Casco Life

Panama History and Culture: Casco Antiguo´s 100 Years Old National Theatre

Panama, Casco Viejo

Casco Antiguo, San Felipe 




Back in my university days, I did a paper on Panama’s National Theatre in Casco Antiguo. Although looking back it was pretty much incomplete, naïve and badly written, I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed researching for it. For me, the National Theatre is like a second home, a place that saw me grow up while dancing. It’s history has always been from glory to disaster, and then to glory again.


One of the things that made me laugh at the top of my lungs was the first “Gaceta Oficial” ( the newspaper where the government publishes the laws when they are approved) where they mentioned the need to build a theatre. Panama, back in 1903 was not much more than a village. Literally the document said something along these lines: “And we will dedicate the sum of (I think it was) a million dollars to build: the presidential house, a school, public bathrooms, a theatre”.  The list for sure included some other things, but back then Panama was so basic that they had to build public bathrooms and a place for the brand new elected government to meet. And the Theatre became this place in more than one occasion.


Another “picture” in my mind that made me smile was the Theatre´s “code of conduct”. I remember it mentioned that ladies with feather hats should remove them, and gentlemen with tall hats. Also, you were not allowed to make noise with your walking stick (baston). The main balconies where assigned to the Fire Department, the central one to the President, and there was another one for the Major. The original theatre was made mostly out of wood (of course, no air conditioning) and when the car came into fashion it was necessary to change it because of the noise outside.


The Republic of Panama was literally being born, and the National Theatre was it´s social and cultural heart.


A beautiful article came out the other day at Ellas from La Prensa, celebrating the National Theatre´s 100 years. Written by Vannie Arrocha Morán, please search it out.



The original building where the theatre was later on built was actually a monastery for nuns. They had a small theatre called Sarah Bernahrdt, as it is said that the artist was once brought to perform there during the time of the French Canal.  But the “Teatro Nacional” as we call it in Spanish, was built over the monastery and inaugurated in 1908 during the presidency of José Domingo de Obaldía. Its debut was grandiose, with the opera Aida presented by the Italian company Mario Lambardi. 


The building was designed by Giussepe Ruggieri, one of the most prolific architects in Panama at the time. Roberto Lewis painted the ceiling frescoes, and Enrico Corrado did the chalk sculpture.  It was the time for optimism, so the Theatre had a lot of work showing all the well known operas from Carmen to La Traviatta.


Reaching the 30´s the theatre experiences its first fall. It hit bottom, as at some point it even got to be used as a movie theatre. Special note here: the National Theatre was the crème of the crème of San Felipe. However, Santa Ana had also its own jewel in Teatro Variedades. This Theatre in theory was aimed to the popular sectors which couldn’t pay the National Theatres´s fees. However, at least for the first period of splendor, the same opera or ballet company that would perform at the National Theatre one night would go to the Variedades the next night for a cheaper price. The story of both theatres sort of go hand by hand in this first period. When the National Theatre decays, Variedades bites the dust too. And if the National Theatre got to be a movie theatre, well… Variedades became a boxing ring and a movie theatre. When they where showing movies, the evening started with a ruffle between the public, the news, a comedy act, cartoons and then the movie. You could spend the entire evening there, and maybe even take a prize back home.


Back to the National Theatre, it got its first intervention in 1941 by the architect Guillermo de Roux. However, in the 70´s it fell again. The 70´s was a difficult time as it marked the beginning of the military regime. The Theatre got used for all sorts of things, including the school proms. In 1974 the architect René Brenes is hired to work on the theatre again. But by 1999 it was a disaster. I remember betting with my dancer friends when the chandelier was going to finally fall on top of everyone.


Well, the chandelier never got to fall, but the ceiling painting from Roberto Lewis. So in the year 2004 the Theatre went into a full rehab. For those who worked on this project they have said that the original proposal included much more stuff. However, from the stand point of a user at the backstage, it was a lot of work and the theatre really took back its dignity. I would have loved to see the original side gardens recovered and the café opened towards it creating a “café de la opera”, but well, maybe we had to leave something for next time.


A 100 years old! Celebrations are at hand, starting August 7th with a concert to commemorate the Artist´s Day. In August 28th, the soprano Nicole Puga will sing in a gala from the Fundación Bel Canto. The National Orchestra will perform on the 1st of October and the National Ballet will present Bayadere from the 6th to the 8th of October.


Madame Butterfly will perform on the 14th and 16th of October. And two award ceremonies will be held at the ends of October: the Ricardo Miro (for poetry) on the 17th and the Roberto Lewis on the 31st.  By the way, check out our virtual tour of the National Theatre here.




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