From Movie House to Theater Miracle
The little playhouse has fulfilled its potential as a big player on Miracle Mile
On the east side of one of Coral Gables’ busiest and historic streets, the marquee of the Miracle Theatre dominates the 200 block of Miracle Mile. For the past 22 years, Actors’ Playhouse has presented live theater inside the art deco-styled facility after brokering a deal with the city for a 40-year, no-rent lease in exchange for operating the city-owned venue.
“The renovation and restoration of the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables is one of the finest private-public partnerships of all time,” says Lawrence (“Larry”) E. Stein, a dentist, who co-founded Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre with his wife, Barbara, the theater’s executive producing director.
The Steins never intended to run a theater. It just happened one day in 1987 in Kendall. While chatting with one of his dental patients, who had come into his office with a toothache—the patient in the chair was Wometco Enterprises president Michael Brown—Stein heard something that would change his and his wife’s lives.
“Wometco had bought a movie theater inside Kendall Mall,” Barbara says. “Michael … was in Larry’s office and said, ‘I’m selling the theater.’ He said it wasn’t productive. He had tried to put art-house movies in there, but it didn’t work,” Barbara says. “Larry told him, ‘Don’t sell it. I’m going to buy the lease from you and I’m going to put live theater in there.’ ”
Larry Stein grew up in Philadelphia, where he says he was “privileged to have had the opportunity of seeing live shows, both before and after their runs on Broadway.” But in the mid-1980s, there were few major theaters presenting those types of shows. He names the Jackie Gleason Theater in Miami Beach and the Coconut Grove Playhouse. “We desperately needed more quality live theater for both adults and children.”
The conversation with Michael Brown was more than constructive. In 1988, Actors’ Playhouse in Kendall opened inside the movie theater with a production of “Man of La Mancha” in February. Five months later, it mounted its first children’s production, directed by Earl Maulding.
For seven years, the Actors’ Playhouse performed in the twin cinema, which was renovated to create a 304-seat theater on one side and a 350-seat children’s theater on the other.
“When we arrived in Kendall, it was a platform stage in one theater and nothing in the other and, in the process of seven years, we built two theaters and dressing rooms and so much else. Then, in 1992, Hurricane Andrew came and messed it all up,” says David Arisco, who has been Actors’ Playhouse’s artistic director since stepping out of the playhouse’s first-season production, where he was acting in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” and taking over as director.
The troupe decided to rebuild its Kendall theater after the hurricane, producing shows there for another two years. But to realize a bigger vision, they knew they’d eventually need to move out of the space. The Steins had heard rumblings that Wometco was considering selling the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables. Barbara decided to go back to Brown and ask him what he planned to do with the Miracle. “He told me, ‘Call the city right away. I’m sure they will want to talk to you,’ ” she says.
She learned that a big-box store owner intended to buy the building, demolish it and build there. “No one wanted that to happen,” Barbara recalls. “No one wanted the historic Miracle torn down.”
There were memories in the walls of the Miracle Theatre, which opened as a movie house in 1948. “When I first saw the Miracle Theatre, I couldn’t help but think what this space must have been and could be again,” Arisco says.
While Actors’ Playhouse continued its productions in Kendall, it worked with the city of Coral Gables, which had been considering converting the movie house into a performing arts facility as a draw to bring people to Miracle Mile, but they’d need someone to manage it. The Steins and the Actors’ Playhouse crew seemed like a perfect match. The city commission voted to authorize then-development director Cathy Swanson-Rivenbark, now the city manager, to negotiate Coral Gables’ acquisition of the Miracle Theatre. The commission approved the purchase on Nov. 22, 1994, and the partnership began.
“We met every week with the city” during demolition and renovations, Barbara says. “The city was pulling for us, although no favors were given. We had to meet every inspection and follow the code to a T. We had to provide every detail and meet every deadline.”
They opened within six months from signing their agreement. Almost a year to the date of the commission approving the purchase, Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre opened its first show in its new home. They had decided on “Man of La Mancha,” a callback to their first production in Kendall. Students from Coral Gables High School greeted guests in armor as a nod to Don Quixote. Local celebrities arrived on the red carpet. The miracle on the mile had become a reality.
The Steins, who have been married more than 50 years, are celebrating a 30th anniversary this year—the founding of Actors’ Playhouse as a professional regional theater company, which has now become one of 13 major cultural institutions in Miami-Dade County and manages the theater.
“Hundreds of thousands of people—residents and visitors—come to Actors’ Playhouse for a play and stay for a meal. The Playhouse not only activates the street, but it makes the downtown experience richer and better,” Swanson-Rivenbark says. City figures show that when the theater has a production, business in area restaurants goes up by 25 percent.
The theater isn’t only used for Actors’ Playhouse mainstage and children’s productions. It also has hosted public forums and corporate, private events as a rental space—another way for the business to generate income. Its Young Audiences program partners with county public schools to showcase children’s theater, with 1.5 million kids in almost 30 years enjoying one of the Young Audiences shows. The theater offers a free-ticket program for 7,000 at-risk minority and disadvantaged children each year.
In front of the Playhouse, the downtown Streetscape Project is underway. The improvements are intended to make things more pedestrian-friendly with garden areas, outdoor dining, improved lighting, public art and more. The project is expected to be completed by January.
“This project will make coming to the Actors’ Playhouse even more of a delightful night out,” Barbara says.
As revitalization happens outside of the Playhouse, inside, the Steins want to make sure that the theater stays around long after they’re gone.
“We want to build up sustainability for years to come,” Barbara says. They’ve begun a five-year, endowment plan to raise $5 million to keep the theater vital for at least 30 more years.
Larry is more pragmatic in his thinking. “We’re only as good as our last show,” he says.