Police, white knight, screen hero don’t quell theatrical peril
Written by Michael Lewis on November 27, 2018
What’s the longest-running theatrical drama in Miami?
Hint: it’s been running for 30 years, tying the longest-running Broadway show in history, “The Phantom of the Opera,” which to date has had 12,380 performances.
If you’re still puzzled, here’s another hint: the drama is not played out on the stage; it’s what’s happening to the stage itself. And this drama is not yet in its final performance.
No, the top offering is not what will happen to the Coconut Grove Playhouse building, a tale now in its 12th year since the theater abruptly closed in a financial collapse and a worthy runner-up for Miami’s best stage drama award for longevity. The future of the Grove structure and its ultimate use makes for good drama, but it’s not the oldest one around.
For sheer plot twists and turns and for perils at every juncture, how can you beat the efforts to keep open and healthy the Gusman Theater at the Olympia Building in downtown Miami?
The grand old theater, built in 1925 for motion pictures but used over the years for anything from drama and orchestral performances to dance, seems to have had its life and uses in jeopardy since shortly after owner Maurice Gusman donated the classic motion picture palace to the City of Miami in 1975, just a few years after he had purchase and refurbished the building as a home for the Miami Philharmonic Orchestra.
Ever since, the city has tried to keep the theater going without making taxpayers pay the cost.
Miami Today reported last week that federal and City of Miami money have been approved to give the Flagler Street gem an exterior facelift even while the city is in talks to have Miami Dade College take over the building, including about 80 housing units upstairs in what was once an office building. That would allow the college to program and operate the theater, which in recent years has been run by a nonprofit while the city continued to own the site. The untimely death of the founder of that nonprofit added a new twist to the plot.
Here, in a sampling of actual headlines from Miami Today, is how the perilous plot has meandered over three decades:
■Gusman Cultural Center is at a crossroads: fix it or give it up (1988).
■Olympia Building and Gusman could be closed in year (1988).
■Parking board drops Gusman, Olympia renovation (1988).
■Gusman gets bright look but its series faces cloudy future (1989).
■Parking board weighs Gusman’s future, ranging up to divestiture (1990).
■Olympia Building’s $3 million facelift stalled (1991).
■Gusman might take city up on an offer to return theater (1991).
■Parking system grappling with Olympia-Gusman’s future (1991).
■Miami studies possible sale of Gusman Theater complex (1991).
■City plan to sell Gusman raises flea market scare (1992).
■Parking board eyes shopping center for Gusman complex (1992).
■City board proposes housing to revive Olympia-Gusman (1992).
■Gusman developers seek more time from city as funds lag (1993).
■Miami looks at transfer of Gusman to county, split of operating deficit (1993).
■Miami’s plan to cut $30 million cuts out Gusman (1995).
■City might lease out Gusman to end losses (1995).
■Gusman gets interim director; proposals soon to seek private operator for theater (1995).
■Planned budget shortfall could close Gusman (1995).
■Arts trust re-evaluating its pledge of $4 million for Gusman (1995).
■Search on again for Gusman operator (1996).
■Firm seeks more cash to manage Gusman (1996).
■Parking board’s mission impossible: run Gusman without subsidy (1996).
■Gusman staying under city operation; firm bidding to run theater backs out (1996).
■Private support, sponsors for Gusman hard to find (1996).
■Parking board weighs path to hand over Gusman venue (1997).
■Commission trims, OKs budget; Gusman left out (1997).
■Gusman sets Jan. 30 deadline to land city subsidy or close (1998).
■Gusman totters on brink with film fest, Broadway in wings (1998).
■Downtown authority holding Gusman funds until October (1998).
■Ritz-Carlton gift gives venue several-month reprieve (1998).
■Police join Gusman bailout (1998).
■Gusman’s $3.8 million grant on hold until manager & fiscal backer found (1999).
■Miami officials want to keep Gusman from Miami-Dade control (1999).
■Gusman crisis headlines give way to good news ¬– for now (1999).
■Deal evolving to let county arts council run Gusman Theater (2000).
■Pact may place Gusman Center, bayfront trust under same leader (2001).
■Gusman to go back to its roots as a cinema for vintage films (2001).
■$2 million Gusman restoration ending; future upgrade to match original seats (2002).
■Gusman officials expect boost from renaissance downtown (2005).
■Gusman targets more national programming (2007).
■Despite slow rentals, Gusman capital campaign moves on (2009).
■Officials working to make Gusman downtown centerpiece (2009).
■Now showing at the Gusman: Perils of the Miami Budget Crisis (2010).
■‘Perils of the Gusman’ requires artistic last-minute rescue (2010).
■A final leap in Gusman rescue bid (2010).
■Gusman parking funds lifeline ends Sept. 30 with trust aid unsettled (2011).
■Related’s plan for Olympia Theater building again put off (2017).
■Withdrawn Olympia Theater offer may still spark renovation (2017).
■City’s Olympia Theater to get facelift as college deal brews (2018).
The summary of travails is incomplete. It leaves out this 1995 gem from the Miami Herald: “Stallone helps save Gusman,” a rocky start if ever there was one. Then, 15 years later, it leaves out a 2010 headline from the Herald: “White knight executive to save Gusman.”
Well, despite being saved by Sylvester Stallone and another white knight, the Gusman’s future remains unclear.
Management by Miami Dade College, which already runs and programs historic venues that include the city’s highly successful Tower Theater in Little Havana and the Freedom Tower downtown, would add stability to a property that has teetered on the brink of this or that peril for three decades. We’d bet on the college to give a happy ending to this long-running drama. We hope the city and the college can get together on a way to make that happen.
If so, we won’t miss theater drama: for that, we can always turn to the Coconut Grove Playhouse – not on its stage, but in the continued battle for its control. Unfortunately, that one won’t play out anytime soon.