We Dare You to Sing

After weeks of police planning, passionate debate, and bomb threats, the controversial Rosita Fornes show at Miami Beach's Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts won't, in fact, go on. An attorney representing Fornes's producers told New Times earlier this week that they planned to send a letter to the theater requesting a postponement of the performance, which had been scheduled for this Friday night, September 6.

According to John de Leon of the American Civil Liberties Union, the producers are buckling under the strain of several conditions imposed on them by the City of Miami Beach, which owns the theater. For example, city officials demanded that the producers pay $6000 for extra police and security guards and obtain $100,000 worth of supplemental fire insurance for the theater.

"[The producers] are going to be telling the city that since they've been met at every turn by obstacles, they cannot go forward with the concert," de Leon says. They will request another performance date for "the near future" but without the additional security fees and other conditions, the attorney adds. "If they don't get a new date, we'll proceed with a lawsuit."

City administrators are concerned about violence at the theater surrounding a performance by the Cuban operetta star. Some Cuban exiles called for a protest of the show and had been planning a demonstration outside the theater because Fornes, who was born in New York but lives in Havana, has never publicly denounced the Castro regime. A series of Fornes performances slated to begin in late July at the Centro Vasco restaurant in Little Havana was scratched after a fire bomb crashed through the restaurant's window July 11. The Jackie Gleason Theater received at least two telephoned bomb threats, according to Maj. Donald De Lucca of the Miami Beach Police Department.

The ACLU's de Leon says the city's demands appear to be a violation of the producers' and performer's First Amendment rights. "The ACLU's position is that we support wholeheartedly the right of people to protest the performance," he explains. "However, the promoter or performer should not have to pay for the acts of people outside the theater. It's the government's responsibility to ensure there are peaceful demonstrations."

Miami Beach officials counter that it's only fair that the city and the producers should share the cost of security. "Because there appears to be a greater security risk -- as a result of nothing the city has done -- then it's fair and reasonable to expect a sharing of that expense by the performer," asserts Miami Beach City Attorney Murray Dubbin. Furthermore, says Dubbin, the producers agreed to the deal, and if they had not absorbed at least some of the security costs, no contract would have been possible.

De Leon says the demands amounted to a form of coercion: "The city pretty much forced the producer into that position: Either you pay or you don't do the performance."

Fornes's New York-based manager Adolfo Vazquez says a month's worth of negotiations wore him down. Discussions between Vazquez, promoter Orlando Diaz, and the theater's management began July 14. These culminated in a series of meetings in Miami Beach in early August, during which contract terms were formulated. At the time, Vazquez recalls, there was no talk about security needs above and beyond the customary demands of the theater, which usually entail no more than a handful of off-duty police and private security officers. Vazquez says he and Diaz were quoted a price of between $1300 and $1800 for those services. They agreed and handed the theater's management a deposit check of $2750. Then they returned to New York. But less than a week later the theater returned the check and said the deal was off. Says ACLU attorney de Leon: "That's when they started talking about security and fire-insurance costs."

Fornes's promotional team eventually agreed to pay $6000 to cover the cost of 26 uniformed Miami Beach police officers and ten private security personnel to be posted in and around the theater. The city also required the Fornes producers to assume responsibility for the theater's $100,000 deductible on its fire insurance.

"The producer is responsible for the condition of the building and the insurance is to make sure they can cover it," explains City Manager Jose Garcia-Pedrosa. "They aren't people we know, we've never worked with them, we don't know what kind of assets they have." As of early this week, though, Vazquez and Diaz had been unable to find an insurance company willing to cover that liability, and Vazquez says he doesn't have the assets to secure a $100,000 letter of credit from a bank or post a $100,000 bond.

The decision to charge the producers for security and fire insurance was made by the city manager's office "in consultation with the legal department about what was fair and reasonable," explains Assistant City Manager Harry Mavrogenes. Garcia-Pedrosa was out of town when the security issue arose, so Mavrogenes represented the city in negotiations with the producers. Not that Garcia-Pedrosa would have been any more lenient: A Cuban exile himself, he had planned to join the anti-Castro protestors in front of the Jackie Gleason Theater to "repudiate this woman coming here and placing American dollars in the bloody hands of Fidel Castro. As a city manager," he grumbles, "I have an obligation under the law to sign the permit and permit the injurious act to take place."

The matter never came before the city commission, which has been on summer recess. Still, some commissioners have made their opinions heard. A month ago Commissioner David Pearlson wrote a memo to Mavrogenes urging him to cancel the performance, citing "security concerns, negative press, and the insult to our Cuban-American residents." His colleagues Sy Eisenberg and Martin Shapiro both say they feel the promoters should bear the entire cost of security. Commissioner Neisen Kasdin declined comment for fear it could jeopardize the city's legal position. Commissioners Susan Gottlieb and Nancy Liebman, as well as Mayor Seymour Gelber, were out of town and couldn't be reached for comment.

With a Fornes concert now only a dim possibility, weeks of security preparations may be for naught. Miami Beach officials have said little about the city's plan, though they had earlier estimated that it would involve about $16,000 in overtime and off-duty wages. The police department had also planned to have a rapid-response "field force" on standby in case the crowds got unruly, and in an effort to encourage responsible conduct, department representatives had been meeting with organizers of the protest -- anti-Castro groups La Unidad Cubano and the Cuban Historic Political Prisoners Organization.

The police had been preparing for as few as 500 and as many as 2000 demonstrators outside the theater, not to mention a swarm of television trucks and other media. With so many people clogging one area -- the busy intersection of Washington Avenue and Seventeenth Street -- some part of the police force was going to be deployed to control traffic.

The event, and the controversy surrounding it, recalls an April concert by Cuban jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba at Miami's Gusman Center for the Performing Arts. Outside the downtown theater, the protest turned violent when participants struck and spat on concertgoers. The promoter of that concert, however, didn't experience the same logistical headaches of his Fornes counterparts. Miami-based promoter Rolando Mendoza says he obtained an omnibus insurance policy for the Gusman that included one million dollars in fire coverage; he was also required to pay for just six off-duty police officers. City officials publicly threatened to charge Mendoza an additional $7500 for 81 extra police personnel, but they haven't yet billed him.

This time around, Spanish-language radio airwaves had been crackling with talk about the Fornes controversy. Rumors circulating around town maintained that she and her production company are sponsored by the Cuban government, a charge Adolfo Vazquez angrily denies. "This has nothing to do with Cuba!" declares the Cuban-born Vazquez, who has lived in New York since 1980. "We're working people who have careers in theater!"

When informed earlier this week of the producers' planned request for a postponement, City Manager Garcia-Pedrosa laughed and said he wasn't surprised. "The reality is that this has been a giant fiasco," he chuckled. "They sold something like 236 tickets at last count for a theater that holds 2000-something people. For them to focus now on the contractual requirements that they agreed on is a transparent attempt to de-emphasize the fact that it's been a complete disaster from a marketing standpoint."

Amid the acrimony, there has been little talk about Fornes herself, her art all but eclipsed by the rancor. Born in New York while her parents were on a trip away from Cuba, she made her professional debut when she was seventeen years old, singing zarzuelas with legendary Cuban pianist and composer Ernesto Lecuona. In the Forties and Fifties, she became a film star in Mexico and, later, a famous theater actress in Madrid, says Vazquez, who is also the artistic director for Fornes's current production. "After 1959 she stayed in Cuba because her whole family lives there," he adds.

Fornes's extravaganza, called Welcome La Fornes, is a musical retrospective of her career and boasts a cast of about 35: dancers, musicians, and singers recruited in New York and hailing from all over Latin America. Vazquez says he plans to take the show to Mexico and South America, and perhaps to Spain.

Fornes herself is troubled by the contentiousness surrounding her in South Florida. "The magnitude this controversy has reached has been a surprise," she says from New York, where her three recent performances drew full houses and relatively little protest. "I don't understand. I don't understand why they hold it against me, for living the life I've lived. I'm not a political person." She declined, however, to address her detractors' demands that she denounce the Cuban government and demurred on the general subject of politics and her production's tussles with the City of Miami Beach.

"So many people have asked me to perform [in Miami]," she says. "Friends, admirers, people I haven't met but who have memories of my past career. So I agreed to give one performance." Friday's show would have been her first-ever performance in the Miami area.

Even though Fornes's cancelled performances at Centro Vasco were sold out, the Miami Beach show, as Garcia-Pedrosa noted, had been a difficult sell. Several Spanish-language radio stations refused to accept commercials promoting the concert, Vazquez reports. Among them was the popular Heftel broadcasting group: Radio Mambi (710 AM), La Cubanisima (1140 AM), Amor (107.5 FM) and Caliente (98.3 FM). In addition, managers of the Jackie Gleason Theater resisted the promoters' request to advertise the show on the facility's Washington Avenue marquee. "We will reserve our decision regarding this issue," assistant general manager William Overfelt stated in a recent letter to Vazquez and Diaz. He went on to list a number of concerns, including a lack of promotional advertising and the unresolved fire-insurance issue. "Further," he continued, "in our opinion, the marquee listing, which is not required in the lease agreement for any event at the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts, will have little or no value in terms of generating ticket sales, but could well be seen as inflammatory by a significant portion of the residents of the City of Miami Beach."

Staff writer Kathy Glasgow contributed to this report


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