Most publicity gimmicks, if they succeed, endure in memory about as long as opening night.
This weekend, Charlie Cinnamon’s grand scheme celebrates half a century. Saturday brings the start of the 50th edition of the Coconut Grove Arts Festival, and more than 500,000 are expected to line South Bayshore Drive and McFarlane Road over the course of the three-day event.
In terms of publicity stunts, Cinnamon’s was inspired. Tasked with promoting a production of the French musical Irma La Douce at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in October 1963, the savvy press agent turned the streets surrounding the landmark into a Left Bank/Parisian setting by creating the Left Bank Arts Festival. One of the attractions, beyond the artists he knew and called upon to set up “a clothesline art show,” was a French poodle show just outside the theater’s front door in what would later become a parking lot.
Cinnamon’s idea was that the Left Bank motif would put people in the right frame of mind to enjoy Irma La Douce and, more importantly, direct a host of eyes toward the theater’s marquee in hopes of plumping up ticket sales.
“In those days, you’re talking 50 years ago, it was tough to get people to cross the causeway or from wherever to come to the Grove Playhouse. As a press agent looking for some sort of gimmick, since the show was set in Paris, let’s do a Left Bank Art Show. We booked the whole weekend around it when it really was an arts colony here. People started to come. We never figured out if they bought any tickets,” Cinnamon said, chuckling.
But that initial show proved so successful it would return to the area the following year — and for 49 more and counting — under the Coconut Grove Arts Festival name. Cinnamon, who unwittingly created one of the nation’s premiere juried art shows, has a framed letter, dated Nov. 14, 1963, from the president of the Coconut Grove Chamber of Commerce hanging in the Lincoln Road office of his public relations firm:
This exhibit which was so quickly planned, organized and operated was proof of Miami’s interest in our quaint little village.
As an annual event, an outdoor art show such as we had can be one of the Grove’s premiere attractions.
The festival has drawn millions of local visitors and tourists over the years, expanding into outreach programs at area schools and adding culinary programs. Perennially top-ranked by Sunshine Artist Magazine, it also has helped to launch the careers of several name artists.
Photographer Clyde Butcher, whose black-and-white shots of the Everglades led to preservation laws, and Miami Beach pop artist Romero Britto, who created the festival poster again this year, are among the Grove’s success stories.
“As an artist who travels all over the country, most of the shows I do are Top 10. The Grove is one of the largest. I can’t think of another that pulls in the number of people that it does,” said C.G. Woody Jones, a Decatur, Ga., artist who works in wood figures. Jones, 67, will appear for his 31st consecutive year this weekend. “It’s one of my best shows. I sell to customers from not just Miami but from all over the world — my best New York show, I joke, because a lot of customers are from there.”