Squinting her eyes, Louise Robertson went back in time to 1938 at her local movie theater in Homestead, just blocks from her rural home.
“I was 14 and the only usherette at the time,” Robertson, now 91, said with a smile, revisiting her first job at the Seminole Theatre at 18 N. Krome Ave. in downtown Homestead. “Back then there wasn’t much to do, so it was the place to be. You knew everyone that came in and knew exactly where they wanted to sit. I had a flashlight and they would follow that light.”
She chuckled. “It was so wonderful; a delight.”
Last week, that very same theater reopened its doors after about four decades of being forlorn. The Seminole Theatre, originally built in 1921, had been closed since 1979 after undergoing financial stress. And then in 1992 it suffered a total loss after Hurricane Andrew. It will now serve as a cultural arts center.
The effort for its opening wasn’t easy. The process was laborious and decades in the works by devoted citizen groups passionate about historic preservation. During the May 2014 bond referendum, 64 percent of Homestead voters voted in favor of a $5 million bond to renovate the historic theater as a cultural center. Soon after, an additional $550,000 was awarded in the form of two state grants.
The funding allowed for the complete restoration of the space, bringing it back as a cultural hub for Homestead.
During the grand opening, more than 1,000 members of the community flooded the lobby of the landmark. Attendees had the chance to see the stage fully lit, sit in the plush red chairs and hear about the structure’s history. In honor of the era in which the theater was built, the event called for a 1920s street fair that featured robust performances by fire dancers, stilt walkers, and hula hoop artists.
In 1916, the Airdome Theatre in Miami, built in 1912 at 174 E. Flagler St., was dismantled, put on a train and hauled to Homestead.
It was rebuilt and placed on Old Dixie Highway, east of Krome Avenue, and was renamed the Homestead Garden Theatre. Sometime between 1916 and 1919, the movie theater changed names becoming the Homestead Movies, according to Bob Jensen, president of the Town Hall Museum in Homestead and member of the Miami-Dade County Cultural Affairs Council.
In 1919, the building was renamed the Seminole Theatre. In 1921, it ceased being a theater when early pioneers James Washington English and Henry Booker Sr. built a new theater in downtown Homestead and took the name with them, now known as the Seminole Theatre. It opened Nov. 26, 1921, luring in 1,000 people.
“I think the parallels are great. In 1921, it brought in 1,000 people. The grand opening in 2015 did the same thing, only back then the community was much smaller, dramatically smaller,” Jensen said.
The previous location soon became the Seminole Hotel. In 1936, the former movie house was remodeled to be 26 hotel rooms. It later became the Landmark Hotel, which still stands today.
The Seminole Theatre became a symbol of unity amid serious segregation. The Seminole had a separate ticket window in the back for blacks, as well as a separate stairway leading to the balcony area for seating. These features are no longer existing in the current structure.
“Since the beginning, this theater satisfied seating for the black community,” Jensen said. “It had a significant area for the black community. They didn’t do this for social reasons but for economic reasons. At the end they didn’t let adversity dictate their lives.”
Jesse Robinson, a black community leader who managed the Ritz Theatre some blocks away on Fourth Street, would wait outside the Seminole. As soon as a film had finished, a staff member “would hand him the reel and he would bike to the black theater so that his attendants can also see the movie,” Jensen said.
The Seminole Theatre primarily played silent films and sometimes accommodated live performances. It rapidly became the “go-to” place for those in South Dade and the Upper Keys. In 1927, the theater began to play “talkies” — movies with sound.
In March 1940, the theater burned down after a fire started on the stage. It is still not known what caused the fire. Fire trucks were sent in from Coral Gables, South Miami and the city of Miami, but it wasn’t enough.
“It burnt down completely. All that was left was the shell and the sky. And so when it was rebuilt, it was completely redesigned.”
In the meantime, a screen was set up in the alley and people watched movies.
When the theater was first rebuilt in 1940, it was designed with the current Art Deco facade. The cost of the movie theater’s reconstruction was between $35,000 and $50,000.
“English was a very fastidious businessman. He saved every bit of material they could after the fire,” Jensen said.
In addition to movies, the Seminole continued to host live entertainment, as well as beauty contests and cooking demonstrations.
In 1955, English built another theater called the Homestead Theatre (where the Miami Dade College Homestead Campus parking lot sits today) amid financial struggle. He leased the Seminole Theatre, which showed Spanish films for the ever-growing Spanish population.
“I guess people people didn’t want to go downtown. They wanted a more modern shopping center and so it was built. It included a very big cafeteria, which was popular back then.”
In the late 1970s, the Seminole closed. It sat vacant and in disrepair for years. In 1992, when Hurricane Andrew hit the Homestead area, the Seminole was not spared, and though its walls stood, the roof was torn off and the theater’s interior suffered serious damage.
In 1993, the Seminole Theatre’s owners donated the battered theater to the city. It was designated as an historic site two years later. The Seminole Theatre Group was organized in 1997 with the intention of restoring the theater as a performing arts venue serving the Homestead and Dade County region.
In 2002, a replica of the original marquee was donated and installed. The south building was also created to house multipupose educational rooms and dressing rooms. A 62-foot fly tower was also added to the stage house. A patio was also added.
The renovation of the Seminole Theatre as a cultural arts center is part of an overall effort to bring new life to downtown Homestead. In the works are a new City Hall, which is near construction completion; a new police station which broke ground last month; and expansion of Losner Park, which sits next to the Seminole. The goal is to make the area a civic plaza for community events and outdoor activities.
The back of the historic police station also debuted recently as a parking lot, providing hundreds of spots to people visiting the downtown area.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
Peggy Aker Jacobsen says her first kiss was at the Seminole Theatre in the early 1950s.
“I was 13 years old and I lived right down the street. this is where I played,” she said, pointing at the street. “We just walked to the theater and the soda shop. I couldn't date ‘til I was 16 so I had to bring my three little brothers. So, I put them down in the front and I went to the back of the theater. Good memories.”
Jacobsen’s husband, Marlow Jacobsen, told the Miami Herald his father was a projectionist at the theater before the fire.
“I’d go up with him at night and whenever there were movies on, I could look through the little hole up there and watch the movie, and I helped him rewind the films and stuff like that,” Marlow said. “You know I had said some time back, ‘I doubt if I lived to see this thing open.’”
Bruce Chambers, the grandson of the theater founder English, said the restored theater is “right in line” with his grandfather’s vision.
“I went to movies here when I was a kid,” Chambers, 68, said. “Seeing it end up a centerpiece for the Homestead historic resurrected area is very nice; I’m very proud. I believe it will bring life back to this place. It’s going to do some great renderings for the area.”
Ruth Campbell, 95, works at the Historic Homestead Town Hall Museum from 1 to 5 p.m every weekday. The long-time resident, community activist and in 1963 the first woman elected to the city council, gazed out the window as city staff tidied up the streets the day of the grand opening.
“It’s like taking a step back in time,” she said. “We have really missed it. It’s like a treasure that we had has come back, because that’s what it was, it was a treasure, and we’re all gonna get to enjoy it again.”