Why Miami Can't Lose Olympia Theater
by Tom Austin
It was also ahead of its time, as the first theater in the South with air-conditioning. Above the theater was a relatively restrained office tower, but outside, the marquee, with the Olympia name writ large in lights, still looks like a set from some 1920s gangster melodrama. Inside, a row of huge second-story windows with wrought-iron grilles bathe the upstairs bar in a neon urban glow, the perfect cocktail backdrop.
Things change, however—usually for the worse in local real estate matters—and the joint was looking fairly beat-up by the 1970s. Philanthropist Maurice Gusman stepped in, hired Morris Lapidus of the Fontainebleau for restorations, and donated the theater and office building to the City of Miami, requesting that Gusman be run by the Miami Parking Authority to limit political interference. Over the years, the City of Miami kicked in a good chunk of the Gusman’s annual $1.4 million budget, some $478,000.
In 1984, the theater was selected to the National Register of Historic Places, but the late 1990s brought an era of gentle decrepitude: The office tower was turned into affordable housing. In the 2000s, Miami’s wise leaders, scratching their endless itch for the gargantuan, jumped aboard the $450 million construction of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, which lacks the charm Gusman effortlessly radiates. In 2011, after years of taking economic hits, the city simply didn’t want to drop another $478,000 on the Gusman. The sacred ground of the theater was about to shut down forever.
Thankfully, an unlikely savior—advertising executive and former Hialeah Councilman Herman Echevarria—emerged. (His wife, just to complete the only-in-Miami equation, was Alexia on The Real Housewives of Miami.) Echevarria began to raise money from the private sector and created the Olympia Center Inc., a trust comprised of sympathetic civic figures. Last March, Miami commissioners turned over the reins to the city’s end of the Gusman for the next 15 years, with additional options to follow. The Miami Parking Authority is still involved, but the private sector will have to step up to the plate. This being Miami, future operational nightmares are more than likely, but hopefully its citizens—particularly its rich, generous citizens—will keep the wonder of Gusman going forever.
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)