Why Miami Can't Lose Olympia Theater
by Tom Austin
The Olympia Theater was built to evoke a Mediterranean garden flanked by ornate castle walls
|The modernized yet original interior of the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts’ 85-year-old Olympia Theater|
In every American city, a time-honored iconic theater—whether it’s Carnegie Hall or The Fillmore in San Francisco—serves as an eternal beacon of pleasures taken, and nothing defines the romance of Miami more than the Olympia Theater at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts. And unfortunately, this emblem that defines the best of Miami is forever threatened, always on the brink of becoming real estate roadkill. The Olympia was built in 1926 on Flagler Street as the nocturnal town hall of Miami, and from the start remained totally over-the-top (the theater is meant to recall a Mediterranean garden flanked by castle walls) and yet elegantly beautiful, oddly graceful in the same way that Vizcaya has always been. This is the place where successive generations witnessed the “talkies” of the 1920s, vaudeville shows, early Elvis, B.B. King, Luciano Pavarotti, and countless Miami International Film Festival opening nights. My own definitive memory of Gusman pop history was the local premiere of John Waters’s Hairspray, a transporting evening with Divine triumphantly blowing kisses to the audience.
Even when a particular performance or movie at Gusman is not worth seeing—and there’s been some of that lately—any given evening at the theater simply feels right: Gusman itself, battered but still glamorous, can be the star of the show.
It’s a deranged rendition of the Mediterranean crossed with a dime-store Louvre, Europe abstracted and made fun in a way that still eludes Disney. Look about and you’ll see white plaster statues of fair nymphs and noble Roman senators, Moorish castle turrets, seashell-shaped alcoves, ornate latticework, fake ivy, and acres of sherbet color. It’s all here, stilled by the clouds and faux stars overhead, twinkling brighter than reality.
The Stars Align
Back in the first Miami real estate boom epoch of the 1920s, Flagler Street was resplendent with lots of grand shops and the open-air Airdrome Theater, where well-dressed patrons watched shows and movies under the stars. Paramount Pictures, a powerful movie studio, built the Gusman’s Olympia on the Airdrome grounds, bringing in architect John Eberson—an innovator in “atmospheric” theaters—to create the illusion of being in an impossibly exotic Italy under impossibly starry skies.
photographs by david heischrek (interior); courtesy of r.j. heisenbott le architects (marquee); gustavo caballero/gettyimages.com (echevarria); dan forer (statue); courtesy of R .J. heisenbottle architecture (black-and-white stage set and stairwell)