By Bill Hirschman
More than a decade after efforts began to rescue the financially failing Coconut Grove Playhouse – efforts that failed in bankruptcy — the Miami-Dade County Commission voted Tuesday to take the watershed steps in resurrecting the nationally-recognized regional theater.
The commission voted to hire an architect to design a $20 million theater complex and approved signing a long-term agreement with the existing GableStage to operate and manage the facility.
Early county estimates predict the doors will not open for another five years and no one knows exactly how the structure will be configured. That’s a key issue for preservationists who want the historical landmark kept intact even though some studies question the structural integrity of the building.
But county documents indicate the new Playhouse likely will be built as a 300-seat theater with space devoted to theater classes provided by Florida International University. A parking garage paid for and operated by the City of Miami Parking Authority is also expected on the site at the southwestern edge of the Grove business district.
The county commission voted unanimously to approve a $2.398 million master plan-design-consultant contract with Miami-based Arquitectonica International Corp., and a 25-year agreement with GableStage to manage the theater with options stretching out to 2113.
County officials, notably Michael Spring, current senior advisor to the mayor and director of the Department of Cultural Affairs, worked to save the nationally-recognized theater facility long before the Playhouse’s non-profit board of directors locked the doors in 2006 in a $4 million bankruptcy.
Since the closure, the county commission, urged by Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Commissioner Xavier Suarez, committed $20 million in dedicated bond funds for the project pointedly contingent on not spending one more dime.
The existing three-story structure on the corner at 3500 Main Highway has played a major role in Florida cultural history. Noted architect Richard Kiehne designed the Paramount movie house in the Mediterranean Revival style. That theater was closed for many years but was heavily remodeled in the 1950s to become a stage venue. At that time, it began a 50-year-history as one of the nation’s leading regional theaters that emerged after World War II.
Former employees and others who have been inside have said the facility was literally falling apart even before growing financial problems caused the non-profit board of directors to shutter the structure.
The run-up to the vote Tuesday was arduous. Nearly 20 GableStage supporters attended the meeting beginning about 9:30 a.m. and waited until 2:06 p.m. to be called to speak. But they agreed to allow GableStage Producing Artistic Director Joseph Adler to speak for them and simply stand to show their support.
Six minutes later, the commission approved both items in tandem with virtually no discussion and an inaudible vote. Later in the meeting, the issue was temporarily reopened because Max Pearl, leader of the Save the Coconut Grove Playhouse group, wanted to speak. He vowed to oppose any plan that would demolish the existing structure.
The vote was a huge relief to Adler and his partisans who have been consulted for almost nine years about stepping in to operate a theater on the historic site.
“I’m just very grateful that we finally got this far. I can’t believe the time has come when a vote has been taken,” he said. “The thing is we are finally on the road.”
Even before the meeting, Adler was guardedly optimistic but philosophical. “This is important; it would make it official. But we’ll have to be back here five or six times: they will have to approve the (master) plan, they will have to have to approve the design, they will have to hire a (construction) company.”
Adler and GableStage’s board of directors have been brainstorming for some time about the necessary next steps, but have been reluctant to make changes until after the commission sealed the deal, said Steven M. Weinger, president of the board.
Adler met briefly with the architects minutes after the vote and he plans to meet with them very soon for detailed conversations. Weinger said the board will begin planning to ramp up its staff, board and fund-raising to meet the considerably larger demands of the new project.
One likely difference is that GableStage, which has been based at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, will change its name when it moves to the Grove, Adler said..
A key wrinkle in the overall plan was eliminated a week ago when a citizens’ group that pushed for a larger, more ambitious complex with a second larger theater shelved its plan indefinitely because the Miami-Dade County administration opposed the idea. Last summer, the alternative parallel plan was unveiled by the Coconut Grove Playhouse Foundation, a community group founded by Coral Gables attorney and arts activist Lewis “Mike” Eidson.
The Foundation had quietly gathered verbal support and financial resources toward an additional overriding component – a 750-seat theater operated by a new umbrella organization, to be built with and funded totally with private donations predicted between $35 million and $45 million.
But Eidson confirmed that Spring and other administration figures said last week that the Foundation’s plan was irredeemably flawed in several respects — and that they would not recommend it.
Eidson said he was “standing down” because the administration’s opposition meant he “had nowhere to go…. I don’t feel like I’m quitting anything. I just don’t feel like there is anything I can do.” He did not attend the meeting Tuesday.
Technically, the idea of a two-theater complex is not completely ruled out permanently. The architect will develop a master plan that includes the larger theater as an option in the future. Eidson also left the door a bit ajar, even suggesting that his extensive feasibility study provides information for any such project. But the county commissioners will not spend any more money – funds essential for an expanded vision.
The Playhouse closed in its 50th anniversary season. That invalidated the Playhouse’s lease with the state, which had taken ownership of the property in 1980.
In its heyday, 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.