And drug dealers loved it, said people in the community. Actually, they loved the bunker of a utility building, which offered sturdy protection for their business transactions.
The surrounding community did not care for that. So in 1999, the utility building was demolished and Gran Teatro went into deep storage.
On Friday, in an instance of artistic resurrection, this magical piece returned to a bright, hot, revamped Fairhill Square.
After "temporary" storage that lasted nearly 14 years, a completely restored, repainted, and refurbished Gran Teatro is back. Reinstallation began at 7 a.m. and it should be done by Saturday.
To the dismay of all present, the artist was not on hand to assist in and direct the reinstallation of his work, which runs up and across a newly constructed steel "trellis" structure.
After a series of miscommunications and delays, the 79-year-old Ferrer was all set for the event the day before, Thursday. Alas, there was no sculpture - the flatbed truck carrying it from the metal fabrication shop in Connecticut had broken down.
It was not the first delay. Installation was supposed to begin Wednesday, but a suitable crane operator could not be found.
The combination of delays annoyed Ferrer, who had to return to his home in New York. He did not return calls Friday.
Earlier, however, he had spoken with great enthusiasm about the refurbishing of Gran Teatro.
"It looks great," he said by phone a few weeks ago. "It looks better than it ever has."
Community members from the largely Hispanic surrounding neighborhood are equally enthusiastic.
"First of all, it's the return of something that was part of that park for so long," said Carmen Febo-San Miguel, executive director of Taller Puertorriqueño, the arts center based on North Fifth Street, a block away from the square.
"It encourages people to use the park. And it supports the whole sense of the park as a venue for people to gather and celebrate and make culture. I'm really excited to see it again. To have it back is really wonderful."
Bill Salas, cofounder of HACE, a nonprofit community development corporation, was a leader in the effort to refurbish Fairhill Square and a backer of the reinstallation project.
"It's a community project to be able to bring art back into this area," Salas said. "For us, it will help us attract other people into the neighborhood. So it's a good thing."
Margot Berg, head of the city's public art program, said that the sculpture remained in storage so long for the simple reason that money was not available to renovate the park and refurbish and reinstall Gran Teatro.
But last year, the city's Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy secured a $35,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to restore the piece. A state grant covered the bulk of the cost for replanting and refurbishing the square. That work was done by Cairone & Kaup landscape architects.
Early Friday morning, with new plantings in place, walkways widened, and the large trellis getting a final dustoff, El Gran Teatro de la Luna at last returned to center stage.
A great crane lifted each piece high into the air and set it gently down on the grass around the trellis - jigsaw puzzle pieces waiting to be fitted back together.
There was a man in blue dexterously bouncing balls. On one side, the balls bore the words ice and hielo, on the other side, fire and fuego.
Another man rested on the grass, a large "F" on his navy uniform. He manipulated balls of sun, moon and stars. A girl - an expert at headstanding - swung out over the lawn and gently came to earth. A large section featuring a ferocious, pink big cat balancing on a ring and a green man next to a ladder settled to the ground.
There were mermaidesque acrobats, round masklike faces, squiggles of color, red, yellow, blue, aqua.
Gran Teatro is filled with movement, color and kinetic energy barely held in check. When Mondale saw the piece three decades ago, she was knocked out.
"It's incredible," she enthused. "It celebrates life, activity. It speaks to the spirit of games."
People still feel that energy.
"I'm very excited," said Febo-San Miguel.
Contact culture writer Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594, email@example.com, or @SPSalisbury on Twitter