La Perla is the second oldest active theater in Puerto Rico. Located between Mayor and Cristina Streets, the theater graces the very heart of the historic southern city of Ponce. The neoclassical design of the original structure was created by the Corsican architect Juan Bértoli Calderoni, who also supervised its construction. The work was commissioned by Francisco Parra Duperón and Tomás Garriga and funded by the private sector of the city. The theater was inaugurated in 1864 with the Majorcan drama La Campana de la Almudaina. Manuel Fernández Juncos, a journalist of Spanish origin, was so impressed with the building that he dubbed Ponce the “Ciudad Señorial” [Noble or Lordly City], a descriptive nickname by which this lovely city is still known today. The name of the theater comes from another of Ponce’s nicknames, “La Perla del Sur” [The Pearl of the South].
According to the authors of Ponce Ciudad Museo 2001, the original structure: “boasted a spacious vestibule and its horseshoe-shaped interior and boxes were designed according to the fashion of the time. The floor could be raised hydraulically in order to hold high-society balls there. Its Corinthian columns provided the building’s distinctive touch, and their iron capitals have survived to give faithful testimony to the theater’s history”.
The La Perla Theater was the setting not only for many plays but also for concerts, dance performances, and zarzuelas. At one performance of the zarzuela El reloj de Lucerna, the great composer from Ponce, Juan Morel Campos, collapsed while conducting the orchestra. Shortly afterwards, he died. The theater was also the scene of one of the most important political events of the 19th century: the assembly at which the Autonomist Party was founded on March 7, 1887. According to Lidio Cruz Monclova in his Historia del año de 1887, on that day the assembly, presided by Román Baldorioty de Castro, was constituted with 295 delegates in attendance, as well as representatives from seven liberal newspapers and “a great crowd of the citizenry…numbering more than one thousand persons and including many ladies who were to occupy the boxes situated on the second floor of the theater.”
The theater was destroyed by the earthquake of 1918 and then by fire in 1924. It was rebuilt in 1941, using the same façade, by architects Francisco Porrata Doria and Francisco Gardón. At its reinauguration, Tiempo Muerto, by Puerto Rican playwright Manuel Méndez Ballester, was presented. According to Ponce Ciudad Museo 2001, the reconstruction “significantly altered the interior, which is now much more comfortable and elegant and has a modern mezzanine. Its richly decorated interior has two lateral modernitas porticos embellished with medallions, festoons painted on the ceiling, plaster moldings, and an ingenious wrought-iron light fixture.” La Perla has a capacity of 1,047 persons and provides all the technical advances necessary for today’s productions. It was last remodeled in 1990 during the administration of Mayor Rafael Cordero Santiago.
The La Perla Theater has, in recent years, been the setting for the Theater Festivals of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, for the (Pablo) Casals Festival, and for the Luis Torres Nadal Theater Festival, dedicated to the playwright from Ponce for which it was named.
Author: Dra. Ivonne Acosta
Published: September 29, 2008.
This post is also available in: Español