|City/Town: • Coconut Grove|
|Location Class: • Theatrical|
|Built: • 1927 | Abandoned: • 2006|
|Historic Designation: • National Register of Historic Places (2018)|
|Status: • Abandoned|
|Photojournalist: • David Bulit|
Originally constructed as a movie theater, it was built by Irving J. Thomas and Fin L. Pierce of the Thomas-Pierce Holding Co. and designed by Richard Kiehnel of the renowned architecture firm, Kiehnel and Elliot. It opened on January 3, 1927. as part of the Paramount theater chain, and was called the “Coconut Grove Theater”. It 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. The theater managed to stay open until around the mid-1930s when Paramount Theaters went bankrupt. After it’s closure, the building was used in World War II as a school to train Air Force navigators.
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 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 as the Player’s State Theater. The State of Florida acquired the playhouse in 1980 by purchasing it’s $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 it’s 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 it’s 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.