In 1963, the Coconut Grove Playhouse staged a bawdy musical production, and organizers were worried about attracting theatergoers to their event. An intrepid publicist came up with a solution that resulted in crowds pouncing on the play like a sardine at a cat show. It also sowed the seeds for the Coconut Grove Arts Festival, which is celebrating its 50th year next February during President's Day weekend.
The play was Irma la Douce, local PR whiz Charlie Cinnamon recalls. "I needed an idea to turn them on, so I came up with the idea of a Paris Left Bank street-art show, which was almost a natural for the Grove, since in those days it was the center of art and a South Florida version of bohemian life."
Cinnamon put out the word, and the local arts community responded enthusiastically. "Gathering my closest friends, many of them artists, we did, indeed, close the streets. Then we built a weekend of activities around the street show, and the people came."
The response to the impromptu arts event overshadowed the play, and the artists banded together to make the Coconut Grove Arts Festival a yearly event. As it grew, musicians, live entertainment, and food vendors joined. Within a few short years, organizers had to rope off entire blocks of the quiet neighborhood to house the crowds.
More recently, the festival has attracted hundreds of thousands of paying visitors to check out the work of local, national, and international artists who shop their wares at the popular event.
During its 50th-anniversary edition, which will take place February 16 through 18, the 380 international artists who passed a jury's muster will showcase works in a myriad of mediums, including clay, watercolor, sculpture, painting, photography, jewelry, metalwork, fiber, mixed media, print-making, drawing, glass, and wood.
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This year's entertainment, featuring live music and world-famous chefs, will stretch from McFarlane Road up a mile-long path on South Bayshore Drive. It's a far cry from its corner-sidewalk origins half a century ago in front of the playhouse not far away.
"That is how it all began," Cinnamon says, "a moment in time that launched an extraordinary history of bringing great art and artists to a community which continues to treasure the arts." For more information, call 305-447-0401 or visit cgaf.com.