Did the theater and the regional theater have their last curtain?

Written by Michael Lewis on January 25, 2022


If the county’s purpose in using $23 million at the Coconut Grove Playhouse is to return the regional theater and its historic building, the plan fails on both counts.

The county’s plan would not revive presentations from a dead theater, but rather bring a small, now-active substitute to Coral Gables. He would not restore a historic structure, but simply fix what remains of the facade and pieces of the interior on a multi-use project.

This truth leads us to two key questions that policy makers need to answer candidly for the public before going any further:

Can or should one or both of the main objectives be achieved – cultural growth and historic preservation? Or should the historic building housing the regional theater become a place where we can never return home?

The county plans to move GableStage, a high-quality independent theater troupe of limited appeal, to larger quarters married to Florida International University. We would not find a regional theatre. Will Florida International University’s new interim president, Kenneth Jessell, be okay with that?

The plan also wouldn’t restore anything but would create a 300-seat theater with an old facade where the historic 800-seat regional theater stands and add parking, more shops and offices in Coconut Grove.

GableStage, which would relocate from a tight space in the Biltmore to Coral Gables, is a fine niche company that would either have to modify its thought-provoking works of limited appeal to appeal to a much wider audience, or struggle to fill 300 seats.

And, if he upgraded to more popular fares with big-name stars to fill more seats, he might find a 300-seat theater too small to pay the bills.

Either way, it’s not a gain from another theater company.

As for the building, little real preservation is planned for a ruined monument that fewer and fewer of us remember over time. The longer the vintage 1927 building, vacant since 2006, rots, the less there is left to preserve or restore.

The county plan would liven up a corner of the main road in the grove, but could in no way be called a regional theatre, just another of the many small theaters scattered around. Proponents of a true Coconut Grove Playhouse have a much broader regional view.

The sight is wonderful. The reality may be different. But if the county sees reality as a 300-seat GableStage in the Grove, it’s giving up on a grand vision.

The county could instead pay to restore a true regional theater with enough seats to put on hard-hitting productions. But where would the funds come from to make it work? Although Coconut Grove Playhouse was with big-name stars and directors in its best years, it occasionally failed to pay its bills and eventually collapsed, closing abruptly in 2006 with bills still unpaid.

The departmental plan has the benefit of revenue from commercial development on the site to support a theatre. To succeed, even with this funding, would require strong budget management – ​​the former Coconut Grove Playhouse failed to control spending by artistic chefs to fit within the budget.

A parallel is the Miami Marine Stadium, now vacant for three decades. Proponents aim to restore it to its former greatness, but even if they can pay to restore it, what is the official plan for its use and where will the funds come from to keep it open?

Even the restoration of the stadium was easier in words than in deeds: Tomás Regalado, upon his election as mayor of Miami, made restoration his main objective. He left office eight years later. We are still waiting

Now his daughter, County Commissioner Raquel Regalado, has inserted herself into the playhouse debate in an effort to address the issues that have kept the project stalled. Can she do better when it comes to restoration and reopening than her father?

Whether it’s a big project or a small project, leadership is essential. Joe Adler, artistic director who made GableStage key to the county’s performance hall vision, has died in the meantime. The strength of this company in a time of covid has yet to be tested.

As the city and county battle it out in court, with the city opposing the county’s playhouse vision, proponents of comprehensive restoration claim that county voters overwhelmingly approved raising bond funds for this task. In fact, although the written pledges sought to persuade voters, the ballot question itself did not specify what was to be done.

In terms of content, a regional theater good enough to attract South Florida residents to its seats would not only benefit Coconut Grove, but the entire county. Miami-Dade doesn’t have a theater of that stature now.

Certainly, other places are quite large. The county’s downtown Arsht Center and South Dade Arts Center have the size. Unfortunately, they don’t regularly have regional theater fare. Shows, yes. Music, yes. Ballet, yes. But the theater, no.

When Coconut Grove Playhouse drew season after season subscribers and busloads of condo dwellers from across the county, it produced quality theater with well-known directors and stars.

These spectators also filled nearby restaurants before and after the shows. Each production was a local bargain. If the theater could be reproduced as it once was, so would this boon.

But can it be replicated? Just as Coconut Grove is no longer the small arts community that once housed the theater, the county and society have changed. Those busloads of patrons came from a different world of condos than we have now, older and unified, who were hungry for an evening together. Let’s go.

These buses also eased a parking crisis, with 50 people per vehicle. That too is gone.

Moreover, when the performance hall filled 800 seats every night, it was the only cultural game in town. We now have several other sites. Even taking into account the lingering covid impacts, it would take expert high-quality fare marketing to fill 800 seats night after night.

That doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Miami-Dade’s population has changed. A theater can count on newcomers who have experienced quality theater and who are hungry for it.

Enter the recent tax theft of New York and Northeast executives. This rapidly growing audience, new since the county created its plan for a move from GableStage to 300 Grove seats, could tip the balance in the ability to support a larger regional theater.

After all, the 1987 book celebrating the Coconut Grove Playhouse’s first 30 years was titled “Broadway By The Bay.”

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