A Cameo Role
The sight of the shirtless man, flat on his back, Walkman blaring, summarizes the state of live music in the famed Art Deco District. There he is, a semiconscious, apparently intoxicated gentleman in blue jeans and black deck shoes, dozing sloppily at the foot of a graffiti-scrawled, turquoise-color metal door on the southern exterior of the Cameo Theatre. This entryway and two others on Española Way are usually locked, but today the marquee-crowned main entrance on Washington Avenue is closed too. The Cameo, as the local intelligentsia will tell you, ceased to be a live-music venue this past July. The 61-year-old structure is currently closed for renovation. A Chicago company plans to reopen it later this year as another Miami Beach dance club.
Although South Beach has changed in unimaginable ways, a woman's countenance atop the Cameo's façade has stared southward across Española Way since the theater opened in the late Thirties. Cinema was still magical enough then for its creators to believe the edifice would always be a movie house. But that was not to be. Like many buildings of its ilk, the Cameo was destined to become a forum for other kinds of entertainment.
Today the maiden atop the Cameo keeps her eye on a Payless shoe store and its neighbor, the nightclub Liquid. She is mute, and yet she is a South Beach oracle. Above the din and grit of Washington Avenue one hears her tales of the strange, violent, and enlightened ways that people on a subtropical barrier island have sought amusement during much of this century.
In 1938 the 1000-seat Cameo was a squirt compared with some of its peers in movieland. The local behemoth, across the water in downtown Miami, was the 2147-seat Olympia Theater (now known as the Gusman Center), which the Paramount Film Corporation built in 1925. Paramount and other Hollywood production companies such as Warner Bros., Fox, and RKO were the main forces behind movie-house construction in the Twenties and Thirties. Wometco, a local company founded by two entrepreneurs, Mitchell Wolfson and Sidney Meyer, built the Cameo and several other cinemas.
Theaters spread on Miami Beach as it developed into a tourist destination in the Thirties. The Lincoln, designed by Art Deco architect Robert E. Collins and constructed on Lincoln Road in 1936, was among the most roomy. On Friday, November 4, 1938, the slimmer Cameo, also designed by Collins, opened on a South Beach block owned by developer Herman Weingarten. High in the air the fluted façade featured glass blocks and a carved beige keystone bearing an oval cameo of a woman's face. The building housed two storefronts symmetrically positioned on each side of the main entrance. Initially one housed the theater's office and the other a café. (Pucci's Pizza and the Osteria del Teatro restaurant occupy the spaces today.) Inside, cinema enthusiasts marveled at the 38-foot-high ceiling and viewed the premieres of To the Victor and The Lie of Nina Petrovna, two foreign films that New York critics had praised, according to a Miami Daily News article. A short subject titled Wings over Czechoslovakia was also on the program.
In the late Thirties the area south of Lincoln Road took shape as a moderate-income, largely Jewish enclave. Among the Cameo's neighbors were a variety of new, small Art Deco hotels; twenty of them popped up on South Beach in 1938 alone. By the end of 1939, another landmark, Hoffman's Cafeteria, appeared on Collins Avenue directly behind the Cameo. It later became the Warsaw Ballroom.
Mrs. Victor Bagley, an elderly South Beach resident who declined to provide her age or first name during a recent interview, applauded the Cameo's owner for showing foreign movies. During the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties she lived in Italy, but often vacationed in Miami Beach with her husband, a book translator. "It had those nice old-fashioned seats. We would pay 25 or 35 cents an evening," she recalls, gripping a new cane as an August breeze rustles her flowery yellow-and-white dress.
Donald Baker, who was a child when he moved from New Jersey to Miami with his parents in 1948, remembers the Cameo as a middle-class alternative to the Lincoln Theatre. "Lincoln Road was where the high rollers were," he remembers. Still, the Cameo impressed him. "The majesty of the place was almost awe-inspiring," the 55-year-old printer says. "It was kind of what you'd expect of the big city, New York." High-rolling public relations man Charlie Cinnamon, who moved to Miami Beach from New York City as a young man in the Fifties, was uninspired by the neighborhood: "I thought it was kind of like 42nd Street in those days," he says, referring to what was once an infamously seedy strip in Manhattan.
The Lincoln and the flamboyantly designed Carib, a 2200-seat theater built on Lincoln Road in 1950, stole the limelight from the Cameo for years. Allen Malschick went to the Cameo as a young man during winter trips from Atlantic City to visit his father and grandmother, who lived in cottages at Ninth Street and Collins. He later relocated here and worked for Panorama magazine. Among his assignments were gigs photographing Lana Turner, Rip Torn, Milton Berle, and other movie stars who appeared for openings at the larger venues. "When I was shooting world premieres they were always at the Lincoln or at the Carib, or at a big theater in Miami," says Malschick, now 68 years old. "The Cameo was just a small, narrow theater. You couldn't have premieres in there because it wouldn't hold as many people."
But by the end of the Sixties, as television penetrated Americans' hearts and minds, majestic movie houses from South Florida to Seattle began to close. In 1971 philanthropist Maurice Gusman purchased the Olympia and saved it from demolition. Other theaters were lost. Crews tore down the Carib's façade, which featured a large clock above a huge painted map of the Caribbean, and gutted the interior; it became a small shopping complex in 1978. The Cameo closed that same year and continued to deteriorate. But because of its Art Deco architecture, it would be spared a fate similar to the Carib's. In 1979 the Miami Design Preservation League convinced federal officials to list South Beach's Art Deco District on the National Register of Historic Places. Hundreds of buildings, including the Cameo, were saved.
The Cameo remained dark for the next several years. Few could have predicted the raucous roar of its resurrection.
In the Eighties the Cameo reflected the variety of cultural experiences that transformed South Beach from a retirement community into an internationally known hot spot. It was a decade marked by the influx of low-income Cuban apartment dwellers, the arrival of a robust fashion industry, and the rise of glitzy nightclubs.
An Israeli immigrant named Zori Hayon and his Italian partner bought the boarded-up Cameo and the burned-out Warsaw Ballroom in 1982 from a New York real estate company for about $380,000. Although Art Deco buildings such as the Cameo were supposed to be protected, the city issued a permit to raze the structure, according to historian Paul George. Hayon, who then held only a minor interest in the property, says his partner and developer Samuel Weintraub planned to build condominiums on the site. Officials withdrew the authorization and the plan was dropped.
Hayon, who drove limousines in New York City before moving to Miami Beach, bought out his partner in 1983. Soon he leased the space to José Rafael Aguila, a projectionist at Little Havana's Martí Theatre, and Luis Izquierdo, a boxing promoter who opened a restaurant called Mr. Food in one of the Cameo's storefront areas. Izquierdo and Aguila cleaned and painted the interior. When the theater reopened in December 1984, the pair charged people two dollars each to see a peculiar triple bill: Rhinestone (starring Sylvester Stallone and Dolly Parton); Paul McCartney's Give My Regards to Broadway, and a video clip of the solo release Dynamite, by Jermaine Jackson (formerly of the Jackson Five). Attendance was sparse, however, in part owing to the public's fear of crime outside the Cameo's fine wooden doors.
As the Cuban population swelled in South Beach, boxing matches became part of the Cameo's eclectic offerings. The summer of 1985 featured a Mike Perkins-Scott Wheaton bout and Pedro Lasa vs. Fernando "Mad Dog" Martinez. Hayon says he parted ways with Izquierdo after a disagreement in which the two displayed handguns but did not shoot.
Soon another form of controlled violence, slightly more lyrical than boxing, was agitating the dank, musty air inside the theater. It was the screaming, drumming, and amplified metallic thrashings of small groups of young men.
The Cameo's first rock concert was organized by Richard Shelter, dubbed by Miami Herald and Miami News music writers as the city's punk-rock impresario. A New York kid who moved to South Florida in 1978, Shelter brought punk and New Wave bands here in the early Eighties. From 1982 to 1985 he booked shows at three clubs: 27 Birds, a Coconut Grove bar located at Big Daddy's (now Flanigan's Loggerhead); a place called Blitz, also in Big Daddy's; and at Flynn's on Miami Beach.
Frank Falestra, a friend and fellow punk enthusiast, recalls the day Shelter cracked a deal with Cameo owner Zori Hayon. "[Shelter] said, 'Hey, we can have shows at this Cameo Theatre. I talked to the owner and for 300 bucks I can go in there and have a show.'"
Shelter's first event, held in July 1985, featured D.O.A., a punk outfit from Vancouver. A month later the promoter put on a more impressive, three-act concert: John Cale, the Meat Puppets, and Psycho Daisies.
Soon Falestra teamed with Shelter to book one of the most popular alternative bands of the day: the Dead Kennedys. "I came up with the money to get the equipment in there. It was my first show," Falestra recounts excitedly. "We guaranteed them 1500 bucks. A thousand people showed up for ten bucks a head. We made $10,000 that night. We had to pay off all the insurance, the club, the equipment, all that. Everybody got their money.
The plan was to invest the profit in a good sound system. But Shelter was overcome by a charitable impulse, Falestra remembers. "There was $5700 left over. He gave it to the Dead Kennedys, gave it to Jello [Biafra] so they would come back and play again. I didn't know this when it was going down. So those guys spent three more days here and just partied out, probably blew it all." The Dead Kennedys did not return to the Cameo.
Some South Beachers, particularly the elderly residents who lived in the neighborhood, were not amused. They viewed the events in and around the Cameo as reflective of the decline of Western civilization, a process that many punks reveled in. Former Miami Beach mayor and juvenile court judge Seymour Gelber even stepped on to the Cameo stage once as the head of a youth crime-prevention group. "Our task force used to go to the Cameo and we used to make speeches to the kids there, telling them how to behave properly," he remembers. "We also got a line on the bad kids there. They were almost uncontrollable, the juvenile gangs. Their one redeeming virtue was that they went there to watch these crazy music things. The punks used to throw each other off the stage just for sport." After observing a Circle Jerks concert in 1985, Gelber told then-Miami News reporter Greg Baker: "It was kind of a revelation. It was a Clockwork Orange kind of thing. It's some manner of communicating that I don't understand. And the attire ... gives an eerie impression. This is absolutely frightening."
Shelter soon split for Los Angeles. But there were always entrepreneurs waiting in the wings.
Rock and roll may never die, but when Paco de Onis arrived from Colombia in late 1986 something new was born at the Cameo. The musical melting pot known as world beat began to seep into the aging auditorium. De Onis had spent much of the Eighties producing the Caribbean Music Festival in Cartagena. He believed the Miami area was ripe for presenting such music year-round. To help him with the new Miami project, de Onis hired James Quinlan, a New York booking agent who had previously sent bands to the Cartagena festival. The two signed a lease with Hayon and formed a company called Crossover Concerts. Soon they were booking African pop stars like Ebenezer Obey and Alpha Blondy for Cameo gigs. De Onis paid $250 per month for a one-bedroom flat in the Ocean Drive building that would later become Gianni Versace's mansion. Quinlan rented a one-bedroom apartment on Euclid Avenue for $245 per month. South Beach reminded him of Manhattan's East Village. "We felt like we were pioneers and felt like we had to turn the place around through the influx of artists and artistic activities."
De Onis and Quinlan were fans of world beat and reggae, but maintained an eclectic mix of acts. Their first sold-out concert was performed in May 1987 by an all-American band: heavy-metal monsters Megadeth. The next month the Cameo News, a wry one-page newsletter written by Quinlan's then-girlfriend and now wife, Laura, announced June's lineup would include a series of Philadelphia soul bands, reggae groups, and a hardcore punk double-bill featuring the Descendents and Henry Rollins.
Back then the Cameo had it all: peace, love, unity, and skinhead fights. Kristen Thiele, a 30-year-old Miami native who graduated this year from the Chicago Art Institute, remembers one June night in 1987 when she was a University of Miami student. She was at the Rollins/Descendents show. Rollins was onstage. "It was my first hardcore night. And I guess I was dating somebody who must have been dating one of the skinhead girls. I didn't know he was dating somebody else. Anyway, she and her cronies saw me outside talking to this guy. And later they cornered me upstairs in the little lounge. Initially it was this one girl and she was definitely looking for a fight because she stuck her hand in my face. My brother was there. It was instinct; I knew we were going to fight. So I actually hit her first. And I guess that took her by surprise and then all the girls jumped me.... There was a pile of people on top of me. My brother put his body over mine like a turtle shell and his hands were reaching under his body to grab me. Somehow he and I jumped up and it was kind of like a movie because we hid under some stairs and they all ran past us. And then we ran outside and that was the end of it. I wasn't injured but I never went back. We went straight to Wolfie's."
Violence at the Cameo attracted Chuck Loose, who was a seventeen-year-old skateboarding gnome from a small town near Albuquerque when he moved to Miami in 1986. He had heard that South Florida punks were tough. "I had, like, dreadlocks and a nose ring and a skateboard. The environment in New Mexico was, like, all your parents were hippies so it was all, like you know whatever, you can dress as funny as you want but you can still hang out and smoke pot with your parents and it's cool. For me, coming from New Mexico where everyone was kind of mellow and got along with each other, it was really, like, oh my God, such a culture shock. Seriously, like, the big thing was there were these speaker stacks and you'd really prove your mettle if you fucking jumped off them. And they were really high. And there were a lot of cases of nobody catching you when you jumped off. I remember guys diving from the stages and nobody being there to catch them and being knocked unconscious and that's why the ambulances were out front."
Inside the Cameo punks coexisted with a growing cluster of bohemians. Tuesday nights became Asylum, a place for local artists to display their works in a clublike setting. Joe Delaney, a promoter at the Cameo, remembers it this way: "There would be mood lighting and you'd just kind of walk around and look at the art and maybe there'd be a film showing, maybe there wouldn't. There'd be some really cool music playing and there were cocktails. And it was really a cool kind of social, art thing. Something really vibrant. We probably haven't seen anything like it since."
De Onis paid DJs Ed Bobb, Howard Davis, and Frank Falestra to experiment with multimedia presentations at Asylum and on other nights. "They would do great projections," de Onis says. "All the walls of the Cameo and the ceiling and everything were covered with images that were changing all the time. It was really nice."
Laura Quinlan handled the Groovy Movie series, which presented arthouse classics like Metropolis, Nosferatu, and Simon of the Desert, along with vintage cult favorites such as Andy Warhol's Bad and Ed Wood's inquiry into cross-dressing, Glen or Glenda. Wednesday was poetry night, organized by de Onis's sister, Francesca. Among the bards who read were Bob Gregory, Lionel Goldbart, and Glen Ganz.
Of course there were some glitches in the aging theater. In May 1989 Crossover Concerts decided to further diversify its live music offerings by presenting a gospel show. De Onis and the Quinlans made a deal with an outside promoter to put on a BeBe and CeCe Winans concert featuring Whitney Houston as a back-up singer. "It was a really big deal for us. And we were working so hard to make sure the theater was really nice for this gospel show," Laura Quinlan recalls. "At a certain point we realized there was no way we could get the seats replaced and so our maintenance crew painted them red to make them look really nice." The next night gospel fans in silk suits packed the place. "When they got up to go home everybody had red fannies," Quinlan chuckles. "We had a lot of dry-cleaning bills. It was very stressful." The following May the air conditioning failed during David Byrne's concert with Brazilian singer Margareth Menezes and a sixteen-piece Latin-dance band. Everyone sweated and partied on.
Boxing made a brief return when a promoter leased nights for closed-circuit transmissions of Latin American bouts. "We had metal, punk, rock, speed metal, but the most damage that was done at the Cameo was by Colombian boxing fans," Laura Quinlan recollects, with a laugh. "They managed to remove rows of seats."
"We served many different audiences," de Onis says. "Depending on what night you went there it would be a completely different crowd of people. We had, for example, Nigerian bands like King Sunny Ade and the African Beats. And then suddenly you'd see the Cameo filled with beautiful Nigerian people with these fantastic clothes that they wear, and headdresses," de Onis still marvels. "It was like a whole piece of Nigeria all of a sudden was on South Beach. And you'd go, 'Wow, I didn't realize so many Nigerian people lived in Miami.'"
De Onis and owner Zori Hayon closed the Cameo in late 1989 for renovations. Two vestiges of its movie-house days would disappear: the tattered seats and the bubble-gum-covered floor.
The Cameo reopened in March 1990 with a concert by the Sugarcubes. But DJs were gaining momentum. The old movie theater was cruising into the electronica universe.
Michael Capponi was one of a group of young promoters who approached de Onis that year about leasing the theater on weekend nights. He and DJs Ruben Pagan and Carl B. Dread called themselves Global Tribe and transformed the Cameo into a fashionable dance club. They called their party "One." "It was about 70 percent African Americans and 30 percent models," Capponi remembers. "It was a very different time here in Miami. But it was a very cool vibe. It was like an African-hippie movement." The mellow, Afrocentric hip-hop music of A Tribe Called Quest and the Jungle Brothers was in vogue, he adds. "It was really a down groove."
But as One became more popular, gangs joined in. "And then a lot of fights started breaking out and it wasn't so much about peace anymore," he says with a laugh. Another party was called Industry; DJs played music ranging from heavy metal to hip-hop. "That was a really packed night," Capponi remembers. "There would be 1000 people waiting outside. It was incredible."
Then there was Disco Inferno, an idea that Capponi and DJs Bobby Starke and Gary James borrowed from Texas nightclubs in 1992. De Onis was skeptical. "These guys came up and told me they wanted to do a disco night on Sunday," de Onis remembers. "And I thought, Oh well sure. And I felt kind of bad for them. I thought, Yeah, they're going to lose a lot of money," de Onis recalls. "I was so wrong. This turned out to be the absolute biggest night that we had there."
Meanwhile the Quinlans left Crossover Concerts and the Cameo amid financial difficulties. "The revenues [for live shows] weren't coming in fast enough so some of the partners pulled out," says James. By the end of 1992 de Onis had also left, still marveling at the staying power of disco nights, which lasted five years. The disco madness ended in June 1997 after federal, state, and local undercover agents repeatedly bought cocaine inside the Cameo. Authorities closed the club. A few months later they allowed owner Zori Hayon to reopen after he paid $35,000 in fines and agreed to end the theater's under-21 events, including disco nights.
Since then a steady, predictable stream of musicians, ranging from Bob Dylan to Tricky to Top Vice, have performed there. Occasionally the theater has presented bursts of cutting-edge music. This past March internationally acclaimed MCs Fat Boy Slim, Daft Punk, John Aquaviva, and Todd Terry played the Cameo during the Winter Music Conference.
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.
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."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.