Miami-Dade County

The Vice Effect: 30 years after the show that changed Miami

Thirty years ago, the cops-versus-drug-lords melodrama “Miami Vice” — starring Don Johnson, left, and Philip Michael Thomas, right, as as undercover narcs Sonny Crockett and Rico Tubbs — debuted on NBC-TV. The show’s producers cast a hyper-Miami as a principal character that even locals had trouble recognizing.
Thirty years ago, the cops-versus-drug-lords melodrama “Miami Vice” — starring Don Johnson, left, and Philip Michael Thomas, right, as as undercover narcs Sonny Crockett and Rico Tubbs — debuted on NBC-TV. The show’s producers cast a hyper-Miami as a principal character that even locals had trouble recognizing. Handout

It’s the very first Miami sequence in Miami Vice, the TV show that radically reconfigured the city’s shattered image. Don Johnson, resplendent as undercover narc Sonny Crockett in white suit, sockless espadrilles and turquoise T-shirt, rides to an ill-fated drug deal in the back seat of a burgundy Eldorado convertible along a sunbleached Ocean Drive. 

Exactly 30 years ago, the eeriest thing about the scenery is probably not the shabby state of the Art Deco hotels, but the emptiness. There’s no one around: hardly anyone on the sidewalk, not a soul at the Clevelander, not a cafe umbrella in sight. 

Crockett could have fired a TEC-9 up Ocean Drive and not hit a thing.

The rolling set-piece is a telling reminder of just how far Miami and Miami Beach have come since Vice made its NBC-TV debut in September 1984, at a moment when the cities’ fortunes — reeling from a devastating race riot, the Mariel boatlift, a Haitian refugee influx, white flight, the rise of the drug cartels and an explosion in violent crime — seemed about sunk for good.

But it also provides an early gleaning of the magical Miami Vice formula, which left a lasting effect not just on TV and films, but also, indelibly, on its downtrodden hometown. The show’s producers cannily recast a hyper-Miami as a principal character in their cops-versus-drug-lords melodrama — a sizzling cool, sexy, multiethnic, multiracial, exciting place, at once gritty and gorgeous — that even locals had trouble recognizing.

It’s a remarkable trajectory, from South Beach flophouses to $1,000-a-night rooms at the Setai, that Miami Vice played no small role in launching. The show not only helped save South Beach, broadcasting the architectural charms of its long-neglected Deco hotels and apartment houses to millions around the globe at a time when city fathers wanted nothing more than to tear it all down for condos, Miami Vice practically invented the idea of South Beach. 

Producers and art designers created decadently luxurious dance clubs, bars and restaurants in the bare lobbies and basements of Deco hotels where none of that existed. Obeying producer Michael Mann’s famous edict — “no earth tones” — they painted over the beige-and-brown that dulled some Art Deco trophies, revealing splendid facades. They decorated beaches and hotel pools that hadn’t seen anyone under 70 in two decades with crowds of attractive young extras in abbreviated swimsuits.

They recut the familiar Miami film reel of water, flamingos, palms and sky to include the previously unseen or unappreciated, and not just those old Deco buildings, but also picturesquely seedy warehouses, the ultra-modern mansions where drug lords invariably dwelled, and — here was something new — the glass skyscrapers that had started popping up along Brickell Avenue.

All of this they saturated in subtropical colors and set to pulsating music a la MTV. They dressed the good-looking, multiracial cast in dazzling tropical shirts and Versace silk and linen jackets, in Crockett’s case draped in devil-may-care fashion over T-shirts and unbelted slacks. Thus attired, Crockett and sidekick Ricardo Tubbs were then sent out in a Ferrari or a cigarette boat on high-speed chases that almost always ended in a fireworks of gunfights and explosions.

No one had ever seen anything like this on TV before. It was a new cinematic way of making television, and definitely not your grandfather’s Miami. It didn’t matter that this TV-Miami did not quite yet exist — it would continue to seduce millions of people around the world long after Miami Vice ended its U.S. network run in 1989.

“There was before the Miami Vice premiere, and there was after, and everyone said, ‘Wow.’ It just happened,” recalled journalist T.D. Allman, who was researching his seminal book, Miami: City of the Future, when Vice became the hottest TV and fashion influence in the world. “It showed me I was really on the right track.”

Before long, said Vice creator Anthony Yerkovich, middle-aged dentists started wearing pink T-shirts and, once the show went into European syndication, German and Italian fashion photographers and photo agencies began booking shoots on South Beach with the architecture as backdrop. Then, he said, came the next critical step in the South Beach re-emergence: the New Yorkers.

“The hip New York fashion crowd and nightlife entrepreneurs and people that like to hang around models went down here, saw the buildings and said, ‘Heck, this would make a good restaurant, this would make a cool nightclub, or a cool boutique hotel,’ and by 1990 SoBe was off and running,” Yerkovich said.

Of course, Vice was not solely responsible for the Beach renaissance. 

By then, determined activists in the Miami Design Preservation League, led by Barbara Baer Capitman, had been pushing recognition and protection of South Miami Beach’s Deco treasure trove for years. In the face of considerable opposition, even derision, they had managed to get the neighborhood listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the first 20th century district to be so recognized.

In 1980, no less a figure than Andy Warhol had given the Deco District his public blessing, pronouncing it “delightful” after getting a personal tour from Capitman. Film director Brian de Palma had started filming Scarface on South Beach before strident political opposition caused him to decamp for L.A.

Just the year before Vice came to town, artist Christo’s Surrounded Islands project had put pink skirts around islands in Biscayne Bay, creating an art-world sensation that bled into the mainstream. Christo’s crew stayed in Ocean Drive hotels because they were dirt cheap.

When the show began production, elected leaders were wary, so much so that they asked Mann to remove the word “vice” from the show’s title.

But Miami Vice’s instant popularity changed everything. Tourism to the Beach, especially by Europeans, shot up. Capitman, who embraced Vice and its producers, was vindicated, cementing political support for enacting legal protections for the district’s buildings. The assurance that Deco buildings would not be torn down in turn persuaded those first investors with real money to begin renovating hotels, said Michael Kinerk, an MDPL co-founder.

Mann even helped sponsor an early edition of Art Deco Weekend, Kinerk said.

Miami Vice helped politically, economically and artistically,” Kinerk said. “I have absolutely no doubt. It certainly put the Art Deco district on the world map.”

If the Beach was then on life support, Miami had a lot more going on — the condo and office tower boom that was transforming Brickell, for instance, and a growing cultural diversity — but as far as mainstream America was concerned, it was all a mess or just passe. To much of the rest of the country, Miami meant only the Dolphins, and even their best years were behind them.

In episode two of Miami Vice, after getting lost on the Don Shula Expressway and ending up halfway to the Keys, Tubbs complains: “What kind of town names an expressway after a football coach?”

The Beach backgrounds in those early Vice episodes were desolate for a reason, Kinerk recalled, and not because streets were closed for filming by the city film office. There was no city film office. There simply weren’t many people on the street. Ocean Drive’s hotels were filled with elderly, mostly Jewish retirees, many of them frail, subsisting on meager Social Security payments.

“God’s waiting room,” more than one caustic wag called it.

There were no models in bikinis poolside at the Delano, just a dive merengue club in the basement. So unbusy were South Beach streets that Miami Vice producers often didn’t bother with permits, Kinerk said.

“They were filming all over Miami Beach,” he said. “They could film in the middle of the street. There was literally nobody there. There were no cars parked in the street.”

When the producers needed a crowd, they usually had to wrangle one up, paying drama majors, models or musicians to mill around in the background of a shoot, said Fabio Arber, a production assistant and location manager for the show.

But Mann and his location scouts had an eye for buildings, places and details no one else noticed, including faithful Miamians. And they depicted those details with an obsessive care unusual for the typically fast-paced production of television.

“They made everything look fabulous,” Kinerk said.

Kinerk recalls a scene he watched being filmed in the basement of the Waldorf Towers on Ocean Drive. The basement would later be the site of Sempers, one of the earliest velvet-rope clubs. But on that day, Vice producers had to create a chic club from scratch.

They filled the basement with tropical fish aquariums and a purple, blue and green color scheme. There was a purple tulip in a vase on every table, each individually spotlit from above. The set designers had ordered purple fish and were flying them in from South Africa. But the fish were hours late, delayed by street closures because of President Reagan’s meeting at Vizcaya with Pope John Paul II.

The scene’s director was blowing his top because the delay was costing tens of thousands of dollars. The fish finally arrived, but, stunned from the long trip, sank to the bottom of the tank. The director jammed a tulip, complete with vase, into the bottom of the tank, which roused the fish.

When a hotel phone rang in the middle of the scene, the director yanked it out of the wall and smashed it to bits, Kinerk said.

When the show aired, Kinerk said, the effect was seamless as the camera panned through the purple fish and the focus shifted to the characters in the background.

“I always said art reflects life and life reflects art, but in this case the art came first,” said architecture critic Beth Dunlop, who has written about the influence of Miami Vice on its hometown. “In the late ’70s, there were few painted buildings. And then Michael Mann came to town and all of a sudden all these buildings were yellow and blue and aqua.

“The colors made people able to see the details and beauty of buildings that had been obscured by dirt and peeling paint and dreary colors. They allowed people to see the place, the Art Deco and Miami as it could be seen, and not as it was.”

The show did something else, too, she said. It also “glorified” the vernacular Miami — the bakeries, the marinas, the Miami River and neighborhoods like Little Havana — no less than the sleek new modern villas of the new rich, many of them Latin American, just then moving to Miami.

After Vice, Miami was suddenly something people had to experience for themselves, Dunlop said.

Miami Vice became of consummate importance in making people want to come here, want to visit, want to live here,” Dunlop said.

And it also pointed to the city’s future. 

Early in the first season, after filming a scene at the new Atlantis condo tower on Brickell — the one with the hole, the palm tree and the red spiral staircase in the middle — the producers spliced its glassy facade into the soon-to-be-famous opening title montage.

That one momentary glimpse of the Atlantis, week in and week out, turned it into the symbol of an increasingly global and cosmopolitan Miami.

It also made Arquitectonica, the rising young firm that designed it, a household name. An entire episode early in the first season was set in the Pink House, the groundbreaking Miami Shores home that Arquitectonica’s husband-and-wife partners Bernardo Fort-Brescia and Laurinda Spear had designed for her parents. (The episode starred a then-unknown Bruce Willis as a thuggish arms dealer.)

Fort-Brescia said he quickly discovered it was one thing to be on the cover of Architecture magazine, and another thing entirely for millions around the world to recognize the Atlantis.

“I could go anywhere in the world, and people knew that building,” Fort-Brescia said. “People would come to me and say, ‘I’ve never seen a building like that.’ 

“It was the power of television. These guys knew how to synthesize a message in seconds, and it was a good message for Miami. It was a different city that was evolving. It was a quick snapshot of the new Miami, and it said everything. It was tall, it was glass-covered, it was downtown. It made us look like we were doing something different from the rest of the world.”

Fort-Brescia says the shot also helped implant a new vision of Miami, one that was urban, high-rise, utterly modern in design — a vision that only now, 30 years later, is finally and fully reaching fruition. Mann and his producers had picked up on the fact that Miami was changing, becoming an international city with international money and lots of glitz — even if much of it was the profits of drug trafficking.

“The show started to see Miami in a different way,” Fort-Brescia said. “It was more than the conventional wisdom held it to be. We were a bigger place and a more important place.”

In fact, with predecessors like Saturday Night Fever and Blade Runner, Allman said, Miami Vice was a key influence in helping make cities cool again among young Americans whose parents had decamped for the suburbs.

Like those films, Miami Vice did so in part by embracing the city’s multiethnic demographic, a cause of much of the anxiety surrounding the city’s future. Vice just turned it into a virtue.

To be sure, Vice could indulge in stereotypes, with drug-dealing Colombians and Jamaicans often at the end of the short stick, and horror-show depictions of Jamaican Rastafarianism and Santeria, the Afro-Cuban religion.

But the good guys were also black and white and Hispanic. It was all presented in matter-of-fact fashion, without apology, simply a new, polyglot American reality. It foretold — as did Miami — the country’s demographic shifts, Allman said.

“They made no excuses and no explanations. It came right at you, and that’s the way it was,” he said. “That show would have been nothing without the Hispanic detective, the blond cop and the black detective. The custodians of official Miami were still trying to make it like a nice town in the Midwest or something. But that’s not Miami.”

For all its theatrical grittiness, Miami Vice was an escapist vehicle. A fantasy. But it was successful because it picked up something real and made it vibrant and alluring. That little edge of danger, which was certainly real — there had been a shootout between drug cartels in the parking lot of Dadeland Mall not long before, after all — made it all seem authentic.

“We always complain about Hollywood, but Hollywood is very perceptive. Miami Vice was a reflection of what was happening. It pushed along the idea that Miami was this fascinating place. So had Barbara Capitman. So had Christo,” Allman said.

“If it had simply a fun cop show and not reflected these underlying changes and trends, it would not have been as good. People’s fundamental attitudes towards Miami would not have changed.”

Even without Vice, Allman and Fort Brescia believe, Miami would have come back, sooner or later.

“Miami is a great survivor. Miamians have the most amazing resiliency,” Allman said. “Miami would still be the hottest city in America today.”

It just might have taken just a bit longer.

Miami Herald staff writer Howard Cohen contributed to this report.

On October 2nd, the Herald and the Miami Design Preservation League are hosting a community conversation called “The Vice Effect” about the show’s impact on architecture, fashion and design over the last three decades. It takes place at the MDPL's Art Deco Museum at 10th and Ocean at 6:30 p,m. To RSVP go to hrld.us/tickets.

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