Opening night or final curtain for Coconut Grove Playhouse?
By Michael Lewis
It would be a shame if directors failed to get the Coconut Grove Playhouse's doors open again after 50 years as Miami's marquee theater.
While the county has such high-quality venues as Actors' Playhouse, GableStage, the New Theater and more, for much of five decades, the Coconut Grove Playhouse dominated.
Now, however, the non-profit's doors are closed, it has no plans for the winter season, and it's $4 million in debt. Charges related to misuse of funds could be filed. The staff has been laid off. The building needs renovation. The organization's reputation is in tatters.
It's a theater in name only.
Fortunately, the county commission has just kicked in $150,000 to pay consultants to craft an economic plan. But whether a viable plan can be enacted in time to save the playhouse is in doubt.
For years, the playhouse suffered from the elevation of art above economics - far above economics. Artistic Director Arnold Mittelman ran things, and budgets took a back-row seat. Though the board brought in an executive director, she left quickly and Mr. Mittelman retained full control. After more than 20 years at the helm, he departed in the spring, kicking and screaming.
It would be unfair, however, to blame the playhouse's problems on Mr. Mittelman. A man of strong character, he long functioned under a board that let him do much as he pleased. Effective board oversight is crucial to the health of non-profits, and in this case, it fell short.
But grave though past failures to control operations may have been, they shouldn't be allowed to impede efforts to save a cultural icon. Mr. Mittelman is gone, the board has new life, and money is certainly available to improve the building - the county is holding $20 million earmarked for the theater's upgrade that would be released if fiscal affairs could be set aright.
How to do that is the $4 million question.
Will big donors open wallets to an institution that has played fast and loose fiscally when so many other cultural groups also are seeking funds? The Carnival Center for the Performing Arts is $5 million short of what's due by opening night in just two months, and then it must raise an endowment to survive. The Miami Art Museum and the Miami Museum of Science & Planetarium are trying to raise hundreds of millions to build in Bicentennial Park. The Florida Grand Opera wants to build a headquarters. And virtually every cultural organization is struggling to meet operating expectations.
Where does a failed playhouse rank on that donation list?
Another key is debt. Can the playhouse board and its helpers reduce debt loads or postpone payments? They certainly must present a responsible game plan to gain willing cooperation.
The board vows to again hire an executive director to run operations and watch the money. But whether a troubled playhouse can also lure an artistic director of stature - and a staff to match - in time for a mini-season early next year is a key question even if economics can be managed. The aim should not be just to reopen but to reopen with productions that add to the community's cultural fabric.
The playhouse does own valuable Coconut Grove land it acquired from the state two years ago that it could sell or lease to repay debt. As long ago as 1984, plans were drawn to build there, and the board has toyed with deals with developers for years.
Now a deal might be imperative. Unfortunately, the sudden death of the condo boom and soaring construction and insurance costs couldn't have come at a worse time for the playhouse. Finding a developer to deal with at the right price is much harder than it would have been even a year ago.
It's well worth trying to vault over these massive obstacles to save an icon. But the board must act both nimbly and quickly because a reputation built over 50 years is eroding quickly.
Last week, I met with a hotelier who's been in the Grove for a few months. Though a theater nearby would be an amenity for his guests, he'd never heard of the Coconut Grove Playhouse.
Fame is fleeting. Turn off the spotlight, and it's hard to bring back the ticket buyers.
The playhouse must sign up a consultant, review its report, agree on an action plan, resolve $4 million in debt, hire effective staff, plan a season, rehearse plays, sell tickets and restore its reputation - all in less than six months if it's to operate in the coming winter season.
The show must go on - quickly. Otherwise, it's curtains.