A Cameo Role

The majestic South Beach theater, soon to reopen as a dance club, has been to ruin and back

But by the end of the Sixties, as television penetrated Americans' hearts and minds, majestic movie houses from South Florida to Seattle began to close. In 1971 philanthropist Maurice Gusman purchased the Olympia and saved it from demolition. Other theaters were lost. Crews tore down the Carib's façade, which featured a large clock above a huge painted map of the Caribbean, and gutted the interior; it became a small shopping complex in 1978. The Cameo closed that same year and continued to deteriorate. But because of its Art Deco architecture, it would be spared a fate similar to the Carib's. In 1979 the Miami Design Preservation League convinced federal officials to list South Beach's Art Deco District on the National Register of Historic Places. Hundreds of buildings, including the Cameo, were saved.

The Cameo remained dark for the next several years. Few could have predicted the raucous roar of its resurrection.

This ain't no party, disco, or boxing match: For Allen Malschick and many of his generation, the Cameo was a place to watch movies
Steve Satterwhite
This ain't no party, disco, or boxing match: For Allen Malschick and many of his generation, the Cameo was a place to watch movies
Frank Falestra, a.k.a. Rat Bastard, played punk at the Cameo, then spun techno for  a spell in 1990
Steve Satterwhite
Frank Falestra, a.k.a. Rat Bastard, played punk at the Cameo, then spun techno for a spell in 1990

In the Eighties the Cameo reflected the variety of cultural experiences that transformed South Beach from a retirement community into an internationally known hot spot. It was a decade marked by the influx of low-income Cuban apartment dwellers, the arrival of a robust fashion industry, and the rise of glitzy nightclubs.

An Israeli immigrant named Zori Hayon and his Italian partner bought the boarded-up Cameo and the burned-out Warsaw Ballroom in 1982 from a New York real estate company for about $380,000. Although Art Deco buildings such as the Cameo were supposed to be protected, the city issued a permit to raze the structure, according to historian Paul George. Hayon, who then held only a minor interest in the property, says his partner and developer Samuel Weintraub planned to build condominiums on the site. Officials withdrew the authorization and the plan was dropped.

Hayon, who drove limousines in New York City before moving to Miami Beach, bought out his partner in 1983. Soon he leased the space to José Rafael Aguila, a projectionist at Little Havana's Martí Theatre, and Luis Izquierdo, a boxing promoter who opened a restaurant called Mr. Food in one of the Cameo's storefront areas. Izquierdo and Aguila cleaned and painted the interior. When the theater reopened in December 1984, the pair charged people two dollars each to see a peculiar triple bill: Rhinestone (starring Sylvester Stallone and Dolly Parton); Paul McCartney's Give My Regards to Broadway, and a video clip of the solo release Dynamite, by Jermaine Jackson (formerly of the Jackson Five). Attendance was sparse, however, in part owing to the public's fear of crime outside the Cameo's fine wooden doors.

As the Cuban population swelled in South Beach, boxing matches became part of the Cameo's eclectic offerings. The summer of 1985 featured a Mike Perkins-Scott Wheaton bout and Pedro Lasa vs. Fernando "Mad Dog" Martinez. Hayon says he parted ways with Izquierdo after a disagreement in which the two displayed handguns but did not shoot.

Soon another form of controlled violence, slightly more lyrical than boxing, was agitating the dank, musty air inside the theater. It was the screaming, drumming, and amplified metallic thrashings of small groups of young men.

The Cameo's first rock concert was organized by Richard Shelter, dubbed by Miami Herald and Miami News music writers as the city's punk-rock impresario. A New York kid who moved to South Florida in 1978, Shelter brought punk and New Wave bands here in the early Eighties. From 1982 to 1985 he booked shows at three clubs: 27 Birds, a Coconut Grove bar located at Big Daddy's (now Flanigan's Loggerhead); a place called Blitz, also in Big Daddy's; and at Flynn's on Miami Beach.

Frank Falestra, a friend and fellow punk enthusiast, recalls the day Shelter cracked a deal with Cameo owner Zori Hayon. "[Shelter] said, 'Hey, we can have shows at this Cameo Theatre. I talked to the owner and for 300 bucks I can go in there and have a show.'"

Shelter's first event, held in July 1985, featured D.O.A., a punk outfit from Vancouver. A month later the promoter put on a more impressive, three-act concert: John Cale, the Meat Puppets, and Psycho Daisies.

Soon Falestra teamed with Shelter to book one of the most popular alternative bands of the day: the Dead Kennedys. "I came up with the money to get the equipment in there. It was my first show," Falestra recounts excitedly. "We guaranteed them 1500 bucks. A thousand people showed up for ten bucks a head. We made $10,000 that night. We had to pay off all the insurance, the club, the equipment, all that. Everybody got their money.

The plan was to invest the profit in a good sound system. But Shelter was overcome by a charitable impulse, Falestra remembers. "There was $5700 left over. He gave it to the Dead Kennedys, gave it to Jello [Biafra] so they would come back and play again. I didn't know this when it was going down. So those guys spent three more days here and just partied out, probably blew it all." The Dead Kennedys did not return to the Cameo.

Some South Beachers, particularly the elderly residents who lived in the neighborhood, were not amused. They viewed the events in and around the Cameo as reflective of the decline of Western civilization, a process that many punks reveled in. Former Miami Beach mayor and juvenile court judge Seymour Gelber even stepped on to the Cameo stage once as the head of a youth crime-prevention group. "Our task force used to go to the Cameo and we used to make speeches to the kids there, telling them how to behave properly," he remembers. "We also got a line on the bad kids there. They were almost uncontrollable, the juvenile gangs. Their one redeeming virtue was that they went there to watch these crazy music things. The punks used to throw each other off the stage just for sport." After observing a Circle Jerks concert in 1985, Gelber told then-Miami News reporter Greg Baker: "It was kind of a revelation. It was a Clockwork Orange kind of thing. It's some manner of communicating that I don't understand. And the attire ... gives an eerie impression. This is absolutely frightening."

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