The adobe building has seen better days. Located in Tucson’s barrio, the faded designs on the facade is what you get to see today. It’s no longer accessible to the public, but this theater was once the go-to place for the glitterati of the Spanish speaking world.
Carmen Soto Vásquez, the driving force behind this piece of Tucson’s history, was born in 1863. It was the same year that President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the establishment of the Arizona Territory.
Carmen’s grandfather was a descendant of Antonio Comadurán, captain of the Royal Presidio of the Fort of San Agustín de Tucson. Her father, Jose Maria Soto, was also from a well-established and prominent Tucson dynasty.
According to Jan Cleere of the Arizona Daily Star, Carmen married Ramon Vásquez who owned several successful businesses in Tucson and Nogales, Arizona She received a plot of land on Meyer Street in downtown Tucson from him in 1914, and had the brilliant idea for the perfect venue. She commissioned carpenter Manuel Flores to design a theater which he did, in the Sonoran-mission style. Though he had no formal training, Señior Flores went on to design and build Santa Cruz Church on South Sixth Avenue as well as Marist College on Ochoa Street.
Ms. Soto Vásquez recognized the importance Tucson held as a Southwestern cultural center in the 1920s. Music, operas and theatrical productions became important in this desert town, and her theater was one of the first in Tucson that catered exclusively to works in Spanish. Opening night was May 20, 1915, and the performance was “Cerebro y Corazón” by the Mexican playwright Teresa Farias de Isassi. In the coming years, troupes from Spain and Mexico performed there. It was an elegant place to see and to be seen.
The theater seated 1,400 patrons. It’s difficult to imagine that many people fitting into this adobe building when you look at it today. People dressed in their finest to attend Teatro Carmen. “It was a beautiful and elegant affair,” said one theatergoer.
Ms. Soto Váásquez was the producer of events for nine years. But times changed. Audiences wanted different types of performances, so she booked dancing and boxing matches, and finally sold the theater in 1926.
After that, it became a cinema, meeting hall, ballroom, boxing arena, garage and in 1937, the Pilgrim Rest Elks Lodge #601.
The theater’s exterior was featured in the films ‘The Gay Desperado’ in 1936 and ‘Boys on the Side’ with Whoopi Goldberg in 1995.
We can thank the foresight of this Tucson pioneer for the building that we can see today. It stands at 348 S. Meyer. This building is privately owned and is a drive-by site or accessible walking the Turquoise Trail.