A Cameo Role

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

But for the most part, the Cameo has never regained its creative charm, especially when compared to the experimentation of the Eighties and early Nineties. "If you visited Miami Beach any time in the last five years and you asked people about the Cameo they'd give you a weird look if you said you were going to go there," observes Joe Delaney, who now heads Bar Group, a company that runs Iguana Cantina and Martini Bar, two Coconut Grove clubs. "It has been a hangout of gangbangers for too long now. Before that it had the potential to bloom into a nice kind of cultural thing."

Laura Quinlan is still inspired by the experimental spirit of the theater's pre-1990 denizens. "The Cameo always attracted a certain kind of person who was creative and entrepreneurial and interested in things going on," she says. "Even our die-hard audience members, I still run into them and they're all still up to cool stuff."

Paco de Onis, for instance, is now an independent producer currently working with PBS documentary king Bill Moyers. Michael Capponi is a promoter at Bar Room, a popular (though VIP-heavy) dance club located in the building that once housed the 600-seat Flamingo Theater on Lincoln Road. (The Flamingo became a luggage store in 1979.) Several of the DJs spin regularly at area clubs. Frank Falestra runs a recording studio and still performs his inimitable noise rock as Rat Bastard. Today Laura Quinlan manages the Rhythm Foundation, which specializes in presenting concerts by foreign bands. "A lot of people discovered South Beach through the Cameo," says James Quinlan, now director of the City of Miami Beach's office of art, culture, and entertainment.

Billy mingles during an Idol moment in 1992, the year disco descended on the Cameo
photo courtesy Zori Hayon
Billy mingles during an Idol moment in 1992, the year disco descended on the Cameo

Last year, one group of developers who discovered the Cameo wanted to turn it into a shopping and entertainment center. The City of Miami Beach planning department reviewed a proposal submitted by a Manhattan-based company called Six Thirty Yon to turn the theater and the adjacent Warsaw Ballroom into a kind of mall. A Miami firm, Bermello, Ajamil and Partners, drafted the plans. Shops would fill the ground floor of the Cameo. A restaurant, nightclub, and more retail outlets would occupy a new second floor.

But the City of Miami Beach Design Review/Historic Preservation Board nixed several parts of the plan including the new second story. The group instructed developers to meet Art Deco District guidelines, which allow only minimal change. Six Thirty Yon dropped their idea.

Earlier this year Big Time Productions, a Chicago company, signed a ten-year lease with Cameo owner Zori Hayon. Big Time runs seven clubs in the Windy City, including one called Crobar. That is the name for the Big Time operation due to open at the Cameo in a few months.

By now Big Time honchos Ken Smith and Cal Fortis know that modifying buildings in the Art Deco District is no party. For one thing they can't change the name of the place under the Miami Beach historic preservation ordinance. "That's the Cameo Theatre," declares James Quinlan. "They can't remove that name from the marquee. There's no way," he says." It will have to be Crobar at the Cameo."

And so it will be. Big Time's Ken Smith spilled a few beans about Crobar at the Cameo to New Times in June, saying he wasn't interested in booking bands or being a part of the old theater's history. He also proclaimed that the reincarnation would be "dramatic" and make people exclaim, "Whoa!" Since then he has declined to offer more details to New Times.

Paco de Onis has heard this tune before. "You can't imagine how many guys have made those exact statements all the way back to 1987," he says. About [not being interested in] live music, about coming in with a club that's going to be the place, that nobody's seen anything like it, that it's going to be the end-all and be-all of clubs, this kind of thing. It's funny. Then they open these huge clubs."

James Quinlan and many others who remain in the Miami area lament the loss of one of South Beach's best forums in which to enjoy live music. "I find that unfortunate," Quinlan sighs. "One of the greatest attributes of that facility was its ability to host live performances of a certain production value and scale that you don't find in clubs."

Not all Cameo alumni fear the coming of Crobar, though. "It's got the potential to be a bonus for Miami Beach for sure," promoter Joe Delaney declares. "There are people who make their money collecting door revenues for [bands like] Red Hot Chili Peppers or Fine Young Cannibals and there are guys who collect revenues for selling cocktails at three bucks a pop. It just depends on which way you want to do it. Both ways are viable for sure."

Many are skeptical. Skinhead survivor Kristen Thiele offers this terse prediction: "A club starts out good and then it gets bad."

The Cameo oracle, from her perch above Washington Avenue, has her own forecast: "A velvet-roped, eight-dollars-per-drink dance club, with a VIP lounge upstairs, will fill the shell of this old Art Deco theater. The unconscious Walkman guy will have to find another entryway in which to lay his head, because this one will be exclusively for Very Important People."

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