The Athletics of Art Deco

If all South Florida arts festivals, large and small, came together to elect a king, Art Deco Weekend would be a leading candidate. The Miami Design Preservation League's weeklong tribute to the life and art of the Twenties and Thirties enjoys an attractive setting on Miami Beach's Ocean Drive, an unbeatable admission price (free), and plenty of samples of an artistic style with charm to spare. The proof is in the attendance figures: In recent years the event has consistently drawn close to half a million people, organizers say.

Occasionally, though, an even bigger king comes to town. This year's Deco Weekend was in danger of losing media attention and financial backing to that anticulture juggernaut Super Bowl XXXIII, which takes place January 31 at Pro Player Stadium. "The Super Bowl is mightier than anything, and it's taken away some of our sponsors," laments Spencer Tolley, the league's director of preservation programs. But MDPL organizers have attempted to beat the competition at its own game: They joined the Super Bowl host committee's list of sanctioned events and planned the festival around a timely theme: "Art Deco at Play: The Golden Age of Sport."

At first it seems contradictory. Marked by clean lines and often costly materials, the Art Deco style was concerned largely with simplicity and the joining of form and function. What did it have to do with the flashy, ceremonious world of sports? Lecturers, who will speak at the Ocean Front Auditorium, point out several interesting connections. For instance many sports venues of the time were influenced by Art Deco architecture, says MDCC professor Paul George, who will discuss jai alai, dog racing, and other aspects of Miami's unique sports history.

During the Deco era, art and sport were also bound by a fascination with technology, adds Keith House, who will deliver a lecture about the daring exploits of Miami Springs and Opa-locka founder Glenn H. Curtiss. A pioneering motorcycle and airplane developer, Curtiss promoted his sleek, streamlined products by personally racing them, setting land and air speed records in the process.

The Art Deco era was a time of social as well as technological innovation, says MDCC professor Gene Tinnie, who will expound on the football career of Paul Robeson. After becoming the NFL's first legitimate star, Robeson launched a brilliant singing and acting career and used his fame to openly criticize racial prejudice and fascism.

A series of period films with sports-related themes will complement the lectures. Several of them feature Esther Williams, a onetime Biltmore Hotel lifeguard who helped popularize a classic marriage of athletics and aesthetics: synchronized swimming. Films on January 18, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, will honor the contributions of black athletes.

Giving the lectures and films their due, the street fair taking place January 15-18 is what MDPL chairman Michael Kinerk calls "the heart and soul of the event." At Lummus Park fairgoers will be treated to nonstop Deco-era sounds, including music from the legendary Ink Spots (now in their second incarnation), who will perform their original scores at 6:00 p.m. Saturday.

The festival's trademark array of art and collectibles will be available, but this year expect an emphasis on sports memorabilia. The fest will also showcase street theater, a parade, and tours of the historic architectural district.

Spencer Tolley believes the sports theme will draw visitors who would otherwise deem the occasion too artsy. They might find a refreshing change from those Philistines over at Pro Player. "I think sports had more of an innocence and a nobility then, which is lacking today," Tolley says. Hear that, sports fans?

-- Alan Diaz

Art Deco Weekend begins Monday, January 11, at 7:00 p.m. at the Ocean Front Auditorium, 1001 Ocean Dr, Miami Beach. All events, except for the guided tours and Moon Over Miami ball, are free. Call 305-672-2014 or see "Calendar Events," page 38.

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Alan Diaz