Imagine seeing a movie under the stars for a nickel or a vaudeville show. Such things could have happened indoors in Miami, especially if you were downtown at the Olympia Theater. Built in 1926 by Chicago architect John Eberson for Paramount Pictures, the Mediterranean Revival-style structure was one of many "atmospheric" theaters in the country, intended to transport the audience to another place and time through eye-catching murals, elaborate interior designs, and the illusion of clouds and a twinkling sky floating overhead. Replete with a Wurlitzer pipe organ and scary Phantom of the Opera-ish décor meant to evoke the courtyard of a Spanish villa, the 1700-seat theater screened movies from its inception and hosted vaudeville performances from the late Twenties to the early Fifties. Elvis Presley even played a few concerts there in the summer of 1956. Of course like every stunning work of architecture, the place eventually fell apart. Rescued from its fate as a parking lot in 1970 by monied Maurice Gusman, the theater reopened in 1972 as a performing-arts venue with a new moniker. Three years later the City of Miami inherited it, renting it out as a venue for the annual FIU-Miami Film Festival, plus concerts and other events. The attached ten-story office building has been transformed into low-income housing, but the theater itself, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, seems in a constant state of disrepair.
Hence the mission of the Olympia Theater at Gusman Center's 75th Anniversary Weekend: to raise funds for its restoration. On the agenda Friday is a vaudeville performance and party featuring flappers and refreshments, of the alcoholic kind we suppose. Saturday boasts a return to the glory days of the movie palace with a marathon of budget-priced classic flicks such as National Velvet, The Wizard of Oz, Viva Las Vegas, North by Northwest, Casablanca, and King Kong. Now, that's entertainment!