Irreplaceable Playbills, Costumes And Ephemera Rescued From Coconut Grove

By Bill Hirschman

In the six and a half years since the landmark Coconut Grove Playhouse shuttered, irreplaceable theatrical history has festered in a fetid, crumbling structure, endangered by everything from larcenous-minded vagrants to Florida’s infamous mold-rich climate.

Expensive hand-made costumes, original set designs, playbills touting George C. Scott to Denzel Washington and Ethel Merman to Liza Minnelli, video recordings of productions, memorabilia reflecting the Grove hosting the 1956 American premiere of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot.

All of it and more languished while the Playhouse board, its $4 million worth of creditors, developers, state and county officials sparred over whom, if anyone, would take over the facility, if ever.

But in a third-act development worthy of a melodrama last fall, two groups rescued the ephemera of the most ephemeral of art forms. Actors’ Playhouse in Coral Gables and the University of Miami library’s special collections division have invested considerable time and manpower to retrieve some of the Grove’s treasures, officials confirmed this month.

“I consider them civic heroes,” said Michael Spring, director of Miami-Dade’s Department of Cultural Affair.

While the fate of the Playhouse itself remains in doubt until sometime next month, most of the documents were saved – enough photographs, scripts, videotapes, scrapbooks, posters, headshots, marketing materials and business correspondence to fill 800 boxes.

Manuscripts Librarian Beatrice Skokan leads a team of archivist / All photos except exterior shot by Duvy Argandona

“It was not as bad as we thought it would be,” said Cristina Favretto, head of UM’s special collections who led the reclamation with manuscript librarian Beatricre Skokan. “Some kind of theater God was there that we got there in time.”

The elements did damage uncalculated expanses of costumes, props and equipment, but Actors’ Playhouse and former Grove costumer Ellis Tillman carefully selected pieces including two bins of clothing.

The librarians salvaged paper records that will be open to the public after a three-year restoration project that could cost more than $100,000, both figures only rough estimates. Actors’ Playhouse may reuse the costumes, a few props and a few pieces of equipment in local productions, said Executive Producing Director Barbara Stein.

“The goal was to find a responsible place where those materials could be used,” Spring said. “It’s not about money; it’s about history.”

Margaret M. Ledford, now a freelance director who worked on the Playhouse staff in its final days, said, “The whole building has that feel: You knew you were part of something long before you — and you hoped that would live long after you.”

The rescue has its roots in the theater officials’ fear that if the state took over the property and sold it to a developer, the new occupants would simply toss out what they couldn’t use, Spring said.

About two years ago, the University of Miami’s special collections staff began talking with people who run the annual Coconut Grove Arts Festival. The festival officials thought the playhouse’s contents might be a good fit since the university already houses extensive records about the history of the Coconut Grove neighborhood, Favretto said.

Conversations continued with Spring and Shelly Spivak, chairman of the Grove’s board. Then, talk that the state was going to take possession and that demolition of the building might even be possible spurred the players to act quickly. The Grove board donated the papers to the university and Spring arranged a “long-term loan” of the costumes and other physical possessions to Actors Playhouse, he said.

It was a daunting undertaking, if only because of the expense. Each of the 800 specially designed storage boxes cost $14 each – not counting the acid-free folders to contain the papers.

“When we bring in a collection of this scope and size, it’s a huge commitment,” Favretto said.  “But we thought ‘It’s Miami history, it’s Florida history, it’s Grove history, the Grove is where Waiting For Godot had its American premiere. Who could say no to that?”

Accounts differ somewhat about the building’s precise condition and structural integrity although it is likely to be outlined in the state’s detailed appraisal that may be released when the property is formally offered to interested parties sometime next month.

But no one questions that the once elegant show palace had severely deteriorated when the library and theater staffers entered Oct. 8 and 9 to sort, pack and direct movers.

Stein said, “The theater had been vacant for so many years with apparent vagrants camping out at times. The electrical was not on in all areas making it spooky to locate materials that could be salvaged. Humidity had poorly affected costumes, but we were able to save some costumes that were unusual and had little damage.”

The roof leaked, accounting for water damage. Vagrants had lit fires inside. Toilets had not been flushed. There was less grafitti than expected, but vandals looking for cash had smashed in computer monitors.

The environment was spooky at times. The boarded up first floor was pitch black although sunlight peeked through on the second and third floors, so the first crews doing reconnaissance used flashlights to explore the area.

Because the Grove staff was simply ordered to take their personal belongings, leave the premises and the doors were locked, it felt like the Mary Celeste , a ghost ship discovered abandoned at sea, the archivists said. “It was like people just left,” Skokan said, “The bed covers in the apartments were thrown open. There were cups there with dried coffee. It’s as if everybody just walked out.”

The set to the last show, a revival of Sonia Flew starring Lucie Arnaz, was still standing on stage complete with a working kitchen.

“It was like being in Pompeii,” Favretto said.

The interior was unusually hot and humid for October and workmen brought in lights and fans. “We did have an engineer for safety and we did walk gingerly at first because we didn’t know what we were stepping on or what we were stepping in, but eventually we were just tramping up and down the stairs,” Skokan said.

They had no time to catalog anything, only to note on each box what office or room the contents came from. Therefore, even now, they only have a rough idea of what they brought back.

But among the boxes are the complete business records including  orders for supplies. While less “sexy” than the scripts and photos, the paperwork — down to the “do not call list” for the telemarketers — document the extreme detail of work required to run a regional theater and produce a show, even “the efforts to finding the right cups for a show. The dedication to the deep level of detail is moving,” Favretto said.

A second wall of more recent playbills was also rescued

A major treasure are the playbills. The Playhouse’s last producing artistic director, Arnold Mittelman, had collected and mounted on two lobby walls behind Plexiglas what he believes is every program from every production in the Playhouse’s half-century history, although some may be copies. Favretto, who has a  mlove of theater, cut her hand while trying to retrieve the documents.

A major question mark surrounds the videotapes that the Playhouse made of productions for rehearsal and archival purposes, uses strictly outlined by agreements with the unions. Many had already been donated to the New York Public Library’s Theatre on Film and Tape collection at Lincoln Center. But others were found by Skokan’s crew and no one knows what condition they’re in.

Everything was boxed up and then stored through November in a freezer to kill whatever might be hiding inside, then everything was taken to the University of Miami library’s climate controlled storage off campus.

Actors’ Playhouse had to be more selective due to a lack of storage and limited resources for restoration. Tillman sorted through hundreds of pieces of clothing that he and his staff built, bought or supervised. Much of it was too far gone to be saved and even more were pieces that Actors’ Playhouse didn’t need because they were contemporary clothing easily found in thrift shops.

The same criterion was used for props. The Coral Gables theater had no need for shelves and shelves of glassware, plates and bric-a-brac. They opted for about “two yards” of props such as old telephones and cameras, plus some simple equipment and tools, Stein said. They found moth-eaten rugs and thousands of pieces that would have required “five years of packing,” she said.

All that is still in there.

One of the key challenges will be assessing what is in the boxes. It would take years to catalog the individual items. Skokan and her staff will essentially classify the material into topics and sections that will intuitively make sense to researchers and the merely curious. It helps that the library staff  labeled the boxes they removed noting the locations such as “marketing department.” It can take 10 hours to classify a box’s contents and place them in acid-free folders or acetate sheets and replacing rusting paper clips with stainless steel models. Using staff and students, it costs about $15 an hour per box.

Some materials will be taken to a preservation department that takes damaged papers and stacks of photos sticking together, separates them and puts them into plastic sleeves. Because of the added cost, the staff selects which materials are important enough to save that way.

Nothing will be digitized because the library avoids copyright problems by not copying anything created after 1923.  But visitors to the collection will be able to shoot photos of the materials when they become available for public use.

Starting out as a movie theater in 1926, the Spanish rococo building on the southwest corner of the Coconut Grove business/entertainment district has been repeatedly remodeled under several ownerships while becoming one of the nation’s leading regional theaters that emerged after World War II. Producers like Zev Buffman, Robert Kantor, Jose Ferrer and, after 1985, Arnold Mittelman mounted their own shows, hosted national tours and even provided a home for works being developed for Broadway.

The shows and the performers reflected a time when fading stars and supporting actors in film and television were able to headline major stage productions that they would never have the chance to attempt in New York. Some were triumphs and many were flops. Some were unadventurous fare; others reflected the latest thought-provoking hit from Broadway.

Among the legendary productions was the first American version of Godot, starring Tom Ewell and Bert Lahr, an evening that left many playgoers confused because it wasn’t the comedy those stars were usually seen in.

There was the troubled opening night of A Streetcar Named Desire in 1956, belatedly starring Tallulah Bankhead, the actress who Tennessee Williams originally wanted for the Broadway premiere. Bankhead famously camped up the part for the many gay men in the audience, but scaled it back after Williams criticized her. A Broadway-bound revival of Finian’s Rainbow in 1999 died a-borning and the pre-New York tryout of the musical version of Urban Cowboy in 2002 was a major debacle.

“It’s not just the building that’s historic; it’s what has happened there. It’s really the spiritual activity there,” Spring said.

Financial woes mounted with cuts in state funding and diminishing audiences. The three-story edifice at 3500 Main Highway was suffering structural problems. According to one report disputed by Mittelman, sea sand mixed in the concrete exterior had created a chemical reaction to erode the steel beams. But other employees have reported holes in the ceiling and marble falling off the walls.

In its 50th season in the spring of 2006, the company cancelled Sonia Flew with Lucie Arnaz and closed the theater for a few days. Subsequent donations by Arnaz and Bacardi Ltd. allowed the drama to open and run an abbreviated two weeks. But as soon as it was over, the doors closed. Mittelman was locked out, then the staff. Despite the board’s murmuring about plans to reopen, it never did.

The state of Florida had taken ownership in 1980 by purchasing a $1.5 million mortgage and contracted with the Playhouse board to run it until transferring the title to the board in 2004 with the requirement that it be operated as a theater. Last October, the state retrieved the title because the property was dormant.

The property is expected to be offered for purchase in February to state agencies and universities. If those entities don’t jump on it, the county government has been anxious to take it over and build a new theater on the parking lot. The exact plans for the existing building – designated a historic site by the City of Miami — are nebulous.

But for the meantime, some of its precious contents are safe and that’s what is important to Skokan.

“Two hundred years from now, I want these to be available,” she said.

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23 Responses to Irreplaceable Playbills, Costumes And Ephemera Rescued From Coconut Grove

  1. From 1980-85 I worked at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in publicity and marketing and as one of its playwrights for the Touring Company. In listing the artistic directors of the Playhouse there was a prominent ommission: Robert Kantor. Players Repertory Company, a semi-professional community theatre that performed at the Museum of Science in the 60′s-70′s, hired Kantor to lead the company as its Artistic Director when it moved to its new home, the Coconut Grove Playhouse in the late 1970′s. The Playhouse was renamed Players State Theatre, becoming one of three State Theaters in Florida. Kantor brought in Executive Director G. David Black, who had formerly managed the Public Theatre in New York, and Trinity Square in Providence. Under their direction the theatre began its transformation into an important regional theatre. Kantor’s seasons included a mix of classic and contemporary productions, including the first regional presentations of plays that were premiered at the Actors Theater of Louisville Humana Festival. After a few years, Players State Theatre once again renamed itself the Coconut Grove Playhouse. Kantor also hired Jose Ferrer for a production of THE DRESSER. Soon thereafter the Board removed Kantor and replaced him with Ferrer as its $1 per year Artistic Director.
    Susan Westfall

  2. jack allison says:

    I directed a number of productions in the 80′s and 90′s, having been introduced to Arnold Mittelman by Jose Ferrer. Those productions include BERLIN TO BWAY WITH KURT WEILL, SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM, THE RINK, THE LAST NIGHT OF BALLYHOO.
    I am deeply saddened by the demise of the Playhouse, and how such an important faction of America’s theatre history will be lost forever.
    It also will stand as a metaphor for this country’s lack of respect and dignity afforded to its theatre, and to its contributions.

  3. Pingback: Actors Playhouse and UM team up to save artifacts from shuttered Coconut Grove Playhouse | Broward News and Entertainment Today

  4. I directed three plays at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, THE CHOSEN, HALPERN AND JOHNSON, and the final production that is mentioned here, SONIA FLEW by Melinda Lopez. What a sad and inappropriate end to a glorious theatre with such an amazing history. Arnold Mittelman and the dedicated staff of the playhouse fought to keep it open until the bitter end against financial hardships and the opportunism of some that eventually brought it down. Even as the organization was crumbling around us and we were literally locked out of the building during rehearsal, the artists persevered, and through Lucie Arnaz’s amazing generosity we got that final play open and created some moving and memorable moments on stage that made a difference in the lives of those that attended. One can only hope that this once glorious institution will rise again and bring great theatre back to the Grove. The community deserves it.

    • Steve Shapiro says:

      I remember this production well. It was very inspiring to me. Lucie’s self sacrificing contribution, her fabulous performance, Melinda’s intensely personal play all led by David’s gentle direction. I also fondly remember The Chosen as one of my favorite times in the theater. Thank you, David!

  5. Nick Vincenty says:

    I was the Scene Shop Foreman in the 90′s. does anyone know the fate of the Scene Shop and all the equipment, scenery, and properties that was there. I left shortly after we moved the shop up by the airport, and just want to know if it was forgotten and abandoned by the board.

    • Bill Hirschman says:

      My fourth-hand understanding is that some equipment was removed early on, but that much was left there. I think Actors Playhouse got some of it when they were in there, but again, not much. I’m hoping someday to get in there for a tour.

    • Edward Gurney says:

      Nick, I know that some of the tools were saved but most of the stuff was lost. I managed to get hold of the “No Way to Treat a Lady” drop. I was not working there at the time buy Ed Sr. was.

      • Nick Vincenty says:

        Yea, I kinda thought that. I figured the landlord sold all the equipment off to pay the back rent. Shame. There was some really good gear in there.

  6. Steve Shapiro says:

    I was the Sound Designer and Engineer from 1990 to the closing day. I was out of town the day they allowed the staff in to get their personal items and was never allowed back in. My personal record collection (of over 1,500 albums), my entire sound design history (all on reel to reel) and an abundance of tools all lost.
    That said, The Playhouse was the place I grew as a sound designer and as a person. Because of my time there, I am the artist and man I am now. I wouldn’t change that for the world!
    I miss all my friends in the South Florida theater community. You all, and the Playhouse, made me what I am today.

  7. Luis Santeiro says:

    I had four of my plays produced at the Playhouse, between 1989 and 2000. I had been seeing productions there since coming to Miami from Cuba at age 12, and it was the place where my interest in the theater was nurtured.
    It was a unique institution, and during the years that Arnold Mittleman was its artistic director, a concerted effort was made to give a voice to South Florida’s growing Latino population. What has happened to the Playhouse is deeply saddening, not just to me, but to anyone who loves the theater.

  8. Pingback: EPHEMERA RESCUE | 9 Miles Of Ephemera

  9. Having directed many shows at Coconut Grove from the late ‘80s thru 2006 (GOLDEN BOY, RAGS, MASTER CLASS, THE ROTHSCHILDS, REAL MEN, ALI, NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY, THE JAZZ CLUB…et al), I am more than pleased to know that the records and memories of those years will be preserved. How great to be able to view again some of the performances from the past as well as to note the many many actors and creative types who were gathered together to be part of the unique theatrical collaboration The Playhouse was in those years – all under the lovingly watchful eye of Arnold Mittelman. Unfortunately, what can’t be preserved is the very special sense of trust, joy and creative license that was at the very heart of those productions – bestowed on all of us who passed thru the doors on our way to rehearsal or performance and enjoyed by all who passed thru the doors on their way to the seats. To me, it is still a mystery, no, a tragedy, that those doors were allowed to close…and that all that remains now is contained in “acid-free” boxes.

  10. Cherished treasure reclaimed! As a playwright who has had two of my shows produced at the Grove by the ever-nurturing Arnold Mittelman, I am relieved to know that these precious artifacts will be saved.

  11. Thom Elliott says:

    Dear Mr. Bill Hirschman,

    My name is Thom Elliott.
    I did lots of publicity photos for the playhouse during the 80′s.
    I covered plays in the following areas: some rehearsals, dress rehearsal, and opening night, and the parties that followed the opening night festivities.
    I was able to document Edward Albee directing his own play “Seascape”. I have some 23 or more rolls of 35mm B&W film which I am presently making digital contact proof sheets.
    I was hired by the New York producers of “On The 20th Century”, staring Imogene Coco:
    http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1555885905554&set=a.1555885785551.2073745.1487401673&type=3&theater

    I will be having a one man show during the entire month of March at the gallery within Pitman Photo Supply store. Some of those Albee photos will be displayed along with other photos of my time as “Dateline: Hollywood” film production manager.
    I always kept and still keep any and all assignments in my own archival storage files in my home studio. You can visit my web site for some of those photos. I am also on Facebook. You can see some of those photos there too. I have two Facebook accounts one open to the general public and one for my family with some photos open to the public.
    Thank you for taking the time to read this posting.
    Yours truly,
    Thom Elliott
    Photographer

  12. Dennis Creaghan says:

    In the mid 70s while visiting my parents who were running a motel at dinner Key in the Grove, I auditioned for The Players Repertory Theater at the Museum Of Science and was hired to do a season there. When the Players moved into the Grove Playhouse I was performing in New York in “The Elephant Man” and was invited by Bob Kantor to come down and do “Othello” and “Ashes”. The New York producers were kind enough to let me go for three months and I came down and did them. As a result I feel a connection with the playhouse and hope that there will be a new life for her in the not too distant future.

    • Al Alschuler says:

      Hopefully memorabilia might also be found regarding the Players State Theatre Conservatory which operated under the direction of Phil Giberson. Its programs included a masters class in scene study for professionals, as well as classes in acting for young adults, stage fencing and vocal production for the stage.

  13. Lauren Boersma says:

    I’m currently doing my student teaching at a high school in Michigan and I have an upcoming unit on “The Chosen.” I’m searching for a recording of Theodore Bikel’s performance in the stage version of Chaim Potok’s story. I believe it was performed at the Coconut Grove playhouse. Any idea as to where I could look for such a recording?

    • Bill Hirschman says:

      There’s no way to know if it;s in the archives, but you might check with the Theater on Film and Tape library at the New York Public Library branch in Lincoln Center in New York because some of the Grove material went there. Their catalogue is on line.

  14. Dotti Jenkins says:

    My father was born in 1926 and grew up on Mary Street. He talks a lot about the Coconut Grove Playhouse. His funniest story is about how he and his friend would go down near the bay and gather up land crabs, put them into crocker sacks, sneak into the theater, then let the crabs go. Dad just turned 88 and my brother and I are bringing him to Miami to visit all the old haunts. This is at the top of the list!

  15. Daniel matis says:

    I did a couple of seasons of A Christmas Carol around 1980 -81 at players state theater….Lots of fun…Ah memories

  16. Jack Amoroso says:

    I was the Art Director of the Coconut Grove Playhouse from its very beginnings… till 1959… also designed & operated as the Vice President & Director The Playhouse Gallery.
    I still posses many of the early Playbills, etc.

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