Monday, November 17, 2008

A Pair of Playhouses: Why are they Empty?

Coconut Grove Grapevine recently called for the Coconut Grove Playhouse to re-open. It's not a new request, although I'm touched that they were inspired to call for it after reading about all the regional activity here on the Theatre Scene.

I recently realized that the Royal Palm Playhouse up in Palm Beach is facing similar problems. Both were local institutions, both are fairly large, both have been closed for several years, and both have communities struggling to find a way to re-open them.


The Coconut Grove Playhouse was originally built as a movie theatre in 1926. Designed by the Ohio firm of Keihnel and Elliot, it was the eleventh Paramount owned movie palace in Florida. But it opened as the economy collapsed, and limped along for years. It was boarded up following World War II.

It was transformed into a legitimate theatre by Coconut Grove architect Alfre Browning Parker in 1955. It opened in 1956 with the U.S. premiere of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. The show bombed, and may have set the tone for the future of the Playhouse, if not South Florida's appreciation for theatre. While it did have some successes, it's also know for some lamentable projects, such as its last attempt to send a show to The Great White Way, the critically unloved Urban Cowboy. Godot, on the other hand, went on to be a smash hit everywhere else it played, including Broadway.

It struggled with finances for years, and under the reign of Artistic Director Arnold Mittelman, it racked up the largest debt of any theatre company in South Florida's history.

Meanwhile, its physical structure deteriorated through its span: built of steel-reinforced concrete, spalling caused by the use of beach sand in the original construction has virtually destroyed all the reinforcment in the walls of the building, and the concrete itself is crumbling to powdered in spots. Sections of the building were condemned years ago, and the Fire Department at one point ordered the building to stand 24 hour watch because of the poor state of its fire safety equipment. In the last few years it suffered terrible leaks in the roof, requiring plastic tarps to be deployed in the costume shop to prevent damage to the extensive costume inventory whenever it rained. It will cost tens of millions of dollars to make the structure safe, before any money is spent bring its technology up to current state of the art.

The Royal Poinciana Playhouse, located in Palm Beach, opened in 1958. It was designed by John Volk, a Palm Beach architect known chiefly for the lush mansions he designed for the wealthy of Palm Beach and the Bahamas.

The Royal Poinciana is structurally sound, but like the Coconut Grove Playhouse, requires a major upgrade of its technical facilities to bring it up to state-of-the-art: it lacks wing space, adequate fly space, adequate support spaces (dressing rooms, offices for touring management,etc.), and even an adequate recieving area for trucks. The last time I loaded a show in there, it lacked its own sound system and lighting package; we had to rent everything and bring it in. It may be lavish from the proscenium out, but there's not a technical director in the country who ever looked forward to loading in a show there.

Divergent Approaches

The Coconut Grove Playhouse currently is its own entity, a 501(c)3 organization run by its board of directors. The Board has been trying to find a developer to take on the challenge of rebuilding the theatre. In fact, that was their plan even before the Playhouse closed. Their initial stumbling block was that they didn't own the property: it had been turned over to the State of Florida. A few years ago, they managed to regain ownership, and created quite a stir in the militantly anti-developer Grove when they announced plans to have the entire site razed.

According to, a Coconut Grove Advocacy group:
...the developer who buys the property would create a master plan for the whole site, but the playhouse would own its own building and a 250-space garage, which would serve as a revenue source. The developer would own a garage, about 20,000 square feet of retail space and would be able to develop condominiums on the site.
Residents of Coconut Grove rallied quickly, and were able to have the building declared a landmark. That deal fell through, and two years later, the theatre went belly-up.

But that's the Coconut Grove Playhouse Board's approach to saving the theatre: if it doesn' work, try it again anyway.

The Royal Poinciana Playhouse is a different animal altogether. The Poinciana always privately owned. Its current owner is Sterling Bank, and they want to re-develop the entire site, much as the Coconut Grove Playhouse Board has been trying to do. They are opposed by the Palm Beach Theatre Guild, an organization created to save the Royal Poinciana from this fate. They are the diametric opposite of the Coconut Grove Playhouse Board. They recently succeeded in having the entire site designated as a landmark by the City of Palm Beach.

The Royal Poinciana was also a legitimate theatre from the get-go. While it never had the impact on national theatre that the Coconut Grove did, it had a lot more star power. And why not? Many of the stars vacationed in the toney resort, or had influential friends who wintered there. America's wealthiest families got to see the brightest stars perform for their amusement. Its history is replete with Broadway and Hollywood names, but short on premiering plays. The Royal Poinciana was always a reflection of legitimate theatre in the United States, but did little to shape it.

One Playhouse is in the hands of its Board, and they want to turn it over to developers: the other is in the hands of developers, and a group wants to take it over to become its Board.

Prognosis for the Grove

Still under the control of the Board of Directors that allowed the building to decay while amassing a record debt, the future for the Coconut Grove Playhouse doesn't look very bright. The Board has continually failed to conceive of a plan that does not involve selling out to a developer, which the community has always bitterly - and successfully - fought.

The largest problem is that with the structure so badly eroded, razing the building might really be the best solution. The project could use the European model of preserving the facade, and replacing everthing within that shell with a new structure.

The largest single hurdle for the Grove, however, is the lack of leadership. Its Board has never shown one lick of leadership, and has a long history of making poor and uninformed decisions.

Prognosis for the Royal Poinciana

In many ways, it's more hopeful than the Grove; the building isn't on the verge of collapse. But the group that would save the Royal Poinciana has no actual authority over its Playhouse; the property belongs to Sterling Bank, who acquired the property to completely re-develop it.

They also seem to be ignoring or overlooking the fact that the Playhouse is not up to current production standards: maybe they are, but have simply not posted anything about this aspect on their blog or website.

Guild President Patrick Flynn also accuses a major feasibility study of the Poinciana as flawed, claiming "“Webb management did not consider a change of use of the house from a theater that books-in rentals to a resident regional subscription theater."

Now that's my language: I have spent the last 25 years working in Resident Regional Subscription Theatre. And I got to tell you, I'm not sure that Flynn fully understands it, based on what I've read so far. Because in RRST language, 878 is about 528 seats too much.

The two largest (seating capacity) regional subscription theatres in South Florida are the Maltz Jupiter Theatre (550), and Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre (600).

The Maltz's production schedule of legitimate plays is actually very small: it's really more of a performing arts center than a regional theatre. Its runs are very short, but it books in other acts to fill in the rest of the schedule.

Actors' Playhouse is an actual producing theatre; they are in production 48 weeks of the year. Their average occupancy is 56%. The Grove did much worse, and was constantly struggling with the realities imposed on it by its high seating capacity.

Consider this:
  1. LORT (League of Resident Theatre Companies) Contracts for Actors' Equity, the stage actors' union, are determined by the weekly box office receipts; 878 kicks any participating company into higher salary tiers, even assuming only 40% occupancy.
  2. With dwindling press coverage, theatres rely on word of mouth to sell their shows, and that means running a production three or more weeks; the first week for people to see it, the second week for word to filter out, and the third week for the wave of single-ticket buyers to hit. The first two to three weeks of the run are supported by their subscribers, who carry them to the single ticket sales in weeks three and four. But at 878 seats, the local companies with the largest subscriber base would need those single ticket sales to hit the second week, as they would be seating some 90% of their subscriber base the first week.
Furthermore, the Guild had a major regional theater interested for awhile: Florida Stage, one of the area's most successful and influential theatres. Louis Tyrell is one of South Florida's savviest producers. And he backed out. Why?

It turns out that Palm Beach has a "town serving" law that requires that 50% of the theatre's patrons must be Palm Beach residents. Town residents, that is, not County. And that's the kiss of death. None of the rest of it matters.

The key to success in the performing arts is to maximize your audience: you want to get as many people in as you can, and you want to grow that number every year. By declaring that half the audience must live in the Town of Palm Beach, any chance at growth is immediately choked off.

This law is the kiss of death for the viability of an 878 seat theatre in the South Florida market. In one fell swoop, Palm Beach has ensured that the Royal Poinciana Playhouse will not be able to compete with the Kravis Center, The Broward Performing Arts Center, the Maltz Jupiter Theatre, or even the Lake Worth Playhouse, a community theater.

Everyone on the other side of the lake can sell as many tickets as they can, to whoever wants to buy them. The Royal Poinciana will have to jump through all kinds of hoops to stay within the bounds of the town law. They will have to match each out-of-town sale with an in-town sale. And not only will they have to DO it, they'll have to DOCUMENT it.


The Coconut Grove could succeed, but only if clear leadership - and major funding - came into play. Neither are on its horizon, however.

The Royal Poinciana can't succeed, even though the Palm Beach Theatre Guild has a reasonable game plan. They don't own the space, and even if they did, current town law will prevent it from competing with other venues.

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