Coconut Grove Playhouse Feature Story

Like the village that surrounds it, the Coconut Grove Playhouse has lived to middle age in more-or-less constant tension, its stage the locus of a long tug of war between art and commerce, spiritual ideals, and materialistic forces.

For entire decades, as in the Thirties and Forties, the Spanish rococo theater at 2500 Main Highway was given over to the near-tawdry, serving as a second-run movie house that dispensed grainy Green Hornet episodes. During much of the Seventies, by contrast, the Playhouse produced serious, startling, original drama. In flashes, Miami got what good theater should be - a collection of transcendent on-stage happenings meant to unsettle, not soothe; inspired by and peculiar to a particular time and a unique community.

Between the mundane and the sublime poles of its history, the Playhouse lived through many nights like January 3, 1956. With Marlon Brando and Gypsy Rose Lee in the audience, and Life magazine reporters lurking in the lobby, the curtain rose on the American premiere of Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. The Kentucky oil tycoon who owned the Playhouse expected a smash. But the play, unorthodox in style and serious in content, was inappropriately billed as "the laugh sensation of two continents." Bert Lahr, a burlesque notable, had been chosen as the lead. Miami didn't get it, got up, and walked out.

The opening night of Godot revealed the essential character of the Playhouse. All the defining elements were in place, all the patterns and tendencies that have repeated themselves since the 1950s: A stab at the most serious kind of drama was botched, resulting in financial and critical damage; the audience, appearing somewhat less than open-minded, fueled the myth that Miami is a city of Philistines, a parochial burg where the seeds of art are cast on parched soil; the play's producer, assuming both a paucity of local talent and an overriding need for razzle-dazzle star power, had recruited all his actors from New York; and the landmark three-story Playhouse, coincidental with its function as a community art space, served as a machine for the social aggrandizement of its plutocrat owner.

These days the Playhouse is run by a wealthy board of trustees instead of a wealthy Kentucky oil man, having become, in 1977, the second member of Florida's state theater program. (The Playhouse building, and the land on which it sits, is actually owned by the state and leased to the nonprofit theater company for one dollar per year.) In turn the Playhouse board of trustees has charged Arnold Mittelman with producing plays and running the theater, hoping he will be the one finally to synthesize the forces of commercialism and idealism.

But Mittelman's presence, and the fact that the Playhouse now receives more than $400,000 per year from Florida and Dade County taxpayers, has apparently not freed the theater to pursue much in the way of daring theatrical experimentation - even less so after a disastrous 1989-90 season in which it lost $381,000. Most recently, for example, the Playhouse offered up Forever Plaid, a slick, sentimental 1950s musical revue that's been drifting from city to city since its disgorgement from Broadway.

While Forever Plaid ran during January and February, crowd after crowd of senior citizens and middle-age professionals finished their T-bones at the Taurus Steak House, walked up the street to the theater, and occupied more than three-fourths of the seats for every show. The light musical has surely been a moneymaker, but hardly something to inspire a standing ovation, or to argue about afterward, or to remember next week. It's not meant to be.

Despite a handsome building, high hopes, and a vibrant community, the Coconut Grove Playhouse has always fallen short - sometimes just barely short - of a successful compromise between the basic need to draw a crowd and the more noble and abstract goals of theater as art. Some people are troubled by the failure of Miami's oldest stage to join the ranks of America's most renowned regional playhouses, among them the Long Wharf in New Haven, San Diego's Old Globe, and Actors Theatre of Louisville. Other people, the vast majority, have never set foot in the theater. If noticed at all, the Playhouse is a purely physical presence, a piece of refreshingly aged architecture to be admired while driving through the Grove on Sunday afternoon. It remains as relevant to their lives as the mountains of the moon.

In early 1986 the Playhouse seemed well on its way to greater relevance, thanks to the efforts of its new director. The board of trustees had reason to think of Arnold Mittelman as something of a savior.

In one whirlwind year the tall, bushy-haired Mittelman had awakened the dormant educational program at the Playhouse, and he had energized its floundering fund-raising efforts. When Edward Albee bought a house in Coconut Grove, Mittelman talked the playwright into directing his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Seascape at the Playhouse. He obtained the rights to Rum and Coke, Keith Reddin's play about the Bay of Pigs invasion. Most important, this silver-tongued son of an accountant convinced the Florida legislature to appropriate an unprecedented $800,000 for Playhouse debt reduction. Plus another $400,000 in the same year for renovation and operating expenses. In appealing to legislators, Mittelman has often had the assistance of the Tallahassee-based lobbying firm Stephen Winn and Associates, spending up to $36,000 annually on such services.

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Steven Almond
Sean Rowe