29 April 2014

The Latino Equivalent of the Apollo

This church, Pare de Sufrir, on E. 138th Street and Brown in the Mott Haven section of The Bronx, hides a great cultural history. The building was one the Forum Theatre. It opened in 1923 with 2,300 seats, offering a little vaudeville along with silent movies. It was an independent theatre, not owned by any big movie house chain. It also had a Kimball organ.

After World War II, in 1948, with demographics changing in the area, it became the Spanish-language Teatro Puerto Rico, presenting stage shows. This was the theatre's golden age. It was quite the social mecca for the city's Puerto Rican population, and attracted performers from all over Latin America, and audiences from all over the city. Here's an image of the marquee back then. And here's the theatre.

That lasted a long while. Later, if was the home of wrestling and boxing matches. It then closed for a while, and reopened as a performing arts center, presenting both live shows and movies, all in Spanish.

We can thank corrupt New York State Senator Pedro Espada for the closure of this historical theatre in 1996. The owner rented the theatre to Espada, and the senator failed to pay the rent, using $95,000 in state grant money earmarked for the theatre to line his own pockets. I thought I couldn't hate Espada more than I already do, but now I do.

By the time the church took over, the auditorium was in pretty bad shape. The church renovated it, pouring quite a bit of money into it.

In 2000, the New York Times reported this item about the theatre's past:
The southernmost site on the tour is the former Teatro Puerto Rico, a family-oriented theater at 490 East 138th Street, at Brown Place, now the Iglesia Universal del Reino de Dios (although the sign also still says Teatro Puerto Rico). Regarded as the Latino equivalent of the Apollo, it was once the hub of la farandula, a vaudeville-style package of Spanish- language events that began with singing, dancing and small bands or a chorus line, led into acrobatic, magic and contortionist acts, and ended with a movie double feature. The legacy of those spectacles lives on at the church, which presents Latin gospel music, with full jazz bands on its stage on Sundays.


Mitch said...

Was Espada responsible for the lack of maintenance or was that the owner?

Brooks of Sheffield said...

He leased it and was responsible for the rent not being paid. Don't know if he was responsible for the maintenance as well. Probably not. But it didn't shutter due to being rundown.

Unknown said...

I conduct historical tours in this neighborhood, I have some very fond memories of the shows... This was a terrible loss for The Bronx...