Welcome Home, GALA
By Caroline Kettlewell
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 7, 2005
After 29 years, more than 150 productions and a procession of temporary quarters, GALA Hispanic Theatre has finally found a home of its own. Not just any home either. This weekend, you can join GALA in a three-day "homecoming" celebration, as the District's only professional Latino theater company takes up permanent residence under the elegant arching dome of the just-restored, landmark Tivoli Theatre in Columbia Heights.
The "Homecoming! GALA at Tivoli Opening Festivities" weekend begins with a benefit dinner Friday night hosted by honorary guest Rita Moreno, the actor and a former board member. Saturday, the theater will open its doors to the community for a festival from 10:30 to 4, with tours of the new space from 10:30 to noon, and performers such as the Dance Institute of Washington and In Series from noon to 4. Sunday's Three Kings Day, an annual GALA holiday event in honor of the traditional Epiphany celebration, will offer music, dancing, a petting zoo and the arrival of kings Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar from 2 to 4.
For GALA, this weekend represents the happy conclusion of a nearly three-decade journey. But it also marks a return to the same neighborhood where it staged its first productions, in the 1970s, in a converted Adams Morgan townhouse, and where, for 17 years, it was housed only two blocks from the Tivoli at the Sacred Heart School.
"Our opening weekend is called 'homecoming' because we are coming home to our first permanent home, and we are coming back to the neighborhood we started in," explains Carlos Prio Odio, GALA's director of marketing and public relations.
At the same time, Odio says, "it's also a homecoming for the neighborhood and for the Tivoli. We are dedicating this weekend to the neighbors who used to go to the Tivoli."
The Tivoli (pronounced "TIH-vo-lee") Theatre, built in 1924, was an opulent movie palace in the high style of the era. Ornate with marble, plasterwork, painted murals and a crystal chandelier beneath the dramatic domed ceiling of the theater, the Tivoli could seat 2,000 patrons and was equipped with an orchestra pit and a Wurlitzer pipe organ.
But like the surrounding Columbia Heights neighborhood, the Tivoli suffered a lingering decline, closing its doors for good in 1976.
Coincidentally, that same year, the Latin American Festival at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School saw the enthusiastically received premiere of Grupo de Artistas Latinoamericanos -- GALA.
"The first production was 'La Fiaca,' a very successful play at the time in Buenos Aires," says GALA founder and Artistic Director Hugo Medrano. "We put it on and it was a big success. It made us aware of the many people interested in Hispanic theater."
While the once-grand Tivoli was falling prey to vandalism, water damage and decay, GALA was establishing itself as a critically acclaimed company pursuing its stated mission "to preserve and promote Hispanic culture in the United States." Their histories intersected when a mixed-use restoration and redevelopment project, Tivoli Square, was successfully proposed for the Tivoli, and GALA was chosen as the arts and cultural tenant.
After a major fundraising effort, GALA partnered with SmithGroup architects to build the 270-seat theater, which is located in the former balcony section of the vast Tivoli.
"They gave us the mezzanine of the original theater, and within that space, we created a whole theater," says Medrano, adding that GALA worked closely with the architects to protect and restore many of the Tivoli's original features. GALA's new home also features a lobby and bar, where lectures, discussions and more casual, cabaret-style performances will be held.
In this new setting, "GALA will now be the first permanent national Hispanic theater," says Odio. More than that, GALA seeks to become a national center for Latino arts and culture -- including film, dance, music and poetry, as well as theater -- in the nation's capital.
"It is going to be a very exciting cultural center and a part of this community of Columbia Heights," Medrano says. "It's a beautiful space, and all that we dreamed about."
GALA Hispanic Theatre's three-day celebration is Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Tickets to Friday evening's benefit dinner, which are $250, are available at www.galatheatre.org or by calling 202-234-7174. Admission to Saturday's Homecoming Festival performances is free, but tickets are required, and may be obtained Saturday at the Tivoli. Sunday's Three Kings Day celebration is free, and no tickets are required. GALA Hispanic Theatre at Tivoli is at 3303 14th St. NW.
For more about the Tivoli Square project, visit www.horningbrothers.com/tivoli/index.htm.