VIVA! EL PASO celebrates its 35th anniversary this summer in the McKelligon Canyon Amphitheatre. A locally produced outdoor musical extravaganza, each VIVA! performance chronicles the 400 year history and cultural evolution of the El Paso region. The show is performed each Friday and Saturday night in June, July and August.
Since its birth, VIVA! has entertained local residents and out-of-town visitors year after year. Unlike other outdoor productions, the directors of VIVA! tweak the show and change certain aspects to keep the annual performances exciting and fresh for performers and patrons alike.
Commissioned by the City of El Paso, VIVA! EL PASO was created by then Artistic Director, Hector Serrano. In 1978 it replaced the two year old drama Paso Del Norte, which was written to inaugurate the 1976 opening of the McKelligon Canyon Amphitheatre.
VIVA! EL PASO premiered as a variety show, but quickly evolved into the city’s pride and joy. Told through the disciplines of music, drama, dance and song, the story begins with an extravaganza featuring production numbers depicting the Spanish Conquest, the Mexican Border influence and the Westward expansion of the United States. The show used every performance such as narration, instrumental and vocal music, dramatic scenes and dance in a mix of styles to include jazz, folklorico, flamenco ballet and modern dance.
VIVA! was set to perform in the McKelligon Canyon Amphitheatre, which came to fruition as a multi-million dollar project spearheaded by former Mayor Fred Hervey and Heritage Committee member Elizabeth G. Dominguez. Their intent was to create a vehicle to help celebrate the United States Bicentennial in 1976, by showcasing the region’s multi-cultural heritage and provide useful work for unemployed El Pasoans through the Federal government’s Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA). Theatrical Designer Don Pasco, architect Emilio Moncevis and engineer Joe Baca, collaborated to produce the 1503 seat, outdoor theatre for the performing arts.
The outline of the show was set. The show would depict 400 years of history focusing on the main four cultures that have influenced the El Paso area: The Native American, the Spanish Conquistador, the Mexican and the Western American.
In 1986, the El Paso Association for the Performing Arts (EPAPA), a non-profit corporation was formed to manage and produce VIVA! EL PASO when previous funding had dried up. With the support of the El Paso Community Foundation, El Paso Community College, the Private Industry Council, the Convention and Visitors Bureau and El Paso’s Art Resource Department, the EPEPA organization began operating VIVA! EL PASO as a year-round business.
The 1980’s saw the formation of the Special Edition Company (SECo.). This select group of VIVA! performers continues to perform on a year-round basis at local events and schools. The group has traveled all over promoting the El Paso area’s culture.
In 1989 a devastating fire destroyed most of the show’s sets and props. With overwhelming support from local corporations and sponsors, new sets, props and a new scene shop were built in record time.
VIVA! inaugurated a preshow barbeque dinner during the 1991 season in the newly remodeled McKelligon Canyon Pavilion. Preshow entertainment, parking lot shuttles and patio souvenir carts were added to enhance performances. Costume renovations began and are still an ongoing process. Sets were updated to include three Spanish Mission replicas representing the Socorro, San Elizario and Guadalupe which joined the existing Ysleta Mission. A new set depicting old Fort Bliss was added. Audiences were treated to the first appearance of the dancing Kachinas and featured artists from Mexico.
In 1992, the City of El Paso took over management of McKelligon Canyon from El Paso County and EPAPA moved its production offices to the canyon complex. In 1993, both parties signed a contract whereby EPAPA would be caretaker of the facility. VIVA! EL PASO had a permanent home!
Because of an agreement between City and the County of El Paso, McKelligon Canyon is now under full direction of the City of El Paso Parks and Recreation Department.
After VIVA! celebrated its 25th Anniversary in 2002, many were surprised to find that the show’s founder, Hector Serrano, had decided to retire. Many speculated what the show’s future would be. EPAPA Board of Directors knew that VIVA! still had a future. So they decided to bring in a new leader. A new director and vision came into play during the show’s 26th season. Craig Wells was brought in and changes in the script included the addition of descriptions of the Mexican Revolution and actual monologues from historical El Pasoans.
In 2004 an entirely new artistic staff came on board. Co-Artistic Directors Jaime Barba and Beth Leffler (both former cast members) and Choreographer Babil Gandara felt that the new show was missing what El Pasoans had loved and brought back essential elements of the original show.
Many changes were in store the following season. The City resumed management of the facility appointing SMG the contract and VIVA! became the “company in residence” at the canyon. However, 2005 saw the near demise of VIVA! EL PASO. Faced with canceling the season due to planned renovations of the amphitheatre, the Board of Directors and Artistic Directors, Jaime Barba and Beth Leffler decided that El Paso and its visitors could not go a season without its beloved show, so they mounted an indoor limited production at the Abraham Chavez Theatre. A brand new show was introduced to VIVA! patrons. With a shift towards musical theatre, the script now included a specific storyline that tied all four cultures, the Native American, the Spanish Conquistador, The Mexican and The Western American, together. A multi-media slide presentation was added to the narrations throughout the production. Though deemed successful, all felt that the true “star” was missing from that production: The beautiful Franklin Mountains.
In 2006 VIVA! returned home to the McKelligon Canyon Amphitheatre under the sole direction of Artistic Director, Jaime Barba. Audiences returned to the newly remodeled Amphitheatre. The facility updated the Theatre’s Plaza, Concession facilities, Patron Restrooms, as well as resurfacing the main stage and rebuilding entirely new dressing rooms and storage facility. The show was new and fresh as well that paid homage to its predecessors. The new story blended with familiar dances and scenes to create something that most in the borderland could identify with. Packed houses led to a planned hold over weekend, but Mother Nature intervened. In early August 2006 devastating rains hit the Border, including McKelligon Canyon, damaging the road to the theatre, and the last weekend of performances was cancelled.
Repairs to the Theatre and the surrounding Park area were still being completed in 2007. The asthetics of the Theatre and the mountain backdrop are visually changed as preventative measures are taken to ensure safety in case of a future flood. The barbeque preshow dinner is reinstated and the tag line “Four Centuries. Four Cultures. One City.” has been added to our name.
VIVA! is continuing to partner with the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau to help make the show a summer reality. Final repairs to the flood damaged theatre were completed in the spring of 2011. Exciting staff changes brought a new Assistant Director, Betsy Tinajero, a former VIVA! performer and dance teacher as well as a promotion of VIVA! veteran performer, Crystal Ramos, to Principal Choreographer. New costumes, dances as well as familiar ones will greet patrons as they enjoy the show that has become El Paso’s summer tradition
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