Plans call for saving Miami Beach’s Jackie Gleason Theater

One of the most contentious aspects of the plan to redevelop the Miami Beach Convention Center has been settled: The Fillmore Miami Beach at the Jackie Gleason Theater will stay.

The theater had been slated for demolition by Portman-CMC, one of the two teams still in the running for the massive overhaul project. But with music and history lovers lined up in support of saving the theater, the team told The Miami Herald on Tuesday that its plan has changed.

“We listened to the community,” said Jack Portman, vice chairman of Portman Holdings and John Portman & Associates.

From the start, the competing South Beach ACE team has planned to retain the theater, restoring it to its original architecture and opening the back to create an outdoor music space.

“We don’t have to reinvent Miami Beach. We just have to use what is unique about Miami Beach,” said ACE team lobbyist Victor Diaz.

The city is looking for a team of developers to take on a 52-acre, $1 billion project to redesign its aging convention center and to develop the surrounding area. The site includes the Gleason theater, City Hall and the 17th Street parking garage. A winning team should be chosen by commissioners in June.

Until now, a main difference between the two proposals was their approaches to the theater.

The Great One, as performer Jackie Gleason was known, made the building famous in the 1960s, when he broadcast his variety show from what he called “the sun and fun capital of the world.”

“The Miami Beach audience is the greatest audience in the world!” he would exclaim.

The city named the theater after Gleason shortly after his death in 1987. But the building has never been designated as historic because it has undergone significant renovations since it was built in the 1950s. Without the protections that come with historic designation, the theater is fair game for a tear-down.

Until recently, Portman-CMC had proposed to honor the legacy of Gleason in some way, but to replace the theater with a convention center hotel.

The public’s response was swift. A “Save the Fillmore” Facebook page went up and garnered more than 1,000 “likes.” At a recent public meeting, a stream of residents stood up to protest the proposal.

“It would be a tragedy. And as someone who grew up here, I would feel deeply for the kids here who had a cool music venue and had it taken away from them,” said Lauren Reskin, owner and founder of the Sweat Records store in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood.

A similar reaction was sparked in 2010, the last time Miami Beach considered redevelopment plans for the convention center. Those plans, which were eventually scrapped so the city could go to a public bidding process, also called for the demolition of the Gleason.

This time around, little has been said about any historic value the theater may have. Rather, live music fans say the Goldilocks-like size of the venue makes it unique in South Florida. With 2,700 seats, the Gleason is big enough for touring acts that would outsell small venues, but aren’t big enough to fill the AmericanAirlines Arena.

“The Fillmore in Miami serves a purpose that no other venue in the market can accommodate in terms of capacity and production,” Sam Hunt, a booking agent for the Windish Agency, wrote in an email. “Without it, I imagine a lot of artists will choose to skip Miami rather than compromising their production trying to play multiple nights at a smaller venue.”

Residents were also worried about replacing the theater with a hotel because of how close the hotel would have been to the New World Symphony. The symphony is renowned for its outdoor movies and concerts, which are projected onto an outside wall — programming which can be affected by nearby sounds or lights.

With those criticisms in mind, the Portman-CMC reworked much of its proposal to keep the Gleason. Now, the team suggests adding entrances to the sides of the theater that face the New World Symphony and City Hall.

Programming would be split between the current theater operator, Live Nation, and Cirque du Soleil. The inclusion of Cirque has also been a sore point among residents, who have described the company as kitschy and Las Vegas-like.

The convention center, meanwhile, would be expanded to the north to make room for the hotel, which will “straddle” the south side.

“The identity of the hotel and the convention center, you could say, morphs into one building,” Portman said.

Competing team South Beach ACE has proposed a gradually sloping hotel on top of the current convention center. The Gleason would be restored and stay in its original location, creating a “cluster” of cultural venues along with the New World Symphony across the street, and a new cultural center that has been proposed.

“This is a plan that builds on what’s special, what’s unique, what’s here,” Diaz said.

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