Your View: The story of Coconut Grove Playhouse isn’t over yet

For our next Neighborhood Guide, powered by Lyft, we’ll be exploring Coconut Grove. What should we know about? Who should we talk to? Let us know in the comments below.

Olga Granda-Scott, a cultural entrepreneur, is the executive director of The Coconut Grove Playhouse Foundation and the co-founder of The HighBoy.com, an award-winning online marketplace for art and antiques.

Growing up, I spent a lot of time in Coconut Grove. Five years at G.W. Carver Elementary and Middle School. Field trips to the Planetarium at the Museum of Science, performing at Vizcaya during their “Cornucopia of the Arts Festival,” taking the Metrorail to their Renaissance Festival.

I remember the monthly antique shows at the Dinner Key Convention Center (that planted a seed for my professional career), the colors of the costumed dancers at Goombay Festival, and an acting class I took at the Coconut Grove Playhouse. Without a doubt, my exposure to the arts and culture of this community shaped the person I am today.

Now, Miami is undergoing a transformational renaissance, and Coconut Grove is not being left out. Important projects are underway or in the pipeline from skyscrapers on Bayshore Drive to sidewalks on Main Highway. We have a unique opportunity to restore the vitality of Grand Avenue as the “Main Street” corridor it once was – from Mary Street all the way to US-1.

I’ve been inspired by the optimism that is fueling our new Miami. Diverse industries are thriving and new leaders are emerging, energized by civic pride. We are a primary point of reference for policymakers who see our demographics as the future of our nation. And, of greatest importance, art and culture are defining this community.

I believe this is the moment to ensure that the cultural history of Miami is preserved in a way that is relevant for the future. And that’s why, for the past year, I’ve been asking questions about the languishing Coconut Grove Playhouse.

It seems that almost every resident, visitor, or artist who has been in Miami over the past 90 years has a story about it. It’s been the site of award-winning performances, career launches, dramatic accidents, and more than a few marriage proposals.

I’ve seen photos of celebrity performers from its heyday, and paintings glamorizing its mystery. I’ve seen gifs that mock its potential and memes which give hope that it could once again be an internationally renowned cultural institution. I’ve witnessed  one of the most popular and lauded actors of our time recite an impassioned monologue begging for its restoration.

The Coconut Grove Playhouse was built as South Florida’s largest and first air-conditioned cinema in 1926, at the intersection of the black and white communities of Coconut Grove (Charles Avenue and Main Highway). It was converted into a live theater in 1956 and opened with the US-premiere of Samuel Beckett’s existential play “Waiting for Godot.” Tennessee Williams premiered “Sweet Bird of Youth” there later that year and the decades that followed saw the country’s most famous actors grace its stage, performing the works of both established and emerging playwrights.

Certainly not every night was epic. The theater closely followed the economic ups and downs of the 20th century, changing ownership numerous times and even being auctioned off by the state at one point — in other words, the reality that is the business of art.

In 2004, as part of a comprehensive referendum vote, Miami-Dade County awarded the Playhouse $15 million for “reconstruction of the Coconut Grove Playhouse to restore its structural integrity and add to its performance and educational capabilities.” The public support for the funding shows the community loved its Playhouse and wanted to ensure its restoration. Soon after, the county awarded another $5 million.

Then, in 2005, the City of Miami’s Historic and Environmental Preservation Board designated the Playhouse as historically significant for “exemplifying cultural and social trends” and its distinctive Mediterranean Revival architecture, designed by some of the most prominent architects working in the area at the time.

But in 2006, before the restoration work could begin, the Playhouse closed. Ten years later, its future remains uncertain.

That doesn’t have to be the end of the story.

The Coconut Grove Playhouse Foundation was formed to advocate for the expeditious restoration and reopening of the historic façade and main stage theater, as well as the construction of supporting facilities. Join our advocacy campaign by following us on Facebook.

It’s time to make a revived Coconut Grove Playhouse one of our assets.

Your View is a recurring series of opinion pieces from members of The New Tropic community. To share your ideas, goals, and work about Miami with the community in a Your View piece, please email us at [email protected].