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The lost history of Teatro Carmen and its upcoming renovation

The lost history of Teatro Carmen and its upcoming renovation
Posted at 6:34 PM, Dec 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-09 20:37:10-05

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — This week the Pima County Board of Supervisors agreed to purchase Teatro Carmen. It's a historical landmark in the Barrio District of Tucson and it's about to get a major renovation. The theater was founded in 1915 by Carmen Soto Vasquez. It was used for performances in Spanish, and was an important cultural center for the Hispanic community.

“It was the largest and most elaborate theater at the time,” said Herb Stratford, President of Stratford Artworks.

The theater closed in 1922. Fourteen years later, an African American social club known as the Black Elks purchased the property.

“Segregation was here, especially in the schools," said Barbara Lewis, Vice President of Dunbar Pavilion. "The black community, we had to have our own spaces, we couldn’t go to other clubs.”

There aren't many people left who can recount the history of the Black Elks Lodge, but Barbara Lewis can. She started coming to the lodge at the age of nine.

“Then, it was like a playground to me," Lewis said. "But I know it was much more than that to the larger African American community.”

Lewis says although the black community owned the space, it was often shared with people of other ethnicities.

“There was a mixture," Lewis said. "Majority African American, but some whites, Latinos, and some Native Americans.”

For the past 30 years, the building has remained unused. Herb Stratford wanted to change that.

“We do arts related projects that a lot of times have to do with historic preservation,” Stratford said.

Stratford was the brains behind the Fox Theater restoration. He’s now working with the county to restore the Teatro Carmen.

“This building will host films and music and theater and dance," Stratford said. "There will also be an attached restaurant and bar.”

Stratford says he plans to incorporate some of the building’s history in the remodel. It will be another 3-4 years before renovations begin.