Miami-Dade County

Sign of the times? Unrest over digital marquee at historic Miami theater

The new digital marquee on the Tower Theater lit up for the first time Wednesday night.
The new digital marquee on the Tower Theater lit up for the first time Wednesday night. Courtesy

It was supposed to be a shining moment.

On Wednesday evening, as the sun went down over Little Havana, the marquee on the historic Miami theater lit up, projecting for the first time “Welcome to the Tower Theater” in pixelated letters on a digital screen over Calle Ocho.

Following extensive renovations to the Tower Theater’s flooring, seating and projection system, the new marquee erected about two weeks ago was among the final improvements to the iconic Art Deco theater. From now on, when it comes to announcing new films at the venerable venue, no more hand-placed letters and ladders needed.

And that, some neighbors and history buffs say, is just awful.

“It’s such a disaster,” said historian Paul George. “That theater goes back to 1926. That marquee has been there seemingly forever. I guess they want to put up something that flashes and dazzles.”

For Miami Dade College, the operator of the city-owned theater, the decision to replace the pre-existing marquee was a no-brainer. That marquee, a spokesman said, was badly damaged, and the new sign will end the precarious and cumbersome process of changing the marquee by hand and will allow for better advertising of the independent films and important cultural events that take place at the venue.

But to the theater’s neighbors and local history buffs, placing a digital feature on Calle Ocho’s signature structure is akin to putting a digital clock at New York’s Grand Central Station.

Calle Ocho is like a Cuban Plymouth Rock. You don’t change it

Arva Moore Parks, historian

“Calle Ocho is like a Cuban Plymouth Rock. You don’t change it,” said historian Arva Moore Parks. “I’m really, really upset about it.”

Miami’s Historic and Environmental Preservation Board signed off on the new marquee 10 months ago. The new sign was designed to match the old one as closely as possible, down to the white background, black letters and font.

“The new marquee is central part of the improvements, replacing an old and damaged marquee, which was not the original,” college spokesman Juan Mendieta wrote in an email. “The new marquee is of the size, form, and appearance of the original marquee from the 1930s. It does not change the historic appearance nor the façade of the Theater.”

This isn’t going to be Las Vegas.

Juan Mendieta, college spokesman

But critics believe that’s exactly what happened.

George, who is a Miami Dade professor, said the new sign is “completely out of character.” Bill Fuller, who owns the Ball and Chain lounge across the street, says he was “shocked” when he saw crews erecting the new marquee two weeks ago. Fuller is currently working with Parks on an application to seek historic designation for the surrounding three blocks. Both say they weren’t notified of the application for the marquee.

“You might as well take the marquee down. That’s not what we do in a historical neighborhood,” he said.

Fuller has since started a petition to save the old theater marquee. He says he’s offered to place the digital signs on a nearby building he owns to help the theater with advertising.

Mendieta, however, noted that the college reopened the theater after it was shuttered for more than 15 years. Under the college’s stewardship, the Tower Theater has become a home for the Miami International Film Festival, and undergone extensive renovations.

“This isn’t going to be Las Vegas,” he said in an interview. “I think people need to step back and give the college some credit. We have not tampered with history.”