Cubanet, Miriam Celaya, Havana, 14 December 2018 — The recent news about the possible transformation of the iconic Payret Theater into a five-star hotel has fallen like an icy shower over Havanan moviegoers, especially the residents of the municipality of Old Havana, where the building is located, as well as the residents of the adjoining municipality of Centro Habana, which for years had yearned for the restoration and reopening of this classic jewel, unique among the first-run movie theaters of the capital and all of Cuba.
Located in what was then known as “Barrio de las Murallas” (Neighborhood of Ramparts) the area with the greatest cultural and recreational activity of its time, the Payret was inaugurated in January 1877 by a wealthy Catalán who resided in Cuba, who gave it his surname. It was also one of the first theaters to become a cinema hall and one of the favorite places of the most select society of Havana at the time.
During the years after its inauguration, and the years of the Republic, the Payret Theatre had several owners and underwent a number of renovations. It was finally demolished and re-erected, and in 1951, it acquired the architectural image that turned it into today’s iconic structure: neoclassical lines of successive arches, pillars and awnings in its exteriors, combined with eclectic elements typical of the buildings in its surroundings. Its refined interiors include the elegant lobby with the sculpture known as The Illusion, the work of the Cuban artist Rita Longa, and the famous high reliefs representing the nine muses – done by the same sculptor – on both sides of the stage of the once majestic hall of projections, where the intense red color of the curtains, the carpets, and the upholstery of its chairs stood out.
In short, the Payret shone among the best in luxury and comfort in a city that had more cinemas than New York in 1958 and was known as one of the capitals with the best equipped cinemas in the world. After 1959, with better and worse moments, the Payret was kept regularly elegant and went through a couple more restorations until the crisis of the 90’s arrived and this beloved icon of Cuban movie enthusiasts deteriorated by leaps and bounds because of material deficiencies and official neglect, until several years ago, when it finally closed to the public in order “to make repairs.”
Surprisingly the alarms are now sounding with rumors about this untimely hotel project, whose details were published on this page last Tuesday, December 11th, giving an account of the ambitious construction plan of the Business Group of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), Gaviota SA, which would confiscate the whole block occupied by the old theatre, the “Kid Chocolate” room – a true architectural aberration, conceived and built in a hurry to function as a boxing chamber during the Pan-American Games held in Havana in 1991 – and several residential buildings in precarious conditions where more than a hundred families coexist.
The reports on this project and the final destination of the Payret have not yet been announced by the official press, but information is circulating informally among the group “in the know,” especially among neighbors close to the area and culture groups involved with the capital’s cinematic industry. There are many who feel “betrayed” by the turn of events because, until relatively recently, “what was known” was that the Payret was being subjected to a highly expensive capital restoration which, as has become customary, had been stopped for prolonged periods on several occasions, both for lack of materials and lack of financing, which explains, to some extent, the delay in the long-awaited reopening.
“They said that a budget had been earmarked for a complete restoration, then it was said that it fell short of the initial amount and that between the ICAIC and other entities committed to the work, new funds were being allocated to finish the work. It has even been said that the space will be transformed into a multiplex, when two smaller rooms in the old area are converted,” says Amelia González, an enthusiastic photographer and passionate Centro Habana filmmaker who lives very close to what she still calls “her favorite movie house.”
Like her, hundreds from several generations of Havana inhabitants who reside in the surrounding neighborhoods have the Payret as a reference of better bygone times, when visiting the dark room in this comfortable and beautiful cinema to enjoy a premiere was a pleasant and cultural experience all at once, an outing within easy reach of any pocket.
“I used to come here with my wife often, while it functioned as a movie house to show new movies and as one of the subsidiaries of the Latin American Film Festival, because on my income I can’t afford to go take her a date to a restaurant or to enjoy a show at a nightclub. So every time I passed the Payret, closed for so long, I would ask the custodians if they knew of a reopening date for the cinema, but none of them could tell me, nor was there a sign that indicating anything about it,” complains José Antonio, a fifty-something native of Old Havana who has kind memories of this place. And he adds: “Likewise, there was not even a notice indicating it was being restored, as they do with other works by (Eusebio) Leal (Havana City Historian)… We just chose to believe what the newspaper said”
Because it turns out that the new hotel project that would change so dramatically the function of the Payret is inserted in the construction plan promoted by the Office of the Historian with a view to celebrating the half-millennium of the Cuban capital in November 2019. When it comes to obtaining foreign exchange not even the Historian himself stops to reflect on such nonsense as the maintenance of the Patrimony. In any case, it has already been shown that the architecture of the facades can always be preserved, if the forms are kept. For its part, the plebs will be kept at a distance from the new spaces, because a luxury hotel does not count the proletarian rabble among its clientele.
So far it has not transpired that any official or personality of the world of cinema and national culture has issued an opinion for or against the projected cine-cide.
The proposal to turn the cinema into a hotel, however, is flagrantly contradicted by an article published more than three years ago in the official Granma newspaper “on the subject of the situation of cinemas and video rooms in the capital and other regions of the country.” (” Cuba: do you lose the magic of the movie houses?”, 11 June 2015), where it was stated: “The Payret case is separate (from the rest of the Havana cinemas) because, being an institution of high patrimonial value, it was decided it would be a target of investment, and its financing is much greater.”
The aforementioned article affirmed, citing words of Danae Moros, official at the head of the Provincial Film Directorate in Havana, that in 2015 “1,800,000 pesos in national currency and 700,000 convertible pesos for equipment purchase had been raised. That amount is already running out and we are going to request an increase because it is taking a lot more money.”
The same official assured that the restoration works of the Payret had begun the previous year (2014) with a “first stage” that included the roof, the hydro-sanitary network and the Alhambra room. The latter would be what he called “a polyvalent space” (?). The total reconstruction should be concluded before December of the same year, 2015, “because we want it to be ready for the Film Festival.”
However, three years and three film festivals later, not only has the Payret, which continues to be closed, not been restored, but there is no public information about where the funds allocated to that work ended up and, for greater uncertainty, now the death certificate is taking shape for a movie theater which, for over a century was the pride of Havana and certainly a space of great patrimonial value.
But the fact is that if the force that pulls the strings of this ambitious construction project – which is said to include other emblematic buildings of that strip of the capital – is the all-powerful Gaviota military company with the French company Bouygues Batiment International, and the romantics of nostalgia and inveterate capital film buffs can kiss their dreams of recovering a renewed Payret goodbye. The designs of the military consortium created by the power elite have two essential features: they are conceived in secret, like conspiracies, and they are – in keeping with the classic spirit of the cinema of yore – as definitive and unappealable as the thread of the Fates.
Thus, and probably in less time than we imagine, the Payret will disappear from Havana’s geography to give way to the overwhelming machinery of the state capitalism monopoly under the baton of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) leaders. Without further ceremonies there will be another decline in the narrow list of 42 cinemas that, according to official figures, still existed in 2015, in a capital that in its past glory days boasted of having more than 150 dark rooms.
Of those 42 spaces (not “cinemas” properly speaking) that miraculously survived in 2015, only 13 continued in precarious operation, 8 of which presented construction problems; while the 29 “closed ones” were going to be delivered to other “cultural institutions” because – always in the words of the official Danae Moros – “it is a policy of the Ministry of Culture to maintain in each municipality at least one or two rooms, but they must be comfortable and have good equipment.” It goes without saying that this policy has not been met either.
It remains only to point out such paradoxical and relevant detail in this requiem for the Payret cinema, pride and patrimony of Cubans, and that their loss occurs precisely as a result of the confrontation between artists and the officials in charge of high culture around the application of the controversial Decree 349, within the framework of which the latter publicly insisted in the media that the administration of national culture “is in good hands.”
The fate of Payret, in particular, and the depleted real estate of Cuban cinema in general, confirm the exact opposite.
Translated by Norma Whiting