Civic Leaders Evolving Alternate More Ambitious $45 Mil Plan For Coconut Grove Playhouse

Architect Thomas Spain's rendering of one potential look for the Coconut Grove Playhouse under a new scenario being developed by the Coconut Grove Theater Foundation Inc.

Architect Thomas Spain’s rendering of one potential look for the Coconut Grove Playhouse under a new scenario being developed by the Coconut Grove Theater Foundation Inc.

By Bill Hirschman

An ambitious proposal resurrecting the shuttered Coconut Grove Playhouse as a $45 million theater complex, likely run by the Adrienne Arsht Center, is being solidified by Miami-Dade civic leaders headed by Mike Eidson, chairman of the Arsht’s trust.

The previously undisclosed strategy eclipses – in fact, enfolds – the current county commission agreement to build a smaller facility on the parking lot of the renowned 50-year-old theater that closed in 2006.

The scenario contemplates razing the entire 1926 structure and constructing a 700- to 900-seat Broadway-style theater plus an adjacent 300-seat facility. It would construct a new façade to reproduce and replace the existing one protected by the city’s historic places register, but it would screen off a courtyard leading to a multi-story parking garage.

A private-public partnership similar to the Arsht’s – or the Arsht itself — would govern and/or operate the facility in one version. It would take the lead in raising another $25 million from individuals, foundations and corporations necessary to augment the $20 million in bond money already earmarked by voters for a theater on the site. Another $5 million would be required up front to operate the facility in its start-up years.

The group of leaders incorporated as the Coconut Grove Theater Foundation Inc. plans to deliver a detailed feasibility study by Sept. 15 to Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez. He privately gave his blessing to the inquiry last March if the group paid for it, Eidson said.

But the evolving plan raises many questions about feasibility and need that make it nearly impossible to evaluate yet, said Michael Spring, senior advisor to the mayor and director of the Department of Cultural Affairs. High on the list is whether the new plan would interfere with a process already underway to build a smaller complex, and whether the new vision could gear up fast enough.

“There’s a lot to be worked through,” Spring said Monday. “I think it’s a very tall mountain climb.”

But because of logistics, dedicated funds, property ownership and other factors, the Foundation members believe this is a watershed moment for the arts in Miami-Dade.

“We are…aspirational to be a global city,” a quietly passionate Eidson evangelized during an interview last week. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity…. We don’t have a flagship playhouse in this city… So the question is do you believe in theater?”

Miami-Dade does have many theaters producing quality work, he acknowledged. But his vision is an entity that will mount or host far more offerings, prestigious productions lushly produced with nationally-recognized talent such as when the Playhouse brought in Hal Holbrook to star in Death of a Salesman in 1996.

The Existing County Plan Underway

Currently, Miami-Dade County is in the middle of a months-long process of choosing architect/consultant firms for a theater of some kind on the site. That team will not simply design the project but develop recommendations on what precisely should be built within the $20 million cap insisted upon by the county commission.

The basic parameters of that more modest vision were outlined in a business plan between the county and Florida International University last year. Those two entities became joint-leasees of the site last January with the approval of the state government, which still owns the property. The state approved the lease contingent upon that business plan, which did not contemplate anything like the new group’s vision.

That business plan names GableStage, the acclaimed theater housed in the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, to manage a 300-seat theater to be built on the existing parking lot. FIU could use the building for classes, productions and events. It did not mention the fate of the existing structure. The parameters given to architect candidates also briefly mention exploring the possibility of a second larger theater, but few think it could be built with the allocated funds and it is not part of the business plan.

A Different Vision

That contrasts with this more sweeping vision being developed by 10 local activists on the newly-created Foundation. Its president is Eidson, a nationally-known product liability litigator, former president of the Miami City Ballet and the current chairman of the Adrienne Arsht Performing Arts Center Trust Board of Directors. The treasurer is Ronald Esserman, owner of several car dealerships and a founding donor to the Arsht Center. Also connected is J. Ricky Arriola, immediate past chair of the Arsht board, president and CEO of Inktel Direct the outsourcing company and a member of President Obama’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

The Foundation has hired as a consultant, Larry Wilker, the Broadway producer who was interim president and CEO of the Arsht in 2007-8, and a former president of The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Although the Foundation envisions the Arsht as the operator/manager, Eidson stressed that he is not acting as the Arsht’s agent and said that the Arsht’s board has not discussed the idea at a meeting nor taken any votes. But Eidson said he has consulted some Arsht board members and executives whom Eidson believes are receptive to the idea.

Although others are involved, Eidson has been a prime mover in the campaign. He has lived in or near Coconut Grove since coming to Florida in 1972. He and his wife, Margaret, were avid fans of the Playhouse. He served on its board from about 1990 to 2000 and did pro bono trial work for them.

“We were very distressed when it went bankrupt. And we thought it would get right back up. Although I knew they had problems with their board…. I was hoping that a white knight or the county would see this opportunity,” he said.

He watched the building deteriorate and then monitored the county’s efforts to gain title to the property from the state. But when the county-FIU-GableStage business plan surfaced in 2013, Eidson decried its lack of scope.

A larger project fits, he said, in Miami-Dade’s evolution over the past decade to become a nationally-recognized arts scene that has included the emergence of the Miami City Ballet, the growth of the YoungArts program, the construction of the New World Symphony home in 2011, the Perez Art Museum reboot in 2013, the growth of Art Basel, and the creation of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in 2006.

But no local theater is of the stature to being “a member of the League of Regional Theaters. We are the only city in the 29 largest metropolitan areas that doesn’t have one (LORT-class) theater. And Sarasota has two,” he said.

Evolving And Pitching The Idea

Eidson met with Wilker in 2013 “and said, “Is that the best use of this property? Can we go back to look at this again as building a great theater that can match anybody in the country…. I’m talking about building a civic anchor.”

Eidson and his colleagues researched 18 theaters around the country including studying online financial records. He conferred with local stakeholders from arts leaders to business owners to politicians.

Then last March, he made a Powerpoint pitch to Xavier Suarez who represents Coconut Grove on the county commission. Eidson recalls saying, “This will be a waste of this property if all we’re going to do on this is build this little theater. This is not what the people want. I’ve been listening to the people and they want something comparable to the (former) Coconut Grove Playhouse. They want important theater again.”

He pushed the economic development worth of a larger Playhouse project as an employer and a boost for residential and retail development projects planned for the Grove.

They went to County Mayor Gimenez whose office has been a key supporter of the current Playhouse project that Spring has spearheaded. Eidson received Gimenez’s blessing to proceed with a feasibility study, provided it was paid for by private funds.

Initially, the Foundation did not have the smaller GableStage theater as part of its plan, but readily agreed to incorporate it at the urging of Spring who had been pushing the concept since 2007 for a major regional theater.

The Foundation study will be delivered by Sept. 15, putting a decision in Gimenez’s hands. As the project’s champion, he could decide whether to back an expansion of the scope. One juncture will occur this fall when he can endorse or reject a committee’s pending selection of an architect for the county commission to consider.

The initial Powerpoint document created by Eidson suggests multiple ways of governing the site. Alternatively to the Arsht itself, a foundation could be created by the county and conceivably choose the architect, contractor and design of the project as well as spend three years raising funds. The early document also suggests the existing Arsht Trust could operate the new entity through an amendment to its current agreement with the county, or a new trust board could be created.

Edison’s Foundation members have invested $75,000 in the original Powerpoint and the feasibility study still underway. In addition to Wilker, they hired Steve Wolf, of AMS Planning & Research, and Joshua Dachs, of Fisher Dachs Associates, both experts in theater development and previously involved in Miami-area arts projects.

Also hired is Phillips & Associates of Los Angeles, a management consultant with expertise in fundraising by not-for-profit institutions. Further, they hired Thomas Spain of the University of Miami’s School of Architecture to draw a view of a potential exterior. The vision maintains the look of the existing building on one portion of the land, plus another building whose different look would not clash with the Grove’s ambiance.

The Foundation members and consultants have spoken now to more than 100 people including surveying some local arts leaders. They are making site visits with Eidson to five prominent regional theaters: the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Huntington Theatre in Boston, Alliance Theatre in Atlanta and last month took a trip to the Actors Theatre of Louisville, home to the renowned Humana Festival of New Plays.

A controversial element is levelling the entire property including the iconic façade. The City of Miami gave it “historic preservation status” in 2005. That means it cannot be altered or torn down without city approval. The application for the status called it “a noteworthy expression of the Florida Land Boom” whose “original design by the critically important architectural firm of Kiehnel and Elliott…. embodies the metaphoric Boom and Bust cycles that Florida has experienced, and continues as a signature building reflecting the heyday of Coconut Grove.”

But Eidson says local historical architecture expert Robert Chisholm assured him that the original 1926 design was “not all that special” and that the structure — including the façade — was significantly altered when the building was heavily renovated from a movie house into a stage theater during 1955.

Examining Details

A group like the Arsht managing an off-campus site is not ground-breaking. Currently, the Broward Center for the Performing Arts staff completely manages Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale and the Aventura Arts & Cultural Center on behalf of their owners, and delivers management services for the Miniaci Performing Arts Center at Nova Southeastern University in Davie which provides some employees.

The idea of the Arsht operating on the Playhouse site is not new, either. After the Playhouse’s private board of directors closed the doors in 2006, City of Miami Mayor Manny Diaz asked the Arsht Center to consider running the Playhouse, Eidson said. Arsht officials responded that the idea was fiscally untenable: the auditorium had too many seats, the building was poorly designed for a legitimate theater and the cost of restoring the dilapidated structure was too great. Wilker made a counter-offer from the Arsht around 2007 or 2008: If the county built a new structure to the Arsht’s specification, they could create a new theater company, Eidson recalled. Nothing came of it.

The Arsht likely would balk today at managing a facility that only had the 300-seat theater because the Foundation is skeptical that the configuration makes fiscal sense, even sharing the administrative workload with the Arsht’s existing infrastructure, Eidson said.

Eidson supports GableStage; he attended opening night of The Whale this month. But he wondered if its existing infrastructure could be ramped up to run the county’s current vision, let alone Eidson’s. GableStage’s annual budget until this year was about $900,000 with a staff of about six people. The proposed budget for the Grove cited in current county documents is $2.6 million.

Eidson said, “So then the county passes this partnership with GableStage…. It has no history of running anything. They rent a small theater over here.”

But GableStage has been expanding its ability to handle a larger mission in consultation with Spring’s office, according to statements made earlier this year by Joseph Adler, the theater’s producing artistic director. For instance, the theater had to increase its fund-raising efforts to pay for last winter for Antony & Cleopatra, a co-production with the Public Theater of New York and the Royal Shakespeare Company in England.

Could It Work?

No one interviewed was directly hostile to the idea; Eidson is a widely-respected, well-liked and generous arts champion whose altruistic motives are admired.

But several were also skeptical pending answers in the September 15 report, starting with whether the crucial support exists among donors as well as patrons seeking buying tickets.

Would the new plan significantly slow the existing project? The new stratagem was described as a “parallel” proposal to the business plan that would not undercut what has been planned so far, Eidson said. The current county plan has an estimated five-year timeline before opening day. Eidson said he thinks the Foundation plan could match or better that by a year or two.

Can the money be raised at all, let along quickly? Construction contracts usually cannot be awarded until the money is in hand and donors traditionally prefer to spread out their contributions over multiple years.

Will the public think the need is there and support such a facility? Eidson says initial research seems to indicate it will. That will be the meat of the feasibility study.

He points to Louisville as a smaller city than Miami with an overall less sophisticated populace which overwhelmingly supports a nationally-recognized theater. A theater spokesman there said last week that it sells about 160,000 tickets a year to over 369 performances of 16 plays encompassing new works, classics, festivals and other programming.

But Miami-Dade and South Florida institutions have found traditional theater a harder sell in recent years. The older generation that was once the mainstay is dying off, younger audiences are hard to attract, Miami’s dominant minorities do not attend classic mainstream theater in the numbers that producers hope for, and like the rest of the country, season subscriptions have fallen off in favor of undependable spur-of-the-moment decisions to attend a show.

Actors’ Playhouse, celebrating its 25th season, operates two auditoriums in its Miracle Mile home in Coral Gables: a 300-seat theater converted from a balcony and its 600-seat main stage. Barbara Stein, that theater’s executive producing director, is supportive of the county’s efforts and doesn’t fear the competition. But she confirmed that her blockbuster shows don’t fully sell out the 600-seat house anymore, even the well-received In The Heights last season.

Additionally, some arts organizations like the Florida Philharmonic have folded during the same period.

New venues that might compete also have been opening. The county opened the South Miami Dade Cultural Arts Center in 2011 far south of downtown in Cutler Ridge. The $51 million complex encompasses a 961-seat theater plus a small black box theater, a smaller theater lab, classrooms and rehearsals space. The county directly manages that facility.

Then there is the $45 million price tag: The New World Symphony building cost $160 million and the Perez Art Museum is $130 million, although both are more complicated projects. New expansions and additions at the Broward Center cost $56 million.

A Historic Site

The Playhouse has been closed since 2006 – its 50th anniversary season. That invalidated the Playhouse’s lease with the state, which had taken ownership of the property in 1980.

Even before that, Spring was working toward creating a world-class renovated theater, investigating partnerships with retail and residential developers. Since the doors shut eight years ago, he has been developing the plan for the smaller theater to be an international cultural hub.

Starting out as a movie theater in 1926, the building has played a major role in Florida cultural history. The edifice 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. In a few cases, Broadway-bound productions were developed at the Playhouse.
Among the legendary productions was the first American version of Waiting For 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.
It’s that kind of history that the Foundation wants to revive. Eidson joked that he’d love to see a new A Streetcar Named Desire starring Cate Blanchett and Kevin Spacey, the latter who performed at the Arsht’s birthday gala last April. “I’m being hyperbolic, I guess, but I think we could have anybody down here in this city.”

Something will rise on the site, he said. “They’re going to do it. Let’s do it right.”


Something will rise on the site, he said. “They’re going to do it. Let’s do it right.

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