Coconut Grove Residents Demand Playhouse Board "Give It Back"

Categories: Theater
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The Coconut Grove Playhouse doesn't look like a building that's worth over $20 million. After nearly six years of disuse and neglect, its windows are broken, its sides are graffiti-tagged, and pieces of the building are literally falling off.

But $20 million in Miami-Dade county bond funds have been allocated to restore the historic site. The problem: The playhouse board of directors refuses to return the building to the county without being forgiven the massive debt it racked up since taking ownership in 2004.

Meanwhile, the Coconut Grove Playhouse is dying a slow death, says resident, actor, and member of citizens' group Give It Back, Nathan Kurland.

"In the last three months, it's been broken into by vandals seven times," he says. "Chunks are literally falling off the theater. There's a danger element, a safety element. It's the entrance to Coconut Grove, and it's ... falling apart."

But with a new campaign and rally in the works, Give It Back is trying to change that.

The blame for the current standstill, Kurland says, lies with the playhouse's board of directors, who racked up $4.3 million in debt and then simply shut the place down. "They took their free tickets and ate their dinner, and weren't cognizant or turned their eye to the fact that this wasn't making money. It was losing money to the point where they shut their doors."

According to a deed restriction, the property must be used for theatrical productions or theater-related uses, or its ownership reverts to the county or the state. But the board is unwilling to relinquish the building without being forgiven their debt, and neither Miami-Dade nor the state of Florida is willing to pick up the tab. It's essentially a hostage situation, Kurland says. "There's no personal responsibility for that debt to accrue. They're not going to let it go to anyone."

And that's sad, he says, because Miami-Dade County allocated $20 million in bond money to the reconstruction and restoration of the playhouse. But until the county owns the building, it cannot renovate it. Last month, the Miami Herald reported that commissioners passed a resolution to clear the title to the property, a necessary step in the process of taking over the playhouse. But the debt still hangs in the balance.

In the meantime, Kurland says, the once magnificent playhouse is falling apart. "Scaffolding fell off the side of the wall last week," he says, noting that the building is now a safety hazard to passers-by. "There have been incidents of vandals breaking things, children smoking dope and busting windows." The building itself is a historic treasure, built in 1927, but these days it's a shadow of its former self.

And what's worse, Kurland says, there's valuable memorabilia inside its walls that's suffering from neglect. "There's over 50 years of priceless memorabilia -- photographs, Playbills, letters, all kinds of things -- now covered in rot and mildew. At any time they could have taken this memorabilia out of the theater and into storage. From what I know, we've lost over half of it already from decay."

Kurland says that he himself has offered to move the items to a safer storage facility, and received no response from the board. "I don't believe they've even met for over a year," he says. New Times reached out to Jorge Lopez, Coconut Grove Playhouse board member and attorney, but received no response.

So Kurland, along with other concerned citizens of the Grove, have formed the group Give It Back and are taking the fight to the streets. Members have already begun tying yellow ribbons around trees all over the neighborhood -- "We have over 300 trees tied so far," Kurland estimates -- and will be passing out lawn signs, buttons, and rubber bracelets at this Sunday's Gifford Lane Art Stroll. And that's all in advance of a major demonstration scheduled for April 2, taking place right outside the playhouse. "We're hoping to have 1,000 people there," Kurland says, a number that includes invited officials like Mayor Carlos Jimenez and County Commissioner Xavier Suarez. Kurland's keeping event specifics under wraps, but promised a visually arresting display to take place at the demonstration.

Give It Back's demonstration takes place Monday, April 2, from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

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Coconut Grove Playhouse - CLOSED

3500 Main Highway, Coconut Grove, FL

Category: General


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5 comments
cljahn
cljahn

I see you've bought the distortion of fact perpetrated by the SAVE THE COCONUT GROVE  PLAYHOUSE Facebook page.  The $20 million was never intended to "restore" the Playhouse.  I researched this myself, and at no time were funds allocated for that purpose.

Not only would $20 million be insufficient to restore the Playhouse, restoring the Playhouse would not result in a theater that would serve any practical purpose.  Originally a movie theatre, it was converted to a live playhouse in the 1950s, and it was built for a time when the economy was completely different.  While there was mismanagement at the Playhouse, the number of seats dictated salaries, and at 1,000 seats, it's a top-tier theatre.  But they never managed to draw anywhere near those kinds of crowds.  Actors' Playhouse in the Gables only has 600 seats, and they can't fill those.  Regional theaters average 200-400 seats, which brings the union contracted wages down to a manageable level.

The stagehouse is also unsuitable; because of its unusual dimensions and a support column located on the stage, it eliminates the possibility of bringing in tour productions.  And that's without considering the lack of electrical service they would require.

Much of the structure was condemned even before it was closed.  All that plywood shelters the lumber supports being used to hold the building up; spalling has eliminated much of the steel reinforcment that should be stabilizing the concrete.

Restoring that building would cost hundreds of millions of dollars - and that's just to preserve the existing structure.  That doesn't count the cost of outfitting the theatre to meet the current state of the art.

IC
IC

Very easy solution:1. City of Miami. Red tag as unsafe structure, fine the property, eventually tear it down, execute the lien. The property is now a vacant lot and the county has $20 M to build a new theatre. The former owners are still on the hook. Since when is a 1927 structure a "historic" property? Since when should a property owner be allowed to impose a nuisance onto his neighbors?

cljahn
cljahn

 In Florida, 1927 is certainly historic.  But that's just the shell; the building was gutted of most of its 1927 architectural elements even before its 1954 conversion.  And even since the fifties, much of the inside was been altered without regard for history; those concerns only arose in the last quarter century.

cljahn
cljahn

I suggest we start with the facts.  Only then can you make competent decisions. 

Myself,  I would tear down the current structure, preserving the entrance facade.  Then I'd build something that will be a good home to a producing regional theatre company.  But it is up to residents of the Grove.  If they want to preserve the corpse of a building instead of creating something that will draw people in, that's their right. But they are going to need about ten times as much money as they currently have to do it.

20 million can cover demolition, and give a good start to creating a complex like the best current proposal; it might cover building the 200-300 seat theater for a regional theatre.Funds would have to be raised to build the 600 seat theatre for small tours, concerts and civic events.

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