews it receives from visitors the world over. Not only does it have the best mojito in town and a range of inexpensive drinks, but it’s also in idyllic spot for people watching, the staff is courteous and attentive and the atmosphere lively and engaging. Live music on weekends is the norm and it gets a good mix of locals and tourists dancing along. It’s all a very friendly and sociable affair for everyone and anyone who enjoys the best of traditional Cuban music.
A modern-day icon bursting with pride
The pinnacle of theatre life in Santa Clara and a cultural hub like no other, it may not be as revered or coveted as it once was, yet it stands close to the most frequented park in the city and still welcomes prestigious acts from the world over. Even if nothing’s on at the time of your visit, for just 1 CUC you can get access to its interiors and admire its colonial beauty, gleaming as bright as new. If you’re in luck you might catch performances from the “Banda de Conciertos de Santa Clara” (Santa Clara Concert Band) and the “Orquesta Sinfonica Provincial” (Provincial Symphonic Orchestra). The theatre is also the official headquarters of the Danza Abierta dancing company, one of Cuba’s most prestigious and most innovative contemporary dance groups.
Before you go
While you’re in the vicinity of La Caridad theatre, do walk that bit further to check out Parque Vidal, bordered on all sides by colonial, eclectic and neo-classical buildings as well as monuments from different historical periods. The central gazebo is a thing of beauty that dates back to 1911 and still hosts public concerts by the city’s Orquesta Filarmonica (Philarmonic Orchestra). The tradition has been kept alive for decades, and once a week, as dusk begins to set in the park, visitors are treated to a free serenade. Do also stop by Marta Abreu’s monument, the city’s greatest benefactor. The base of her sculpture is said to contain a time capsule with magazines and several objects gathered during the monument’s constructions for future generations to discover.