On Oscar Night: A look at Miami’s movie theaters over the years

John Travolta set his boogie shoes strolling in Saturday Night Fever at Miami’s The Omni 6. Angie Dickinson shared her shower with us as she Dressed to Kill at the Concord on Bird Road and 114th Avenue. The revelation, “Luke, I am your father,” had you gripping your plush, gold seat at the Dadeland Twin movie theater as The Empire Strikes Back revealed its shocker.

Plus, who, among people of a certain age, didn’t stand in line to see Jaws at Coral Gables’ Miracle Theatre in the summer of 1975?

“Apparently the whole world saw Jaws there,” recalls Rebecca Smith, head of Special Collections at History Miami. Yes, she saw Jaws at the Miracle, too.

As Hollywood celebrates the best of 2012 with Sunday’s Oscars telecast, movies take center stage once again. In Miami-Dade, the best of Hollywood stood out in grand movie palaces, where red velvet curtains parted across wide screens, where marquees lit the night sky, and where crystal chandeliers hung like constellations above the balconies.

Hollywood premieres? We had them, too.

Press agent Charlie Cinnamon remembers the publicity stunts he’d conjure for the Lincoln Road movie theaters he represented on the mall, like the Lincoln, Carib and the Beach. He orchestrated the opening of Elizabeth Taylor’s epic Cleopatra in 1963 at the Lincoln and the British comedy Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines two years later at the Carib, a theater whose facade above the marquee displayed a full-scale map of the Caribbean.

“I did the opening of Cleopatra and we had a parade down Washington Avenue with the Miami Beach High School. In those days we had big parades and the Lincoln was the theater,” Cinnamon said from his office on Lincoln Road. “For Magnificent Men we had vintage cars and airmen and a parade. Fantastic openings. Hollywood openings right here in Miami. We haven’t had that in years and it’s so sad that we don’t have that kind of premiere anymore where the whole community joined in to have big events and red carpet openings.’’

The theaters got into the spirit during the Golden Age of Cinema. The Byron-Carlyle, on 71st Street in Miami Beach, for instance, had its ushers dress up like Dracula when the 1979 remake starring Frank Langella opened. Cobwebs and black velvet curtains lent an air of Transylvania to the theater, which has since become the home to the Miami Beach Stage Door theater company.

Perhaps the reason The Miracle, now home to the Actors’ Playhouse, stands out for its screening of Jaws is because the theater decorated the lobby in the style of the seafaring movie — netting on the ceiling, nautical props along the walls. The only thing missing was “Bruce” the mechanical shark, but he revealed plenty of himself on the large screen inside.

“That was the whole point, that movie theater was always great to go to because they always fit the theme when you went there,” said Eugene Flinn, the former mayor of Palmetto Bay. “It was a great theater to see things, too. So formal with everything. A throwback theater, even for our age group, and that’s why I’m so thrilled it’s been properly repurposed and it’s a great place to go see plays. What a treasure,” said Flinn, 50.

Most of these places are gone, but many of the buildings remain: The Olympia, which became the Gusman Center on Flagler; The Miracle, which is getting its marquee and box office restored; The Shores in Miami Shores, which hosts The Miami Theater Center and O Cinema’s presentation of independent, foreign and art films; The Tower in Little Havana is run by Miami Dade College and Overtown’s historic Lyric Theater, which showcases live performances in the restored venue.

According to Isador Cohen’s Historical Sketches and Sidelights of Miami, Florida (1925), the first proper movie theater in Miami was Kelly’s Theater in 1906, which sat on the south side of Flagler near the old Burdines. Kelly’s gave way to the more palatial theaters with sloping floors, roomy seats and chandeliers. The 1950s and 1960s saw the birth of the Riviera in Coral Gables, Suniland in what is now Pinecrest and the popular Dadeland Mall theater.

“Those seats at Dadeland were so comfortable, and you could rock in them,” recalls landscaper, musician and Miami-native Claude Roatta who, yes, saw Jaws at the Miracle.

By the late 1970s, however, the theaters began to split into double, triple and quadruple screens to compete with newly opened multiplexes, such as the Omni 6 in downtime Miami, which opened in 1977, or Movies at the Falls in 1980. The grander palaces could not compete. By the 1990s places like Suniland, Dadeland, the Omni, Riviera, the Plitt Gables on Coral Way, Loew’s 167th Street Twin in North Miami Beach and others disappeared or found new uses.

But the love of film endured locally, even amid the changes.

“For serious movie folks, Miami was a paradise,” said Donald Edward Chauncey, who served in the ‘80s and ‘90s as the film librarian for the Miami-Dade County Public Library System and started the Alliance for Media Arts, which ran the Alliance Cinema art house on Lincoln Road. “We were able to see most of the films that were playing and being discussed in America. It was an era so far removed from today that it seems almost primitive. Before the Internet, before DVDs, before VHS even, unless you were wealthy enough to have your own in-house theater, the only way anyone could see movies was at a theater. Miami had some serious and dedicated presenters, so we were the envy of the South.”

Today, directors aren’t as likely to film in massive widescreen because multiplex screens are smaller, aside from specialty IMAX theaters. For fans, movie theaters often aren’t the first option, not when Netflix, tablets and smartphones have made movies portable.

And that’s a loss, some say.

“Theaters and restaurants, where you develop a lot of strong memories, whether from dates or periods where you go, ‘Hey! I saw that movie there!’ evoke some strong memories,” Flinn said. “And The Miracle is a theater where a lot of our parents even went to.”

Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.

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