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July 10, 2003

Coconut Grove Playhouse Keeps on Going

By Iris Acker

The historic building known today as The Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami, Florida was built as a glamourous movie theatre in 1926. The theatre was a Spanish rococo palace, fabulous for its time. It was rebuilt in 1927 after a hurricane had destroyed its rear wall. A 75th birthday gala was celebrated on January 11, 2002.

During World War II, the building was used for Air Force classes. In 1940 Kate Smith broadcast her national radio show from the Grove. George Engel bought the Playhouse in 1956 and it was renovated. On January 3, 1956, a line of limos and a crowd of paparazzi jammed Main Highway for the theatrical debut of the Coconut Grove Playhouse and the U.S. premiere of Waiting for Godot starring Bert Lahr and Tom Ewell.

Over the following decades the Playhouse has been home to many of theatre's most eminent artists, including Tallulah Bankhead, Maureen Stapleton, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy.

In 1976, the Playhouse became a not-for-profit regional theatre. A few years later, actor-director Jose Ferrer was named Artistic Director and brought national prominence to the theatre. Since 1985, Arnold Mittelman has been responsible for creating over 200 Mainstage and Encore Room shows as well as educational touring productions. Mr. Mittelman boasts of several world premiere musicals, including Urban Cowboy, which moved to New York in 2003. Other plays which started at the Playhouse and went to New York are Visiting Mr. Green with Eli Wallach, An Evening With Jerry Herman, and I'm Not Rappaport, starring Judd Hirsch and Ben Vereen.

Mr. Mittleman plans to commission and encourage writers whose voices reflect South Florida.

He started the Encore Room with 135 seats in a cabaret setting, offering intimacy for edgier work that cannot play the Mainstage.

The in-school touring program, plays with messages targeted at students in grades six through 12, is seen by more than 75,000 youngsters each year.

The Playhouse strives to speak to all members of a community defined by its diversity, while continuing the pursuit of artistic excellence which has garnered national recognition.

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