The Miami Beach Cinematheque: A Love Story

Categories: Film and TV
MBCinema_1.jpg
Photo by Mike Butler, via Facebook
It's an amazing time to be a cinephile in South Florida. What was once an all-but-ignored town for anything that wasn't coming out of Hollywood now boasts a robust art house cinema scene of five theaters dedicated to indie, foreign and art films- each with a distinct character, audience, and programming. Yet, while the Bill Cosford Cinema, Coral Gables Art Cinema, O Cinema and Tower Theater each have made enormous contributions to the city's cinematic renaissance, there's another amongst the group that deserves recognition for its role in helping to start the movement 20 years prior.

With its well-appointed décor, architectural flourishes, and historic structure, the Miami Beach Cinematheque is a haven from the noise of Washington Avenue. It's an escape that offers serenity and civility amidst the rowdiness of South Beach. Yet, while its grand new digs offer a sublime slice of European sophistication in the American Riviera, this wasn't always the case.

When Dana Keith moved to South Beach in 1993, he brought with him a lifelong passion for cinema that was constantly renewed through his decade living in Europe while working as a model. When he wasn't on the runway or in a photo shoot, he was discovering movie palaces and cinema houses throughout the continent -- all the while amassing an enviable collection of movie memorabilia that spans the invention of cinema through the present day. Yet for all its palm trees and bohemian vibe of the early 90's, South Beach was missing the spectacle and art of cinema, and Keith was determined to bring that to the 33139. It started with roving events at hotels around the island, including an Esther Williams film festival with Esther present and introducing at some of the very same hotels her legendary aquatic films were shot, and an annual viewing party for the Oscars which eventually led to the only sanctioned event by the Academy in Miami. The Miami Beach Film Society was making waves, but it soon became evident that it needed a home to do all it wanted.

The Cinematheque's original theater was an intimate, converted storefront on Española Way, a cozy environment that seated 50 surrounded by a vast library of books on the arts and artists of film. What it lacked in space, however, it made up for in what it offered: an unfetted access to the canons of the worlds greatest filmmakers. The type of films you'd only be fortunate enough to discover at museums or film school were now being shown in the sun and and fun capital. Works by Godard, Bresson, Antonioni, and Fellini were the norm not the exception. Each introduced and contextualized by Keith, offering his insight and opinions as a film historian. The chairs sucked but the movies rocked.

MBCinema_2.jpg
Photo by Mike Butler, via Facebook
With the advent of new digital technology, the Cinematheque began to incorporate a mixture of first-run films along with its repertory offerings. When in 2011 it moved to its new facility inside the historical City Hall Building, built by Carl Fisher in 1926, it managed to do the impossible -- create a new theater inside a protected structure in the bureaucratic nightmare that is the City of Miami Beach. The fact that its as stunning and lovely as it is just underscores Keith's vision and persistence. That you can see films like Once Upon a Time in Anatola or Chaplin's Modern Times on the same night underscores its uniqueness and importance in our cultural landscape. The new chairs are comfy and the movies still rock!

When I'm not writing my weekly column for the Miami New Times or watching Golden Girls reruns, I moonlight as the co-founder and co-director of O Cinema, an indie art house movie theater in Wynwood. When my partner Vivian Marthell and I set out to open the theater, our goal was to create a space that was eclectic -- a living canvas for visual art and motion pictures with a strong Miami sensibility. We happily describe ourselves as the funkiest theater in town, but we're quick to point out that the Miami Beach Cinematheque is undoubtedly the most elegant. It's like our older sister who traded in her Pumas for pumps, but is still very cool.

There use to be a time when Miamians would pick up the New York Times and lament all the films that were playing in Manhattan but that would never see the light of day in the Magic City. Those days are gone now, thanks to the five indie theaters the city now enjoys. But it's important to remember that for a very long time, the Miami Beach Cinematheque was practically the only one filling the void. While there's a cinematic cornucopia in the 305 these days, let's not forget about the one who was serving it up solo and consistently for the longest. Viva the Cinematheque!

Kareem Tabsch is the co-founder and co-director of O Cinema.

Follow Cultist on Facebook and Twitter @CultistMiami.

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Miami Beach Cinematheque

1130 Washington Ave., Miami Beach, FL

Category: Film


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4 comments
Dana Keith
Dana Keith

Thanks very much Kareem for all your kind words. It's very nice to be appreciated by a colleague, friend, and fellow cinema operator!  

Hans Morgenstern
Hans Morgenstern

Nice, Kareem! Can't wait to see what Dana brings back from Cannes this year!

Kareem Tabsch
Kareem Tabsch

In my post I start off by saying it's a great time to be a cinephile in South Florida and then go on to only list the art cinema's in Miami.  That was an error, as while the intended focus here in Miami, our friends to the north in Broward also have some wonderful art cinemas including the wonderful Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale and the Living Room Theater in Boca Raton as well as the Lake Worth Playhouse in Lake Worth.  

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