Little Havana’s Tower Theater has reopened with a new exhibition about Celia Cruz

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The Tower Theater has reopened with the inauguration of an exhibition on the Queen of Salsa, “Celia Cruz Forever.” After months of silence, activity returned to that corner of Little Havana next to Parque del Dominó with last week’s event.

People danced to the rhythm of guaguancó and salsa outside the theater, with songs like ”Quimbara,” which Celia Cruz sang with one of her favorite collaborators Dominican Johnny Pacheco.

As the crowd squeezed through the entrance they found a display dedicated to the famous Havana nightclub, Tropicana; sequined costumes worn by Celia Cruz; and congas that belonged to Sonora Matancera, the orchestra that young Celia performed with in Cuba at the start of her long career as an international star.

“The exhibition is spectacular,” said Cuban music historian and collector Eloy Cepero, who lent the congas for the show. “I bought them in Tampa for $30 in the 1970s, now I get offers of $1,500,” Cepero said, noting they have even more value to him because he met the Sonora Matancera’s congero Ángel Alfonso Furias “Yiyo” in Miami.

Diana Lara Smart (middle), singer, dances during the launch of the Celia Cruz Forever exhibit at Tower Theatre Miami on Thursday, July 27, 2023 in Miami, Fla.
Diana Lara Smart (middle), singer, dances during the launch of the Celia Cruz Forever exhibit at Tower Theatre Miami on Thursday, July 27, 2023 in Miami, Fla.

The exhibition, which is on display till the end of the year in the lobby and second floor of the theater, focuses more on Celia’s moments in Miami, said Omer Pardillo Cid, representative of her estate. He compared it to a broad exhibition on the artist that was presented at the American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora in 2019, which focused more on Celia’s international career.

“This dress is a replica because the original is in the Smithsonian, and they couldn’t get it out,” Pardillo said, pointing to a colorful dress Celia wore to a Tropicana performance in 1952. The handmade replica was created by a Palm Beach designer, David Maison.

The show continues with more costumes and a wall of her album covers and posters. On the second floor is a reproduction of Celia’s dressing room by Miami set and costume designers Pedro Balmaseda and Jorge Noa from Nobarte.

Also on the wall is a quote from Celia Cruz that sums up her immigrant story: “Music has been my hope, it gave me the courage to rise from poverty and touch the universe.”

This is one of the reasons why her face was on a United States postage stamp and why she has been chosen to be on a 25 cent coin, which the Mint will release in 2024.

A new life for the Tower Theater

For 20 years the Tower Theater operated as a movie theater under the administration of Miami Dade College, projecting quality programming. It was often one of the venues for the Miami Film Festival.

In September 2022, the City of Miami decided not to renew the College’s contract, which expired in January.

The fate of the theater where Cuban exiles and immigrants would come to watch movies with subtitles was in jeopardy. There were protests in front of the theater with many Miami culture lovers raising concerns about the Tower, which was designated a Miami Historic Site in 2015.

“I would like it to continue showing films and uniting communities. That is a function that it has held through the years, because it is a cultural hub in the middle of Little Havana,” filmmaker Joe Cardona told el Nuevo Herald, saying several documentaries that were important to his career were screened at the Tower.

Magdiel Aspillaga, a director whose films were censored in Cuba, found the theater to be a welcome space for his work and also a place to enjoy international cinema.

“I would like the Tower to maintain that connection with Cuba on a cinematographic level, and also that multicultural sense,” he said, recalling that he used to see good Chinese and Iranian films there.

Those were the questions from movie fans: Will it continue to show movies now that it is in the hands of the City of Miami and what other plans are being considered?

“In the new phase of the Tower, we are going to make maximum use of it,” said Joe Carollo, District 3 commissioner, who is now in charge of theater operations after it was decided by the Miami Commission in July.

The Tower will also continue to function as a cinema, said Carollo, indicating that two weeks ago it screened the film “El Caballo,” by Lilo Vilaplana, about the lengths that Cubans go to find food on the island.

Standing in front of the reproduction of Celia Cruz’s dressing room, the commissioner explained the reason why they chose to launch this new stage of the theater with a show dedicated to the Queen of Salsa.

“It wasn’t just the Celia of the Cubans, but of the world,” Carollo said, remembering the times he took her by the hand when she performed in Miami. “Whenever she could she was willing to come to the city and cooperate.”

Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo speaks to a Miami Herald reporter during the launch of the Celia Cruz Forever exhibit at Tower Theatre Miami on Thursday, July 27, 2023 in Miami, Fla.
Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo speaks to a Miami Herald reporter during the launch of the Celia Cruz Forever exhibit at Tower Theatre Miami on Thursday, July 27, 2023 in Miami, Fla.

The Tower will function as a cultural center with a staff of five, theater manager Militse Padilla said.

“We not only have cinema, but also a theater, because we have an auditorium with a capacity for 250 people and we have a smaller room, with a capacity for 100 people,” said Padilla, who will work in conjunction with Miguel Ferro, the theater’s artistic director.

Carollo explained that he will dedicate a space at the entrance of the theater as an information center for tourists and visitors.

“The goal is for tourists to not only spend money here but all over Miami,” he said, adding that the one of goals is to attract more jobs to the area.

A percentage of the admission fees will be given to the City of Miami.

“We are going to turn the Tower Theater into an engine that brings money to the city of Miami, instead of taking money out of the people’s pockets,” he said.

Spanish language plays and shows for kids

Padilla says they plan to make a piano bar or concert cafe on the second floor.

“We want the Tower to be the meeting point for all the arts. We want to be theater, cinema, a platform for exhibitions and presentations,” Padilla said.

The play “Relatos borrachos” begins on Aug. 12, with the Venezuelan actors Alba Roversi and Nacho Huett and Cuban actress Susana Pérez. In September, they will present a children’s version of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”

Denise Gálvez, a member of the Historic & Environmental Preservation Board (HEPB) board of directors, wants the Tower to preserve its historic character and also the reason it was designated as a site worthy of preservation.

It was first a movie theater, one of a few of its kind in the 1920s, and then it became the place where residents of Little Havana could watch a movie close to home.

“I want it to continue being a cinema, and to continue serving the community,” Gálvez concluded.

Celia Cruz Forever

When: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily

Where: Tower Theater, 1508 SW Eighth St., Miami

Cost: Tuesday-Thursday $10, Friday-Sunday $15, Little Havana residents with ID $2, children under 12 are free.