For almost 15 years, the Byron Carlyle Theater has been a neon haltered shell of its former self. Before the projectors went dark in 2001, the 71st street cinema had been a North Beach fixture for decades, standing as the local theater du jour for many, since it opened with the premier of Jackie Gleason's Skidoo in 1968.
Over the years, scores of Miami Beach residents have longed for the theater's revival and after more than a few gave up hope of ever seeing another scene at the long retired movie house, O Cinema announced in September that the Byron Carlyle would once again open its doors, take tickets, and start screening films like the good ol' days.
See also: O Cinema Miami Beach Opens Friday with Birdman
O Cinema has made its mark as Miami's premier art-house establishment, with a strong foothold in Wynwood and a fairly new location in Miami Shores. The Miami Beach location was set to open with Alejandro Iñárritu's Birdman on November 7 and by the week of the event, the show was sold out. With expectations riding high and a full house -- including the mayor of Miami Beach, Philip Levine -- hyped to see Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, and Emma Stone lighting up the screen at the Byron Carlyle for the first time in nearly a decade and a half, O Cinema and their audience were poised to have a very good night. And while it was undoubtedly a memorable night, it was not one that went off, as they say, without a hitch.
Having my ticket torn and stepping through the threshold into the lobby of the Byron Carlyle was more than a little surreal. After the city took over the building in 2001, it underwent some interior renovations, transforming it from the multi-screen setup of my youth to a single auditorium that was used as a rental space and a venue for small plays. In its current incarnation, you get a distinct feeling of being in proper movie theater as you walk into the lobby and see the warm lights, the perfectly polished wood over the doors leading to the main hall and the candies and cans of coke behind the concessions booth.
It felt good to have the place back, a feeling that was wholeheartedly shared by movie goers who'd waited a long time to call the Byron Carlyle their own again.
"I remember the old Byron Carlyle as the idyllic exemplar of the golden age movie theater -- a simple neighborhood place of wonder, something out the American ideal," said Miami Beach native Corey Pérez. "I used to come here all the time as a kid with my brothers and our friends. We'd buy a ticket and spend all day at the theater. We'd hang out and play the arcade games and make a double or even a triple feature out of it. It's really exciting to have it coming back to the neighborhood."
The auditorium itself retains a lot of old school charm that's hard to find in more modern theaters, like a two-tier seating setup with a ground floor and a balcony that comprises the rear half of the hall. The screen is about average size and the decorations are somewhat on the spartan side, but it all adds up to quite a fine little theater.
Once everyone had found their seats, the spotlight came down on the stage and the folks from O Cinema took to the microphone to talk a bit about the history of the theater and the surprising amount of support and ease they had getting it back in business.
"Living in Miami, you sort of get used to things not working for you," was one of their funnier lines and it served as a nice way to highlight how smoothly things had gone thus far with the city. Unfortunately, in retrospect, it also served as an uncanny piece of foreshadowing (more on that in a minute though).
The pomp and circumstance went on and the mayor addressed the attendees. There was laughter, there was applause, there was the cutting of a blue silk ribbon with a pair of scissors the size of a small recumbent bicycle. After that came the fading of the houselights, a single preview for next week's picture, The Theory of Everything, and then there was our movie.
That's where things got a bit dodgy. As the opening credits began to roll, the quick jazz of the film's score was accompanied by a pair of yellow musical notes that appeared at the bottom of the screen, much like the kind you see in closed captioning when a song is playing sans dialogue. Chalk that up to Iñárritu being avant garde, perhaps?
Eventually Keaton came in with his opening voice over and any remaining doubt about that particular "perhaps" pretty much disappeared since the subtitles were indeed still on. What's more, the sound of the voice over was noticeably distorted, like it was being fed through an overdrive effect pedal. Within the first couple minutes of the initial scene, the projector went dark, the theater went quiet, and the opening credits were rolling back across the screen anew -- without those little musical notes. Progress.
The sound however was not getting better in this second iteration. Once in a while, the dialogue would simply drop off to the point of being just audible and not quite intelligible. Again, the first couple of times it happened, most members of the audience thought this might have been part of the film. Maybe this was Birdman's version of the teacher from Charlie Brown saying something unimportant. After all, we could still hear the score in the background perfectly. Extra avant garde...perhaps?
After another four or five such silent spells, each one feeling longer than the last, it wasn't surprising to the audience when the film stopped again and the staff came in to tell everyone that they were aware of the problem, they were working hard to get it fixed, and they were very grateful for our patience.
And while our patience was theirs to have, they simply couldn't quite resolve the technical difficulties. What they attributed that night to blown amplifiers and referred to as "unexpected and unexplained audio issues" in a message sent out by O Cinema on Saturday not only put a damper on their Friday night -- it resulted in the cancellation of their remaining weekend screenings.
"Friday was a total bummer," remarked Pérez when I spoke to him again over the weekend. "I am cautiously optimistic about the theater's future though and I hope to support them enough to contribute to a working sound system."
Which is more than likely the consensus among those who happened to be there for this weekend's less than ideal opening. Yes, the Byron Carlyle got off to a bit of a rough start this Friday, but as the people at O Cinema themselves pointed out -- quite accurately -- you get used to things going slightly awry when you live in this city.
Bottom line is this: the theater looks great and by God, it's a theater again -- even if it's not a completely functional theater at the moment, per se. These things happen. The night was an experience and everyone who shared it and who shared the ambiance of just being at the movies in that part of town once more left with a story and an inkling they'd be back soon. We've waited 13 years for somebody to bring the Byron Carlyle back to life and if O Cinema needs a little more time to make sure they do that right, that's just fine by me.
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