TAMPA — Rene Gonzalez, founder and artistic director of the Spanish Lyric Theatre, promoted his Aug. 10 lunchtime show at the historic Centro Asturiano as the end of the theater company's 55th annual season.
It turned out to be much more.
After the applause ended, Gonzalez took the stage to tell the audience and even the performers that it would also be his last show.
The hall fell silent. Some performers wept.
“I think one person in the crowd yelled out, 'No,'” said Gonzalez, 76, who has led the theater company since its inception in 1959. “But my answer is still yes. Even the pope retired.”
Spanish Lyric Theatre is the nation's oldest Spanish theater company and the oldest of any theater company in Tampa.
The theater performs Broadway musicals in Spanish and English but is best known for keeping alive in Tampa the tradition of the “zarzuela” — operas originating from Spain that date back 400 years.
The Aug. 10 show was titled, “Viva La Zarzuela Concert,” celebrating beloved Spanish opera songs.
“He's a walking, talking repository of the performing arts history of this city that is not equaled by anyone else,” said Keith Arsenault, a longtime arts advocate and theater administrator in Tampa.
Art Keeble, executive director of the Hillsborough County Arts Council, called Gonzalez “a piece of Tampa's history.”
Added Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, “He brought a performing art to our city that celebrated the heritage of tens of thousands of our citizens. He made Tampa's mosaic shine even brighter.”
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A man of Gonzalez's importance, said Lisa Figueredo, founder of the history publication “Cigar City Magazine,” deserved a bigger send off.
“If he had told people weeks or just days in advance that it was his last show, the attention it would have gotten would have been crazy,” said Figueredo, whose grandmother Carmen Ramirez Esperante helped Gonzalez in his early career. “Everyone in the city's cultural community would have shown up to honor him.”
And that, said Gonzalez, is why he kept it secret. The focus should not have been on him.
“That show was about the music and theater of Spain. I am not bigger than either.”
Besides, the theater must also endure an even bigger loss, he said: The retirement of his wife and performer Mary Gonzalez.
If he is the face of Spanish Lyric Theatre, she is its voice and has been since 1967.
“She is so talented,” he said. “I could not have done half the shows without her. She will be harder to replace than me.”
After making his decision a few months ago, Gonzalez confided only in his board of directors so they could find a new artistic director
They chose an interim director, Michael Matthews, who has served on the board for 18 months.
“I am honored to follow Rene,” Matthews said. “He is an institution in both the Latin and theatrical community.”
A native of Ybor City, Gonzalez grew up in a building that now is the bar Dogs Bollocks at 1704 E. Seventh Ave.
On the second floor was his family's living quarters and on the first was his parents' business — Casa Arte, a gift shop featuring imported items from Spain.
“I guess I did the same with zarzuelas,” Gonzalez said.
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At one time, because of the sizeable Latin populations of Ybor City and West Tampa, the communities grew into top destinations for traveling theatrical and opera shows from Spain.
But by the time Gonzalez was old enough to appreciate the theater, the tradition was dying.
The last time a company from Spain came to Tampa to produce a zarzuela was in 1947, when Gonzalez was 10.
“You had the Depression and then World War II,” said Gonzalez. “It was no longer economical or practical for the theater groups to travel to Tampa.”
His link to Spanish opera was Carmen Esperante, an international zarzuelas star before settling in Ybor City.
“She would come to the store all the time,” said Gonzalez. “I was fascinated with her anecdotes about the theater. And I was also a big fan of Spanish music. I was always getting my hands on records.”
In 1958, while pursuing a degree in education, he produced his first theater show as a project for the Spanish Club.
“Nothing in particular inspired me. I just had this Mickey Rooney moment when I suddenly blurted out, 'Let's put on a show. You bring this and I'll bring that and it will be great.'”
Held at the campus's Dome Theater, today called The Music Room, the performance was like a “mini-zarzuela” featuring lone acts from famous Spanish operas sharing common themes.
The lead was Esperante, who came out of retirement to support Gonzalez.
The show was such a hit the University of Tampa asked him to produce another the following year, even though he would have graduated.
He was busy starting a career as an educator, which eventually would take him to Middleton and Blake junior high schools as an assistant principal.
But he had been bitten by the theater bug so he found time for it.
“Theater has never been a business for me. Education paid my bills. Theater has always been a passion.”
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His next show for the University of Tampa was in November 1958 at Centro Asturiano, 1913 N Nebraska Ave., founded as a social and service club for immigrants from Spain.
In May 1959 he produced another show, through a company he launched called the Spanish Little Theatre.
With Centro Asturiano as its home, the new theater company was popular from the start, Gonzalez said, because of talent and audience demand for the zarzuelas on which they were raised.
To grow the audience, the Spanish Little Theatre added Spanish translations of popular American shows in 1971. “Fiddler on the Roof” was first.
By 1975, the theater group outgrew Centro Asturiano and moved to become the resident theater company at the University of Tampa's McKay Auditorium.
Performances grew from three or four musicians or a lone pianist to 18-piece orchestras. Casts grew to 80. Sets became extravagant. Four shows and a number of concerts were staged every year, each selling close to 900 tickets.
The theater changed with the times, sometimes on purpose and sometimes accidentally.
They planned to stage a Spanish “Hello Dolly” in 1982 but learned the official translation was stuck in Argentina, then embroiled in the Falklands War.
Gonzalez had already promoted “Hello Dolly,” so the Spanish Little Theatre performed the play in English. It was so well received that English language productions became a regular part of the schedule.
“We would do a week in English and then a week in Spanish of the same show. It made us unique.”
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An image consultant in the early 1980s suggested replacing “Little” with “Lyric” in the theater's name.
Their productions were not little at all, Gonzalez said, and the new name signaled that it specializes in musicals.
When the Performing Arts Center, now the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, opened downtown in 1987, the Spanish Lyric Theatre was the first local theater company to perform there.
The center became the theater's new home.
In 1992 the theater began touring outside Tampa, from Miami to Alabama.
In 2002, the Spanish Lyric Theatre became the resident theater company performing at the Florida State Fair.
“We've had a great run,” Gonzalez said.
But money was always an issue. Each year, he would worry it would be the company's last.
“All costs just continued to go up — wardrobe, sets, theaters. The sizes of the shows we do are not cheap. We'd get some donors and we always sold tickets, but it was still always a close call.”
To cut back on expenses, Spanish Lyric Theater severed ties with the Straz about five years ago and became an Ybor City nomad — hosting shows at all the surviving social clubs — the Cuban Club, Italian Club, Centro Asturiano as well as Hillsborough Community College Ybor City.
It was around that time he began contemplating retirement.
“I realized it was taking me twice as much time to do what I did 10 years ago. I kept wondering what it would be like in another 10 or 20.”
Gonzalez still loves the Spanish Lyric Theatre but the decision was easy for him to make, he said.
“Everything has its season,” he said, borrowing the Broadway show “Pippin.” “Everything has its time.”