100 Years of Florida Theater

Special Features   100 Years of Florida Theater
Theater in Miami has come of age. From the very beginning the city has always been ahead of its time. As soon as the tracks came in Miami was set. With its population exceeding the 300 needed to incorporate into a city, Miami was never actually a town. The city walked first it skipped on the crawling. In this centennial year we look back at Miami's theater history and find that our city has become the little Broadway of the South.

Theater in Miami has come of age. From the very beginning the city has always been ahead of its time. As soon as the tracks came in Miami was set. With its population exceeding the 300 needed to incorporate into a city, Miami was never actually a town. The city walked first it skipped on the crawling. In this centennial year we look back at Miami's theater history and find that our city has become the little Broadway of the South.

Miami's first playhouse was Budge's Opera House. Built in 1899, the theater was in a one story building at E. Flagler Street between First and Second avenues. Prout's Opera House on N.E. First Street between First and Second avenues was the second theater. Although Prout's was the more ostentatious of the two, the city was quite a distance from booking centers.

Back then, they did not have Miami International Airport's daily round-trip service to and from major hubs in the Northeast every hour on the hour. Nor were they able to surf the net and communicate via email at the touch of the keyboard. Despite the limitations of time and distance Willis A. Pickert brought the first theatrical production to Miami in 1912. The Pickert Children, which later became the Pickert Stock Company, played in Miami every season until 1918. Unfortunately the fate of Budge's, Prout's and other like 'Opera Houses' was to become armories, empty warehouses, boxing arenas and athletic gyms.

In the 20s there was Love 'Em and Leave 'Em, a comedy in three acts. The show featured The Park Associate Players starring 'Dainty Little' Edna Park in Miami's Temple Theatre, N.W. North River Drive at Third Street, in 1926. The program - Act I: The Walsh girls' room in Ma Woodruff's boarding house on the lower West Side in New York. Act II: The parlor. Two weeks later. ACT III: Stage Mechanics' Hall. Later that evening. The Temple's 1928 - 29 season included The Civic Theatre Players of Greater Miami in George Bernard Shaw's Candida and the production of Enter Madame. They presented a tragedy by John Ervine, John Ferguson, in 1931.

Social interaction has always been at the core of community, regional and even national theater. In the 20s, going to the theater and seeing the show was about more than just theater itself it was about seeing and speaking to those who attended. Theatrical organizations such as the Civic Theatre Players picked up on this and began offering memberships with socioeconomic benefits: membership provided "admission to the regular performances, play reading meetings and social functions." A membership card provided for admission. The Civic Theatre of Greater Miami's object was to "foster, encourage and promote the production, appreciation, understanding and practice of dramatic art and the allied arts of the theater." The interest for and backing of theater was now well on its way. In 1946 the Ring Theatre on the University of Miami campus was launched in a room seating 104. In February of 1951, the 400 seat Ring Theatre an actual playhouse, not a room opened its doors with Harvey. What was particular about the Ring was that it introduced 'flexible theater' to theatregoers. 'Flexible theater' provides facilities for the five basic staging styles: arena, proscenium, horseshoe, Elizabethan and musical comedy. The stage, located at the center of the theater, facilitates seating changes and, with a revolving stage, rapid stage changes as well. The Ring was the first flexible playhouse in Miami and, indeed, the country.

With the opening of the Coconut Grove Playhouse in January 1956, theater took on a greater role. The success of the Playhouse was based on numerous factors. For one, routine air transport for traveling actors, producers, directors, etc. was the norm, and Broadway actually wanted to come to Miami. Kentucky oil millionaire George Engle, who had purchased and was in the process of renovating the former movie house, went to New York to cast the first play. Producer Ed Goodnow and publicist George Campbell went with Engle. After placing an ad in Variety, there were many a phone call and a veritable 'Broadway' cast line lined up outside their hotel.

The Grove Theatre opened as a motion picture house in 1927. The Depression Bust of 1929 followed the Real Estate and economic Boom of the early 20s, and the theater was more or less busted in the process.

George Engle was a self-made millionaire and oil tycoon who had decided to settle in Coconut Grove. In the 50s the village then a quiet area where local artists found inexpensive space to live in and work out of had one hardware store, one post office, one school and one movie house. Engle opened the Florida Pharmacy, a one-stop-shop with reasonable prices to fit the bohemian Grove. Then in 1955, Engle bought the movie house, a.k.a. 'The Grove.'

Built in 1926 and rebuilt again after the hurricane one year later, the movie palace had its days of glory. With Arnold Johnson and his orchestra and organist Celia Santon, The Grove was the place to see and be seen. Then the fare declined. In 1952 Sid Casell began producing and directing theater at the site with local and Broadway actors in such productions as Mister Roberts, the opening show and A Streetcar Named Desire, which played to critical acclaim later in the season. Mr. Casell did run quite a show that season, and that season only. Given the lack of appropriate acoustics, proper air-conditioning, carpeting and various other infrastructural items, the theater could not continue to function.

In 1955 Engle bought it and spent one million plus in renovations. There was a central fountain with fish pool, cocktail lounge and restaurant, and only the finest materials were used throughout. Even a barber shop and luxurious apartments were provided for the actors.

Tom Ewell, then known as a comedian, was cast opposite Bert Lahr, with Alan Schneider directing, in Waiting for Godot, the production that was to open the Playhouse in January 1956.

Now an established masterpiece of modern theater, Waiting for Godot transformed the marrow of drama. Written by Nobel Prize winner Samuel Beckett, Godot rewrote some of the rules. Components of a traditional play were redefined: a lack of plot the medium was the message. But very few who saw the play 'got it.'

Basically, Waiting for Godot was a flop. When the play first opened at the Playhouse, it was touted as "the laugh hit of two continents," a 'sound-bite' of sorts that inevitably attracted those out for a good laugh. Perhaps an inappropriate bite at that. The attendees who were familiar with the play and/or Beckett knew what type of comedy to expect. But many in the audience walked out. Those who walked did not realize that what they were seeing was an allegorical play with symbolic figures and actions. As avid readers of Beckett know, his nonlinear comedy goes beyond the surface. Godot, among Beckett's best, offers a glimpse of the 20th century person who goes on living without knowing why.

Godot's failure marked the beginning of what appeared to be the end for the Playhouse. For the next few years the Coconut Grove Playhouse underwent difficulties until, in 1962, Zev Bufman took over the theater. In December of the same year the Playhouse opened with The Premise, a Broadway revue. The theater began presenting such plays as Never Too Late and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Broadway-bound productions such as Bufman's own Absence of a Cello, and Broadway hits such as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, starring Jose Ferrer.

Even then, in the early 60s, Bufman envisioned having a smaller theater for off- and off-off-Broadway productions what is today the Encore Room. This year, to commemorate its fortieth anniversary, the Playhouse brought back Godot. This time the nature of the play was announced well before hand and it was a success.

In the 60s the Southern Shakespeare Repertory Theater began producing such works as Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, Henry IV and The Merchant of Venice. Shakespearean theater was revived and renewed, creating a niche in its own right.

1967 brought the Hilton Plaza's opening of The Great Room in Miami Beach in honor of Jackie Gleason. In 1970 Playboy acquired it; in 1974 Konover purchased the hotel and staged community events and stage shows. It was in 1987 that Abraham Hirschfeld bought and renovated the hotel, calling it The Castle. The Hirschfeld Theatre at The Castle, which was named after Al Hirschfeld the caricaturist, recalled true opera houses with chandeliers, upholstered seats and all. The Hirschfeld's 1988 Musical Fall Season featured Anything Goes, Evita and 42nd Street, among others.

Teatro Avante, a non-for-profit organization established in 1979, was founded in order to preserve the Hispanic cultural heritage. The organization went on with its objective at El Carrusel Theatre in Coral Gables, which continues to this day. This season Teatro Avante at El Carrusel Theatre hosted the International Hispanic Theatre Festival, opening with Matecumbre: The Flight of Pedro Pan.

Founded in 1986, New Theatre is the little theater that could. The company and its artists, whose productions have included South Florida premieres of contemporary American and European plays, the classics, plays for children and world premieres of new works by South Florida playwrights, have received more than 25 Carbonell nominations from the South Florida Theatre Critics. This season New Theatre's Tenth Anniversary Season opened with Park Your Car in Harvard Yard, a South Florida premiere, and included such works as The Glass Menagerie and The Best of Friends, a play about the relationship of Geroge Bernard Shaw and two of his friends.

The late 80s also gave rise to Actor's Playhouse. Founded in 1987 Actors' Playhouse began in a tiny playhouse off in Kendall-land. In 1995, the City of Coral Gables and the Coral Gables Commission purchased the movie house, Miracle Theatre, and designated Actors' Playhouse as its resident theater company and managing agent. Fully renovated and dressed in Gala attire, the theater opened with Man of La Mancha in 1995, telling the stories of Don Quixote de La Mancha.

With the classics and Broadway, regional theater and South Florida premieres, theater in Miami has gained the respect of the critics on a local and national level. This centennial year is a time to remember how legitimate theater found a home in our city. Today, as in the past 100 years, the little Broadway of the South walks with its head held high.

-- by Rocio Paola Yaffar
Florida Playbill

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