Once filled with applause for performances by Broadway stars, the Coconut Grove Playhouse is derelict, trashed by vandals and steeped in mold, its interior exposed to the elements through shattered windows and holes in the roof. Squatters sparked a fire inside at least once.
Reports of the historic building’s gone-to-seed condition were delivered Friday evening to a crowd at Miami City Hall, gathered to help assemble a consensus around the future of the Playhouse, which was closed in 2006 and abandoned. Plans call for the building, built in 1926, to be refurbished with $20 million in Miami-Dade County bonds and to be run by Florida International University and the GableStage theater company. But most of the details remain unresolved, and the theater’s dilapidated state is likely to have a strong influence on how much of it — if any — is deemed salvageable.
“There was a lot of vandalism,” said Ron Nelson, Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff’s chief of staff, who reported gaining entry to the Playhouse several years ago. “The roof has been open for quite some time.”
He observed “quite a bit of water damage” when he went in, Nelson said, a situation he surmised is “probably worse” now. He noted that code enforcement officers had repeatedly ordered the building to be boarded up, but that people got in anyway, broke windows and made a mess of the place.
At the meeting, convened by members of the Coconut Grove Village Council and the Coconut Grove Playhouse Advisory Committee, residents appeared to be split between those who want the famous theater preserved at all costs and those who believe it’s past saving. One man said everything but the Mediterranean Revival façade should be torn down and rebuilt because restoring the whole structure would mean “a bottomless pit of expenses.” Another countered that the legacy of the Playhouse lies in its interior, where the performances were staged, and not in its pale blue façade.
“I cringe in fear that people want to tear it down as though it were nothing,” said Max Pearl, the founder of the Pinecrest Repertory Theatre, who has lived in Miami for 47 years and who several years ago started a Facebook page called “Save the Coconut Grove Playhouse.” As of Saturday afternoon, it had 5,581 followers.
The main stage and auditorium should remain in place, Pearl said, even as he acknowledged that, built as a movie theater, the Playhouse lacks adequate space backstage for dressing rooms, scenery, equipment and other behind-the-stage amenities. Pearl is a supporter of plans drawn up more than a year ago by the Coral Gables-based architect Richard Heisenbottle, who envisaged restoring the 1,100-seat auditorium and the building’s façade and adding a new, 200-seat “black box” theater for smaller productions, as well as stores, restaurant space and offices. A parking garage would increase considerably the 168 spaces currently available on surface lots next to the building.
Ken Kurtz, a former set designer who was involved in 24 productions at the Playhouse, said it “used to be the best balcony in town in terms of acoustics,” and yet he had little else to say that was positive. “I love the building, but it’s got too many problems. Backstage? It’s awful.”
Kurtz, who taught in the theater department at the University of Miami for many years until retiring in 2007, said that among other disadvantages the Playhouse has “a lousy fly loft,” the space high above the stage where lights are hung and from which backdrops, curtains and even actors are lowered and raised. “What the city needs is a fine resident theater, like Steppenwolf or the Guthrie,” Kurtz went on, referring to eminent institutions in Chicago and Minneapolis, respectively.
Suggestions at the meeting for the building’s future included installing an open-air theater and a cabaret space, perhaps a comedy club. On a grander scale, someone suggested turning the Playhouse into a “regional cultural center” that might compete with places such as the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts downtown. A resident named Joseph King thought a better idea would be to “talk to Dade County schools and get some sort of magnet school or charter school in there.”
Steven Dloogoff, who has lived in the Grove for 25 years, agreed with King that children and teenagers should be able to use the Playhouse. “Every school in Coconut Grove, and maybe South Miami and Coral Gables, should have access to the Playhouse for any presentation,” he said, adding that a certain number of tickets for professional performances should be made available to students as part of their education.
Dloogoff brought with him a photocopy of an admission ticket he had kept to a show he attended at the Playhouse on April 28, 2006 — a performance of Sonia Flew, by the Boston-based playwright Melinda Lopez.
Some people at the meeting appeared less than optimistic about the future of the Playhouse, despite its inclusion last year on an annual list of endangered historic sites compiled by the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation.
“I think a lot of people have already written the building’s epitaph,” said a musician whose stage name is Robby Robb and whose Facebook page says was “born somewhere in the steamy paved jungle landscape of Miami.” Robb said he “got interested in preservation” as soon he moved to the Grove seven years ago.
Nathan Kurland, chairman of the Miami Bayside Foundation, said that despite the building’s poor condition and the vandalism to which it was subjected, some of the memorabilia it contained — vintage posters, lobby cards and other theatrical items — had been salvaged a few years ago and placed in the care of the University of Miami’s Lowe Art Museum. “Hopefully in our lifetime,” Kurland said with gentle irony, “we’ll see the rebirth of the Coconut Grove Playhouse.”
Dick Lobo, who was on the board of the Coconut Grove Playhouse in the early 1990s and is a member of the advisory team, said he was “pleased to hear a robust debate as to whether it should be saved or torn down,” but that he had not made up his mind as to which it should be.
“This is a great opportunity,” he said, “to revisit this little gem that we have, and to envision a bright, sustainable future for it.”