Small Screen, Big Bucks

How much does it cost to see a two-dollar movie in Miami? About three million dollars, if you're watching it in Little Havana's Tower Theater.

The Tower Theater, with its beautifully subtle curves and its three-million-dollar facelift, waits on Calle Ocho, all made up with nowhere to go. Or anyone to take her there. City officials have allowed the recently restored Art Deco theater to deteriorate into a two-dollar movie house featuring second-run rejects like M:I-2 and Double Jeopardy. The theater is the victim of civic shortsightedness, divergent voices, and empty rhetoric -- a veritable Tower of Babel.

It was meant to be something else entirely, of course. Miami officials were hoping the Tower Arts Center (as the reborn structure was to be called) would provide a venue for everything from theatrical productions to art exhibitions, and that it would anchor Little Havana's cultural and commercial revitalization. Millions of public dollars went into the renovation project, but only four months after its ballyhooed reopening, the Tower sits empty most of the time, a colorful curiosity for locals on their way to Domino Park.

The fact that almost no one has noticed the magnitude of the failure only fuels the frustration felt by Nelson Gayton, a local filmmaker and ex-Sony Pictures executive who grew up in the area and has fond memories of the old Tower. “I used to go see movies there with my grandfather,” he recalls. Gayton agreed to serve as an advisor to the city on the project, believing it was a chance to do something “truly unique in the arts community and for Miami.” Now, after devoting part of the past four years to the cause, he calls the city's redevelopment of the old theater a case study in mediocrity and a classic missed opportunity.

Little Havana's Tower Theater: A failure of biblical proportions?
Steve Satterwhite
Little Havana's Tower Theater: A failure of biblical proportions?

The Tower Theater, on the corner of SW Eighth Street and Fifteenth Avenue, opened as a 1000-seat movie palace in 1926. It evolved into a central meeting place for the neighborhood's Cuban-exile population in the early Sixties and remained in operation until 1984, when the economics of the film business and the public perception that the area was unsafe finally forced it to close. The city purchased the boarded-up box in 1991 for $380,000, eventually earmarking $1.5 million in state and federal community development grants for a renovation scheduled to be completed by 1995. Estimates for the cost of the project and the time frame proved wildly optimistic. Renovation didn't get under way until 1997, when Pino-Fonticiella Construction was awarded a two-million-dollar contract. Expenses and delays continued to grow as structural deficiencies were uncovered. The theater finally reopened this past April, five years behind schedule and nearly two million dollars over budget.

Still, the city proceeded with its plan for the arts center, awarding a management contract to the team of Cesar Soto and Jaime Angulo. Soto is the owner of the Astor Art Cinema in Coral Gables; Angulo is the director of the four-year-old Hispanic Film Festival. Under the agreement the city provided the facility to Soto and Angulo at no charge; they were responsible for day-to-day operational costs.

The theater's initial reception suggested local civic leaders might have been on to something when they hatched the idea to revive the Tower. Many artists searching for bigger spaces and cheaper rents had already begun relocating to Little Havana, and events like Viernes Cultural (Cultural Friday), a combination artistic open house and street festival held the last Friday of each month, were creating a buzz around town, bringing visitors and activity to the neighborhood.

Crowds for the Hispanic Film Festival, the theater's opening event, were good. Behind the scenes, however, discord between the management team and the City of Miami already was brewing. Soto says the city reneged on its promise of a five-year agreement, refusing to offer anything more than a series of short-term contracts: a 10-day contract to host the Hispanic Film Festival, and then a 90-day contract from May 7 to August 7. He maintains that other promises from the city -- a solution to the area's dearth of parking and construction of a pedestrian plaza adjacent to the Tower -- also went unfulfilled. (Lori Billbery, director of Miami's Office of Asset Management, admits these issues were raised during contract negotiations but denies that the city committed itself to addressing them in any way.)

Another problem was the facility's new identity or, some might say, lack of one. The theater was rechristened the Tower Arts Center, reflecting the vision of a comprehensive cultural center for the area. This, says Soto, was a vision he shared with the committee that awarded him the management agreement: a center that would draw local filmmakers, actors, and artists -- and their patrons -- to Calle Ocho. Nelson Gayton, a member of the selection committee, says this approach was only logical: “If you want to revitalize an area, you have to attract people with energy and money.”

But there also was opposition to this strategy from influential segments. “For one reason or another,” says Soto, “Commissioner [Tomas] Regalado attacked us from the beginning.” Regalado, he reports, made disparaging remarks about the Tower on Spanish-language radio and TeleMiami Cable.

The Miami commissioner doesn't deny he had disagreements with the way Soto was running the arts center. “When it first opened,” he says, “I criticized it for the high cost of admission.” Movie tickets were seven dollars for adults, five for children and seniors. Soto subsequently lowered prices to six and four dollars. But Regalado's criticisms didn't end with ticket prices. He didn't particularly care for the independent and foreign films Soto had booked. “My philosophy is to bring people to Eighth Street,” the commissioner explains. “[The theater] cannot be an elite enterprise.” In Gayton's opinion Regalado's positions on these issues, broadcast to Miami's Spanish-speaking community over the airwaves, were “a public-relations nightmare for the Tower.”

After the relative success of the Hispanic Film Festival, subsequent festivals dedicated to Peruvian and Colombian film flopped. “We just kept losing money,” recounts Soto. When their 90-day agreement with the city expired, he and Angulo declined to enter into another one. They say the negative attacks and their tenuous lease arrangement made it impossible to garner support or outside funds.

After the departure of Soto and Angulo, the theater remained closed until Labor Day weekend, when another temporary operating agreement -- this one between the city and 21st Century Cinema, the company that installed the theater's projection equipment -- allowed it to reopen, not as an “arts center” but as a second-run movie house. The city continues to provide utilities and alarm services at a cost of approximately $2500 per month. As before, the tenant must cover all other operating costs.

Steve Krams, whose company currently is running the Tower, says his business plan is pretty straightforward: Charge rock-bottom prices for whatever films he can scrounge up. “Films with Spanish subtitles are not easy to get,” he laments. Not that he thinks the Tower's latest incarnation is any kind of long-term solution. Krams says he is pursuing co-occupants such as the Alliance Cinema, the Lincoln Road arthouse that recently closed. His goal for the Tower is to turn it into a community-based theater, “like community-access cable but in a theater.” In other words a venue not only for film but live performance, dance, and art exhibitions.

Problem is, the space is fairly inhospitable to alternative uses. The lobby runs along only one side of the building, providing a limited gathering space. The original 1000-seat auditorium has been carved up into twin cinemas with a combined total of less than 400 seats. Although the stage in the bigger room may be large enough to accommodate a musical performance or one-act drama, it is hardly suitable for a play requiring large sets or set changes. The building has been beautifully restored, but it remains primarily a movie house.

Then there's the theater's continuing identity crisis, one compounded by the burgeoning local arts scene. A discount movie house recycling mainstream Hollywood releases looks increasingly out of place in a neighborhood that each day features more and more artists' studios and collaboratives like the recently created Arting Together, a cultural center featuring theatrical productions, art, and dance, located directly across the street from the Tower.

This, in fact, may be the ultimate irony. Not only is the Tower not leading the Calle Ocho renaissance, it actually may be hindering it. “Second-run movies are not going to bring in people capable of revitalizing a neighborhood,” complains Gayton.

Soto agrees: “It's very difficult to go from being a two-dollar house to an arts theater. The Tower will probably go out of business.”

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