Tuesday September 11, 2012

A tour of the Gusman/Olympia theater

gusman olympia theater downtown miami

Dating back to 1925 the Gusman/Olympia Theater is one of Miami’s real treasures. Last Saturday, as part of Downtown Art Days, the Gusman’s assistant director Robert Geitner gave a tour of the theater — he gets credit for almost all the information here.

gusman olympia theater downtown miami

Remarkably, the theater and it’s relatively nondescript building were built at the same time. The Olympia Theater was originally built as a movie theater. The business model was that the space in the building above would generate income that would subsidize the theater itself. Interestingly, the Gusman is still pursuing the same business model. (The units currently in the building are subsidized housing, which expires in 2014. The Gusman is looking into how best to monetize the space after that time; i.e., goodbye low-rent apartments, hello luxury hotel suites.)

gusman olympia theater downtown miami

Please enjoy this photo of the foyer while I talk a little more about the outside of the building. The ticket booth you see was originally inside what is now the foyer, which would have been open to the outdoors (the doors would have backed up to where the concession stand is now). The scaffolding, which has been there for years and will be there for at least a couple more years, is to protect pedestrians. The bricks of the facade are aesthetic; the building is steel frame and concrete. However, the concrete was made with salt water from Biscayne Bay, and is releasing the adhesive that holds the brick facade to the substrate. A fix is in the works, but in the meantime the scaffolding protects passersby from the danger of falling bricks.

gusman olympia theater downtown miami

The lobby ceiling. Seriously Ornate.

gusman olympia theater downtown miami

Ok, finally we’re inside. I’m not sure Robert satisfied me with his explanation of why the theater is so absurdly lavish and baroque. But the reasoning is this: at the time, every movie house had its own set of theaters, and the opulence was one way they competed. Worth pointing out is that the Gusman was one of the first buildings in Miami to be built with air conditioning.

gusman olympia theater downtown miami

Sitting in the theater creates the illusion that you’re sitting in a Mediterranean-style courtyard, with a perfect night sky above. If you’ve ever been to the Gusman you know how well this illusion works, despite the fact that all the technology that goes into it is original to 1925 — rolling clouds, twinkling stars, and all. (This photo is overexposed, and it actually reveals the structure in a way you wouldn’t ordinarily notice.)

gusman olympia theater downtown miami

Closeup of audience-left. The peacock is the trademark of the theater’s designer, the last vestige of what originally was a sizable collection of taxidermied birds and animals.

gusman olympia theater downtown miami

A view of the audience from the stage. Robert says the first few rows of the second tier of the balcony are the best seats in the house, both visually and aurally.

gusman olympia theater downtown miami

Audience right. Note the seats way at the top. The theater was built in the days of segregation, when most theaters would have been white-only or black-only. The Gusman was quasi-integrated: it had a separate entrance for blacks, who occupied the top tier of the balcony.

gusman olympia theater downtown miami

Speaking of the spirit of the times, here’s a plaque that still hangs in the lobby of the theater. Wholesome entertainment, people!

gusman olympia theater downtown miami

Ok, now we’re ready to head backstage. But first: N/B(!) the architectural details on the proscenium arch!

gusman olympia theater downtown miami

Rigging. Robert says a lot of this stuff is O.G., with notable exceptions, e.g. the counterweights originally would have been sandbags.

gusman olympia theater downtown miami

Boom. Note the old-school cinderblocks of the back of the stage.

gusman olympia theater downtown miami

Here’s Robert Geitner showing us backstage. I should pause to point out what a great tour guide he was. God love Docents, but hell hath no fury like a top-shelf non-profit executive giving a tour of a facility he or she is passionate about.

gusman olympia theater downtown miami

There are two doors with signatures of celebrities who’ve kicked it at the Gusman. Here’s one.

gusman olympia theater downtown miami

Backstage at a theater is not completely unlike a warzone, and the black humor bleeds over even onto quasi-public signage. This is one photo that is not in any way special to the Gusman.

gusman olympia theater downtown miami

The basement! Robert explained that yes, it’s tough to build basements in Miami (high water table) and particularly so in downtown, but for whatever reason the Gusman has one. It’s essentially a big storage area, as well as the only way for performers to get from stage-left to stage-right without being seen by the audience. Notable for the awesomely tight spiral staircase on stage-right. Note the green light, which is a roomfull of rack-mounted amplifiers.

gusman olympia theater downtown miami

The seating. Significantly decreased from the original, courtesy of contemporary standards of legroom and elbow-room.

gusman olympia theater downtown miami

Two things about this photo. 1) The front of the stage is on an elevator. For some performances, it’s lowered, and more seats are added. 2) The carpet? Based on THE original design. A small original patch was uncovered during an air conditioning repair in the early 90’s, and the pattern was custom recreated from the original material (wool) and used to decorate the theater and much of the lobby. There’s plenty extra sitting in a warehouse to replace what’s there when it needs replacing.

gusman olympia theater downtown miami

Fancy chandeliers; fancy lobby.

gusman olympia theater downtown miami

Tile in the lobby and upstairs landing has been left as it was, showing the history of the building. Where it’s been repaired, the repairs have been left obvious, rather than fake-blending them with original materials.

gusman olympia theater downtown miami

This guy’s getting bored. Let’s quick head back upstairs and wrap this up.

gusman olympia theater downtown miami

Here’s the view from the nosebleed. Not a bad seat in the house. Oh, except the balconies at audience-right. They’ve an obstructed view of the stage, and are strictly reserved for people who’re there more to be seen than to see the performance.

gusman olympia theater downtown miami

The proscenium.

gusman olympia theater downtown miami

And here’s Mrs. Olympia, bidding you a fair farewell, and a closing tidbit: You know how Miami is called “the magic city”? The term dates back to this time, when folks would leave for one summer, and return to find — magically — all these new buildings. To comfort people, and give Miami a sense of longevity, buildings like the Gusman were deliberately designed to look like they were from an older architectural period. (Hello, Coral Gables.)

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