Will plan to revamp Grove Playhouse save it, or doom it? Public disagrees

A passionately split audience both praised and panned new designs for the Coconut Grove Playhouse in a drawn-out public meeting Thursday that largely rehashed longstanding debates over the scope of Miami-Dade County’s $20 million plan to revive the iconic theater.

While there was little consensus among the 120 or so people in attendance at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium, county cultural affairs director Michael Spring stressed the administration intends to move foward with the complex, long-in-the-works plan. Under the quickest scenario, the extensive revamp would take at least two-and-a-half years, he said.

But, pledged architect Bernardo Fort-Brescia, whose Grove-based Arquitectonica leads a team designing the playhouse redevelopment: “The building will come back to life in color, detail and architecture.”

How precisely that might happen was the bone of some contention on Thursday evening. The county plan calls for fully restoring the cherished three-story, Mediterranean-style wing-shaped playhouse building that defines the corner of Main Highway and Charles Avenue. At the same time, the historic theater’s 1,100-seat auditorium would be demolished and replaced with a new, and much smaller, state-of-the art stand-alone theater building designed in a contemporary style.

Under that plan, the Miami Parking Authority would finance and build a 65-foot garage, fronted with condos or apartments, on the playhouse’s parking lot to serve both the new theater and surrounding Grove businesses. Both the restored playhouse building and the garage would have restaurants and shops on the ground floor, and revenue from parking and commercial rents would go to support the theater’s operations.

Skeptics argued that the accompanying development threatens to overwhelm the site, reducing the theater to “an afterthought,” as Cheryl Levine Pappas, who worked at the old playhouse, put it. Some continued to challenge the shrinking of the theater to 300 seats — the size that county officials and their theatrical consultants say is economically and artistically feasible given the budget and the difficulty in drawing paying customers to live theater in Miami. Mired in debt, the state-owned playhouse closed abruptly 11 years ago.

Some preservationists and playhouse fans said demolishing the theater’s rear, and thus the stage on which legendary productions such as the U.S. debut of “Waiting for Godot” took place, amounts to bowdlerizing a historic and irreplaceable cultural landmark.

“There is a vibe in this theater,” said Grove folk-rock legend Bobby Ingram, who worked for decades backstage in local theaters and performing-arts centers and once worked the sound for a concert by pal Jimmy Buffett at the playhouse. “It’s been neglected by design. This building could be restored.

“This is just more new stuff coming into Coconut Grove. Coconut Grove could use less new stuff and much more of the old stuff.”

Added longtime Grove resident John Nordt: “We’ve created a destination with shops and restaurans that happens to have a theater somewhere in it. It’s like we reversed things.”

George Engle, namesake grandson of the man who converted the 1927 movie house into a famed home for live theater in the 1950s, read a long, impassioned letter denouncing the county for “thinking small,” throwing away his grandfather’s legacy and failing to capitalize on the fame of the Grove Playhouse.

“We will never have another opportunity to do this,” he said. “This is it.”

But equally passionate were some playhouse and Miami theater veterans who lauded the county balance between old and new and its fiscally realistic approach. Some noted that the playhouse closed because it could not come close to filling its large auditorium, and praised the planned commercial development as necessary for the new theater’s financial health.

“The building was shot,” said David Radunsky, who managed the playhouse for years, and noted that attendance dwindled in the 1990s to the point that actors often went on stage to a house that was less than half full. “We’ve kind of forgotten the bad things about it. We could not sustain the large house. Large theaters, people don’t come to. We’re having enough trouble today filling even the 100-seat houses.”

And some backers also praised the county’s choice of GableStage, a critically acclaimed small company that now operates at the Biltmore Hotel, to run the new theater. Gail Garrison, who said she was a 30-year veteran of South Florida’s theater scene, said GableStage does what the old playhouse did in its golden era in the 1950s and 1960s – bring the best new plays to Miami in first-rate local productions.

“GableStage brings the most current theater to South Florida, probably the best product in South Florida,” Garrison said. “Remember, Coconut Grove Playhouse, with all those seats, it went out of business.”

The issue of the theater’s size and the extent of renovation may not be settled just yet, however. The county plan was provisionally approved by Miami’s historic-preservation board earlier this year and would still require final approval by that panel. Two Grove residents, meanwhile, have challenged the board’s endorsement in an appeal that also seeks to revisit the theater’s original historic designation, which protected only its exterior. That appeal is scheduled to be heard on Oct. 26.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez has called his own public forum on the playhouse’s future in November. And attorney and arts patron Mike Eidson has started a foundation that’s pushing for a different plan with a 700-seat theater that would attract Broadway shows and star performers.