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.