Excuse me if I don’t leap to my feet to applaud Miami-Dade County approving a deal to “save” the Coconut Grove Playhouse.
I’m just a little cynical (and exhausted) from jumping up and down after years of headlines touting the revival of what was once one of the country’s finest regional theaters.
Dec. 2, 2009: “Coconut Grove Playhouse to reopen”
March 27, 2010: “Coconut Grove Playhouse is back”
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March 11, 2013: “The Coconut Grove Playhouse could be restored to glory”
My oldest daughter was a toddler when the storied playhouse closed in 2006. This fall, she’ll be a freshman in high school.
The Grove Playhouse, just a short walk from our home, has been shuttered almost her entire childhood.
Built as a fanciful Spanish Rococo movie palace in 1927 by one of Miami’s most famous architects, Richard Kiehnel, and renovated internally into a theater in the 1950s by South Florida’s Modernist master Alfred Browning Parker, the playhouse was once renowned for the works presented on its stages.
It launched the U.S. premiere of Samuel Beckett’s existential play, Waiting for Godot, in 1956 and, later, Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys, starring Jack Klugman and Tony Randall, as well as Fame: The Musical. The playhouse mounted a revival of Death of a Salesman, starring Hal Holbrook, before it went on a national tour.
In 1956, Tennessee Williams staged a revival at the playhouse of A Streetcar Named Desire, starring stage-screen diva Tallulah Bankhead. Forty-four years later, I sat enraptured in the playhouse as a husky-voiced Katherine Turner played Bankhead, delivering the accomplished bourbon drinker’s fabulous zingers – “I’m as pure as the driven slush” – in the play Tallulah.
A host of other talented performers – from Ethel Merman and George C. Scott to Hume Cronyn and Liza Minnelli, not to mention David Letterman, who hosted his Late Show here in 1996 – came through those doors, but the playhouse also was known for its strong lineup of theater programs for children. At one time, the playhouse hosted an in-school touring program, a musical theater program for young elementary school students, a summer theater camp for teens, and classes for all ages in acting techniques, playwriting, costume and scenery design, and improvisation.
What a lost opportunity for my kids – and the community.
Since the playhouse closed suddenly under a mountain of debt seven years ago, there have been numerous starts and stops, foreclosure lawsuits and failed partnerships. Two years ago, squatters were reportedly living inside. Last year, Grovites organized a protest, “Give It Back,” posting yellow signs in their yards, tying yellow ribbons around trees and staging a rally outside the theater.
These days, the only activity around the playhouse is the ghost tour that regularly makes stops in the dark outside the broken windows of the spooky, boarded-up building, which, as Miami New Times points out, looks more like a crack den every day.
Last week, the County Commission approved a deal that allows the county and Florida International University to lease the playhouse from the state of Florida, which reclaimed it last year. The county has three months to settle the playhouse’s many debts and property deed claims, not to mention unpaid city building-code violation fines and back county taxes. If the claims can’t be cleared up in time, the state by law must put the playhouse up for sale to the highest bidder.
I’m not feeling the optimism.
Do you think my grandkids will be able to enjoy this place?
Still, I wish the county and FIU luck. As Tallulah Bankhead liked to say to all her dahlings, “I’d rather be strongly wrong than weakly right.”