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."

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Kirk Nielsen
Contact: Kirk Nielsen