A view of the
theater’s most recent savior,
The original marquee of
the Gusman Center
for the Performing
The lobby’s west
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.
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)