|City/Town: • Coconut Grove|
|Location Class: • Theatrical|
|Built: • 1927 | Abandoned: • 2006|
|Historic Designation: • National Register of Historic Places (2018)|
|Status: • Abandoned • Endangered|
|Photojournalist: • David Bulit|
Table of Contents
Coconut Grove Playhouse
Richard Kiehnel, Architect
Originally constructed as a movie theater, the Coconut Grove Playhouse was designed by Richard Kiehnel of the renowned architecture firm, Kiehnel, Elliot and Chalfant. The firm was established in 1906 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as Kiehnal and Elliot, but having done substantial work in Florida, they moved to Miami in 1922.
Richard Kiehnel, the firm’s senior partner, was born on November 1, 1870, in Germany. He studied at the University of Breslau and the Beaux-Arts de Paris. One of Kiehnel’s earliest works in the Mediterranean Revival style was the construction of El Jardin, which is the oldest known remaining structure of its kind in Miami. This mansion was designed for John Bindley, the President of the Pittsburgh Steel Company, and Kiehnel departed from the Mission style that was popular at the time to create elaborate antiquity for the house. He achieved this effect by using aging techniques to give the house an aged appearance.
Kiehnel also introduced Mediterranean Revival to Pinellas County through his designs of the Rolyat Hotel in Gulfport, Florida (now part of Stetson College of Law) and the Snell Arcade in St. Petersburg, Florida. He later advanced to Art Moderne styling in buildings such as the Carlyle Hotel on Miami Beach and the 1924 Scottish Rite Masonic Temple on the Miami River, which was the first Art Deco building in the area.
In addition to his architectural work, Kiehnel was also an active member of his profession. He was a member of the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Institute of Architects since 1906 and a member of the national body since 1913. He was a charter member of the Florida South chapter and served as its president from 1930 to 1931. Kiehnel was also the editor of Florida Architecture and Allied Arts magazine from 1935 to 1942.
Coconut Grove Theater Opening
The builders, Irving J. Thomas and Fin L. Pierce of the Thomas-Pierce Holding Company became associated in business in Cleveland, Ohio around 1902. They first became interested in Florida in 1910. Thomas returned to Florida in 1913 and built his permanent residence in Coconut Grove. Pierce made a number of winter visits to Coconut Grove and finally established his own permanent residence in 1924.
Thomas and Pierce originally planned to operate the Coconut Grove Theater themselves but chose to turn it over the Paramount Enterprises Inc. They believed more and better attractions could be provided to the people of Coconut Grove than if it was operated independently. The theater opened on January 3, 1927, and was known as the second movie theater on the east coast of Florida with air conditioning, the third in the state, and also for having the largest Wurlitzer organ in the United States at the time.
The theater opened at perhaps the worst possible time as the stock market would crash in 1929, causing its closure. The theater managed to reopen in October 1930 and operated until around the mid-1930s when Paramount Theaters went bankrupt. After its closure, the building was used in World War II as a school to train Air Force navigators.
Waiting for Godot
Following the war, the building was shuttered until 1955, when oil magnate George Engle purchased the old theater for $200,000 with the intent of creating a legitimate performing arts theater. Engle hired a local architect, Alfred Browning Parker, to refurbish it and decorate it for a more contemporary era.
Renamed the Coconut Grove Playhouse, the newly-renovated theater opened on January 3, 1956, with the U.S. premiere of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The performance bombed, with audience members walking out in large numbers and critics calling it the dirtiest, most obscene, pornographic show they’d seen. The next day, there was a line going all the way down the street of people waiting to get their money back for the previous night’s performance. In a house built for 1200, they only had 48 people in the audience for the second night.
Engle closed the theater in 1960 after the previous years were disappointing in terms of financial success and attracting audiences. Between 1964 and 1965, he leased out the building to the Miami Actors Company, which was to be an extension of the National Theater and Academy. The building was purchased in 1966 by producer Zev Buffman. It changed ownership again in 1970 when it was bought by former actor Eddie Bracken and his associates. When Bracken’s group failed to pay its debts which totaled over $1 million, the playhouse was ordered to be sold at auction.
Arthur Cantor and Robert Fishko bought the theater and reopened it for the 1971-1972 winter season. In 1977, Cantor and Fishko sold their interest to the Player’s Repertory Theater, which renamed the theater the Player’s State Theater. The State of Florida acquired the playhouse in 1980 by purchasing its $1.5 million mortgage and contracted Coconut Grove Playhouse Inc. to operate it. In 2004, the state transferred the title over to Coconut Grove Playhouse Inc. with the requirement that it be operated as a theater.
The theatre was celebrating 50 years in 2006 when it was abruptly shuttered in April because the board feared its liability insurance had expired. During that time, news got out of a $4 million deficit. The theater reopened its doors a week later and amid news of mounting debt, it was announced the final show of its current season, Sonia Flew, would indeed go on. After a pledge of $50,000 by lead actress Lucie Arnaz, to match the same amount made by Bacardi Liquors and a reported $25,000 from relatives of Arnold Mittelman, the artistic director. Sonia Flew ran for just 10 days of its scheduled four-week run. The theater closed afterward.
After years of inability to revitalize the facility and failure to keep it running as a theater as well as allowing a commercial parking venture, the state re-took ownership of the building in 2012. Currently, the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs has put forth plans to demolish much of the building leaving only the front portion which will be restored. A modern 300-seat theater will be built to replace the section being torn down along with a 500-car parking garage to be built where the theater’s current parking lot is. Under an agreement with the state, the 300-seat theater will be run and programmed by GableStage, the award-winning theater company that now operates at the Biltmore Hotel.
Current lawsuits and disputes with local opposition groups have stalled any plans the city had for the building. In 2018, the Coconut Grove Playhouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. You can read about the Coconut Grove Playhouse and many other abandoned places in my book, Lost Miami: Stories and Secrets Behind Magic City Ruins.