The Coconut Grove Playhouse was once among the nation's leading theaters, premiering works by Tennessee Williams and Samuel Beckett and hosting acclaimed actors such as Carol Channing, Liza Minnelli, Bea Arthur, and George C. Scott. In its heyday, Miami's first live theater debuted Urban Cowboy and Fame: The Musical and was the setting for David Letterman's last remote broadcast.
More than a decade after the historically designated theater closed its doors because of mounting debt, county officials have finally announced a long-awaited plan to restore it. The proposed plan was revealed Friday, trumpeted as a way to "bring great theater back to the Coconut Grove Playhouse."
But many local preservationists are incensed at the proposal, which will be discussed during a public meeting Thursday. That's because it would save only the front portion of the facility created by renowned architecture firm Kiehnel & Elliott. The theater itself would be demolished and replaced on a much smaller scale. County officials argue that the facility's exterior is its most historically significant piece, but some experts say that's nonsense.
"The façade isn't the building," says Max Pearl, who runs the Facebook group Save the Coconut Grove Playhouse, which has more than 10,500 likes. "The façade is the skin. Miami is all about façades. We're the joke of the nation — Miami is all the plastic people with the face-lifts and nose jobs, and there's no soul. It's the metaphor for Miami."
The leadership of the Coconut Grove Playhouse Foundation, a local group that pushed for a return to the theater's original setup, is also furious about the plan. In a Twitter post Saturday, the group's executive director, Olga Granda-Scott, wrote that the foundation was not consulted and is not happy with the proposal, adding that demolition of the theater is "not acceptable."
The county's controversial plan came after an architect spent months reviewing the storied building. Jorge Hernandez wrote in his report that the theater's interior was beyond saving after multiple renovations.
The theater originally opened in 1927 as a cinema and was converted to a live-action theater in 1955. Kiehnel & Elliott's detail work, including columns along the aisles, were concealed in that conversion. Stores built into the exterior of the facility were shuttered and the auditorium condensed. Years later, the renovation's touches were lost in further updates, Hernandez wrote.
He concluded that the auditorium and lobby are "backgrounds" for the exterior building and that reconstructing them "would not accommodate the needs of a 21st-century theater." (Pearl disputes that. He notes that other theaters of the same age have been renovated and are in use today, including Olympia Theater in downtown Miami and Kings Theatre in Brooklyn.)
Based on those recommendations, the county's plan calls for restoring the Mediterranean-style front portion of the building to the way it appeared in 1927, complete with storefronts, office space, and, potentially, apartments (which were also included in the original iteration of the facility). A courtyard would separate that portion from a 300-seat standalone theater. A 500-car parking garage is also included.
A second version of the blueprint includes a second, 700-seat theater sought by the foundation. The county says the area can hold only 300 seats, though, and the foundation would have to raise money for the second theater.
Voters decided in 2004 to set aside $15 million to restore the playhouse, and another $5 million was later committed as well. In 2013, the county made an agreement with the state, which owns the theater, to save and reopen it through Florida International University. FIU signed a 99-year lease on the property for a small price, and the 300-seat theater will be run by GableStage, a respected company operating out of the Biltmore Hotel.
Michael Spring, Miami-Dade County cultural affairs director, says he thinks it's important for the public to give the team a chance to make its case. He believes the revived playhouse can usher in a new era for theater in Miami, in which it cultivates local talent instead of importing it.
"We're absolutely committed to returning to what we believe is the ancestral home of theater in our community," he says. "It's where theater started here."
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Grove residents have long worried the theater would be razed and replaced with a commercial development. That was Pearl's fear. Now 49, he grew up attending shows at the Coconut Grove Playhouse and studied theater at the University of Miami before becoming an English teacher.
Pearl accuses the county of trying to free up additional space for commercial development by shrinking the size of the theater. He says the soul of the playhouse is in the theater, not the exterior building he calls the "façade."
"History didn't happen in the façade," Pearl says. "The history happened in the theater. That's where the memories happened. That's the historical significance of it."
A town-hall meeting about the Coconut Grove Playhouse will be held from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday at Ransom Everglades Auditorium, 3575 Main Hwy., Coconut Grove. RSVP here.