A proposal from a group led by attorney and arts activist Lewis “Mike” Eidson would add a 750-seat theater to the 300-seat theater planned for the site of the historic Coconut Grove Playhouse.
If Miami-Dade County were to embrace Eidson’s plan, it would more than triple the number of seats at the site, and add a parking garage and offices. Eidson estimates the total cost at about $45 million, and suggests Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts as the operator of the larger theater, which would give the center a programming option beyond its anchor Biscayne Boulevard buildings.
The idea, Eidson said Monday, is that “a civic center dedicated to great theater in a modern playhouse complex would be a tremendous amenity and asset. . . . It sends a powerful and indisputable message to people who want to live and invest here that we are a serious, maturing city.”
The Coconut Grove Playhouse shut down in 2006 during its 50th anniversary season. It was $4 million in debt.
In January, state officials approved transferring the shuttered theater and land surrounding it to Miami-Dade County and Florida International University, which will lease the property for 50 years with two 25-year options to renew. With $20 million in bond money, the county is getting proposals from architects to build the 300-seat theater, which would become the new home of GableStage, the award-winning theater company led by artistic director Joseph Adler.
Eidson, chairman of the Performing Arts Center Trust and a former member of the Coconut Grove Playhouse board, has no problem with either GableStage or the smaller theater. But he and those supporting his plan believe that a larger regional theater is also crucial to the future of the site.
“I have been working on this since I realized the county would go forward with what I thought wasn’t the right plan,” said Eidson. “If we had realized the Coconut Grove Playhouse would go bankrupt when we were building the Arsht Center, we might have included plans for a flagship theater there.”
Eidson and the others involved in the Coconut Grove Theater Foundation, which was formed in May, believe that a flagship regional theater programmed more in the style of the former playhouse is a crucial part of a reborn playhouse complex. Classic plays with famous stars — Eidson mentions names like Cate Blanchett and Kevin Spacey — would be among the fare that audiences might see in the larger theater.
Michael Spring, director of the county’s department of cultural affairs, has helped guide the drive to reopen the Coconut Grove Playhouse since it closed. He emphasizes that the existing plan is progressing, while Eidson’s is still being formed.
“We’re on a tight timetable. Our money is completely secured and our plan is approved. The architect selection is underway, and we’re not slowing up,” Spring said. “We need to see if Mike’s proposal meets the test of reality. . . . Is there a need for another 750-seat theater that doesn’t have an artistic profile?”
As for GableStage’s Adler, he is focused on the current approved plan.
“My great interest is in getting this 300-seat theater built, up and running as quickly as possible,” he said.
Eidson suggested Monday that Scott Shiller, executive vice president at the Arsht Center, could be involved in programming the larger theater.
“Mike Eidson has an intriguing idea,” Shiller said via email, “but it’s still in the very early stages and hard for us to comment more specifically until a formal study has been conducted and corresponding plans developed. We are supportive of our ongoing partnership with Miami-Dade County and respect the rigorous approach the mayor has asked for to determine the viability of programming options for the Coconut Grove Playhouse.”
Eidson said he plans to present the foundation’s completed proposal to Mayor Carlos Gimenez by mid-September.
Eidson and his foundation associates, including his wife Dr. Margaret Eidson and auto dealer Ronald Esserman (the vice chair and treasurer respectively), have methodically done their research and hired consultants from top theater and fundraising companies to help develop their plan.
They hired architect Thomas Spain to draw a rendering of what the new complex might look like, though the choice of an architect is in the county’s hands. Though it appears as if Spain has incorporated the old theater façade, in fact the idea is for an all-new facility built in the style of the old playhouse, which was originally a Mediterranean Revival movie house.
Eidson is pushing to get the Foundation’s proposal finished, hoping to begin major fundraising if the plan is approved. The programming piece of the puzzle, he believes, will have the luxury of more time.
“You’d have five years while the theaters are being built to come up with programming,” he says. “I feel strongly about this. We don’t want to miss this opportunity.”