A montage of images featuring a toothy Celia Cruz greets guests as they walk into the Tower Theater on Calle Ocho. Once a beacon for indie films — and local film festivals — the theater has, not without controversy, been transformed into a mini museum after Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo led the charge to boot Miami Dade College as the venue's steward, effectively shuttering one of the few remaining art-house cinemas in the city.
Its current programming includes an exhibition dedicated to the Queen of Salsa herself. Aptly titled "Celia Cruz: Por Siempre," it was curated by Omer Pardillo-Cid, former manager and executor of Celia Cruz's estate. In partnership with the City of Miami, the tribute to the beloved songstress will remain on view until summer 2024.
On an unassuming Wednesday afternoon, two tourists from New York stumble into the Tower Theater and immediately start snapping pictures of every item on display. Raquel and Gabriel, an Ecuadorian couple, are on vacation and heard about the exhibit. Raquel kept her sunglasses on as she walked around, mouth agape and getting up close to every item she could. Her husband dutifully took pictures.
The pair walked in at the perfect time and were treated to an exclusive tour by Pardillo-Cid, featuring guest appearances by Tico Torres and Alexis Rodriguez-Duarte, the duo that styled and photographed Cruz for many years.
"Not many people know this," says Torres, leaning in as if divulging a tasty secret, "but right before the picture was taken, Celia just broke out into song. It looks like she's smiling, but she's actually singing. She's singing a cappella."
Among the areas featured on the first floor of the exhibition is a space dedicated to the singer's iconic wigs and heels.
Pardillo-Cid points out a pair of shoes on display. "Her shoes were very unique," he says. Cruz had about 50 pairs of shoes designed by Miguel Nieto and made in Mexico. Get closer, and you'll notice the wear on the fabric and what appears to be another color underneath the primary shade. She would redo one shoe like eight or ten times and change the color of the fabric or paint them."
The rest of the first floor features a wall of the singer's famous friends, a case with special awards and distinctions, and plenty of dazzling outfits. A 20-minute documentary about the singer's life plays on a loop in the intimate theater.
Cruz's former manager and executor of her estate, Pardillo-Cid, stands in front of the replica of the late singer's dressing room. He looks off and smiles proudly at the display.
Pardillo-Cid first met Cruz when he was 14-years-old living in New York City. Years later, he started working with her at RMM Records. Eventually, the singer gave Pardillo-Cid the opportunity of a lifetime and asked him to manage her.
"When I was 23, she asked me to manage her, and I went, 'Celia, there are two paths here: Either I do great for you, or I will mess up your career.' Gracias a Dios, it worked beautifully," he remembers.
The dressing room resembles the exact setup the "Azúcar" singer had while on tour. As he points to different parts of the display, Pardillo-Cid gets excited when his eyes land on a rack of clothes tucked away in a corner.
“Mira, esto primero que ves aquí y piensas que es un vestido. It’s not, es una bata de casa,” he says, excitedly.
Pardillo-Cid points to a corner where a collection of El Corte Inglés shopping bags are piled up with miscellaneous items stuffed inside. "A lot of people ask me why we have those Corte Inglés bags. Celia would roll them up and have them in her purse. If we were somewhere and she needed to put something away, she'd take out a Corte Inglés bag. I used to joke with her and say, 'Tu le hace promoción de gratis,' ('You are giving them free promotion.')" says Pardillo-Cid with a laugh.
Pardillo-Cid takes a moment to observe the dressing room. His face softens, and he dons a prideful grin as he says, "Celia was a friend. Celia was a friend for everybody. If she was your friend, anything you needed at any time, she was there. Loyalty was very key to her."
"Celia Cruz: Por Siempre." On view through summer 2024, at Tower Theater, 1508 SW Eighth St., Miami. Tickets cost $10 to $15. Daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.