Coproducer/cofounder of the new Miami Skyline Theatre Allen J. Zipper impresses me as not only a practical and inspired man, but also a most amusing one. For years he worked in the marketing, public relations, and production departments of the Coconut Grove Playhouse, as well as working as an actor -- in Luis Santeiro's Mixed Blessings -- where he delivered an offbeat and zany performance as the new Jewish addition to a Miami-Cuban family. Using his wit and past experiences, he explains why he decided to approach the Gusman family almost three years ago to start the process of putting a resident professional company into the historic Gusman Center: "The day I knew I had to leave Coconut Grove," Zipper says with an ironic smile, "was when I had to listen, yet again, to this particular lyric in the Playhouse's world premiere staging of Miami Lights: `Picked on me like an old bloody scab, said I had the brains of a fiddler crab.' If the lyric and the overall writing wasn't bad enough, on that particular day the composer, lyricist, and choreographer congratulated each other on the verse, comparing themselves to Noel Coward and Cole Porter. When you're working in a theater and it's not fun, you can't believe in what you're doing, and night after night you feel the audience is being cheated, you certainly don't make enough money to stay on."
Zipper thought Miami deserved better. "Our city is funnier, more vulgar, more complex, and certainly more interesting than most other places in the country right now," he exclaims. "We want to take Miami actors and Miami writers and Miami shows and export them to the rest of the world, instead of the other way around."
There's a fair chance Zipper will succeed. During the years spent setting up the Miami Skyline venture, the production team gathered almost the entire three million dollars needed to launch its first season in November of 1993 and put together an advisory board consisting of such luminaries as Mickey Rooney, Rita Moreno, Tracy Ullman, Edward James Olmos, Charles Durning, Julie Harris, playwrights John Guare and Luis Santeiro, all chaired by Roz Ryan, who will star in the first production, Auntie Mame. Now Skyline prepares to audition and assemble the resident company, exclusively composed of local talent, both Equity and non-Equity.
"We took time to put this business together," Zipper explains. "We had no intention of rushing into producing shows with no working capital. We feel a responsibility to pay people in the theater for their services." In the company, all actors, directors, and support crew will receive a living wage, so they can devote their time to their respective arts and not be forced to make money doing something else, like the classic table-waiting. Zipper also stresses that company members remain free to work on other shows around town, for other worthy houses such as ACME and AREA, provided there are no schedule conflicts.
The mission statement of Skyline describes the company's intentions succinctly but thoroughly: "Our basic philosophy was developed with long term goals of producing quality theatre for existing patrons, affordable theatre to attract a broader spectrum of potential patrons, and education to build a future audience amongst the younger generation." To achieve these goals, Skyline intends to limit ticket prices to a range between $9.95 and $19.95; they also plan numerous educational and community outreach programs, such as providing through the Dade County School Board two free performances weekly for students, for each and every production. Apprenticeship programs and other educational facilities in the theater hope to breed a theater-literate future audience in South Florida, a most worthy goal.
Bruce Gusman, grandson of Maurice (founder of the Gusman Center), is chairman of the Board of Trustees and launched the enterprise with an investment of $50,000. "The Skyline will provide the Gusman Center with a regional theatre," Bruce writes, "utilizing celebrity performers and a resident company comprised of Miami's brightest young talent." He adds: "We have a unique opportunity to usher in a new era for the Maurice Gusman Cultural Center for the Performing Arts and fulfill my grandfather's cultural vision for the city of Miami."
With the new performing arts center board virtually ignoring local theater, Miami can count itself lucky that Zipper and Gusman came along to fill in the gap.
The entire producing team of the Skyline also contains other experienced and thoughtful entrepreneurs. David T. Adonailo, formerly a successful financial consultant for Merrill Lynch -- who was "making money but bored to tears" -- supervises much of the business end. Richard W. Camuso, Jr. (Zipper's original partner), has extensive production expertise and worked at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, the Greater Miami Opera Association, and the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. Lewis J. Stadlen starred in numerous Broadway productions, movies, television, and regional theater during the past 25 years. Together the team plans a season opening with Ryan's Mame, and continues with Once Upon a Mattress (featuring Vickie Lewis, a local talented actor turned star through the TV hit, Home Improvement), a new play yet to be selected, and the musical extravaganza, 1776, which the producers plan for two weeks at the Gusman and a special July 4 open-air performance at a location such as South Pointe Park.
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But planning the entire enterprise didn't totally consume the producers' energy over the past year. Battling hurricane fallout and economic pinches, they still managed to host a show/party in honor of legendary Broadway producer, director, and playwright George Abbott's 105th birthday at the Gusman Center, featuring special appearances by Gwen Verdon and Edie Adams. In the aftermath of Andrew, the company organized the "Miami Skyline Canteen," a weekly series of USO-style variety shows. Currently, they're presenting a series of monthly play-readings called "The Road to the Skyline," all open to the public for a nominal price ($5). The latter venture's goal is to find the perfect new play for Skyline's premiere season.
Zipper, a tireless, charming worker, will not accept a negative outcome for the Skyline. His belief in promoting local talent in Miami itself smacks of shrewd confidence rather than blind faith. "We are ripe for this type of theatrical commitment," Zipper says, "because where else in this country can you sit at 3:00 a.m. having cappuccino by the ocean?"
I agree, especially when he adds, "I love Miami." And I would hope the city will support Skyline's work enough to help build the beginnings of a truly sound theatrical community.
For more information about the Miami Skyline play readings and future events, call 358-7529.