What happened to Cuba’s forgotten cinemas?

CNN  — 

It took photographer Carolina Sandretto four years and three round trip journeys to Cuba to put together a comprehensive book about the architectural opulence of its movie theaters.

During the 1950s, Cuba’s economy, then dominated by American players, was prosperous enough to give rise to hundreds of beautifully colored cinemas funded by well-known production companies – 20th Century Fox, Columbia Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Right before the Cuban Revolution, the number of movie theaters in the country had grown to a respectable cluster of 511 (by comparison, Havana had more cinemas than Paris or New York at the time). In the aftermath of Fidel Castro’s victory, this number rose to 600.

Cine Teatro Karl Marx, formerly Blanquita, Havana, photographed by Carolina Sandretto.

“The amount of movie theaters per capita in (Havana) is an unquestionable proof of the importance ‘the seventh art’ had,” wrote Cuban artist Carlos Garaicoa in the introduction to Sandretto’s book.

More than half a century after the revolution, the glamour of these architectural gems has faded. Only 19 cinemas remain active in the whole country. A few have been seized for other purposes, like local dance events, while others were closed down when the financial burden became too difficult to manage.

Cine Nieves, Majagua, photographed by Carolina Sandretto.

“Their deterioration responds fundamentally to two causes, the economic crisis that has mired the country for 60 years, obviously aggravated in the 1990s, with the fall of the Berlin Wall,” wrote Garaicoa, “and in part, to the failure of cultural policies, which would have revived any of those buildings with the vitality of community activities.”

Sandretto managed to capture more than 300 cinemas during her trips. “It was difficult to determine how many cinemas there were, and to identify their locations on the island,” she wrote. “There was no information about any of the cinemas online, and Google is not available in Cuba. So I sourced my information the old-fashioned way.”

Browse the gallery above to see more images. “Cines de Cuba” by Carolina Sandretto is published by Skira and is available now.