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Movie Palaces Of The 1940s: The Miami Theatre On Flagler St.

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Marvin Aguilar explores the history of the 777 International Mall, originally the Wometco-owned Miami Theatre.

At first glance, 777 International Mall in Downtown Miami at 145 East Flagler Street seems as ordinary as any mini shopping mall in the area. There are various mom and pop type of stores, a two-story Payless ShoeSource, jewelry and perfume vendors, and a Peruvian restaurant in the main courtyard. However the building dates back to 1948 when it was built as the Miami Theatre, a major movie theater of the famed Wometco theater chain.

Wometco Enterprises, Inc. undeniably launched the popularity of the moviegoing experience in South Florida. Brothers-in-law Mitchell Wolfson—the same Wolfson family that brought the Wolfsonian museum, the Florida Moving Image Archives, and the Downtown Miami Study Centre to South Florida—and Sidney Meyer founded the Wolfson-Meyer Theatre Company ("Wometco") in 1925 in Miami. During the first two decades of its existence, Wometco's objective was to provide affordable entertainment venues in Florida for the general public. The film industry skyrocketed in the 1920s and there was a high demand for venues to screen these innovative moving pictures. The company launched the largest theatre chain in South Florida that included the Capitol Theatre-later the future home of WTVJ; Miami's first television station-the Lincoln Theatre designed by Thomas W. Lamb; and the theatre-turned-nightclub Cameo designed by Robert E. Collins; both built in 1936, among many others.

At the height of Wometco's theatre empire, architect S. Charles Lee (1899-1990) had established himself as the preeminent movie theatre designer in the California and Southwest region of the United States. Known for his dramatic and ornate interiors and grand entrances, Lee was hired by Wometco to design a theatre that embodied the Streamline Moderne style prevalent in Miami at the time. Streamline Moderne is an architectural Art Deco style that flourished in the 1930s. Having roots in crisp and clean aerodynamic designs, common architectural characteristics include smooth, curving shapes and long horizontal lines mixed with nautical elements such as portholes. Some of the finest examples of streamline moderne could be found in Miami Beach, where they were built during a particularly prolific period of hotel construction.

Using Miami's tropical setting as his point of reference, Lee set out to create a theatre more innovative and unique than any of his previous projects. The Miami Theatre was built between 1946 through 1947 and had its inaugural film screening, of Carnival in Costa Rica, on April 18th, 1947. The three-story building featured one screen and an auditorium that seated approximately 1,850 patrons. For Lee, the Miami Theatre represented a shift in the theater-restaurant industry. Lee had already designed in-theatre restaurants, such as at the Los Angeles Theatre (1930-31) and the Linda Vista Theatre (1942) in Mexico City. Soda fountains, candy sales, and full-scale restaurants were increasing the profits of theaters nationwide which, as opposed to the even more grandiose 'movie palaces' of earlier generations, now marketed comfort and convenience to moviegoers. Yet theater-restaurants were restricted to those who had purchased tickets to a screening. The Miami Theatre resolved that issue with its inclusion of a storefront restaurant accessible from either the street or inside. Huyler's Restaurant, a candy shop and diner chain based out of New York-occupied three floors of the theater plus the air-conditioned basement that was used as the kitchen. Patrons either entered from the street, the main floor, or the mezzanine. Past the glass front doors were a confections counter with snacks and a bakery shop. An elevator took customers to the second floor, Huyler's Crown Room, where one could have lunch or dinner and be charged for their meals and movie tickets in a single transaction. The restaurant's third floor, reached by elevator or stairs, was used for private parties or club luncheons. The theater included a soda bar on the main and mezzanine floors. A snack bar was also available in the interior lobby.

As for the theater's interior decoration, Lee intermixed the past with the modern. Upon entering the theater, moviegoers "submerged" into an aquarium-like lobby. With noted designer Frederick T. Rank as the interior decorator and local mural artist F.M. Bergere, the moviegoing experience started even before being seated. People "swam" through the lobby with its recessed lighting, elongated cascading ceilings and wavy walls decorated in shell and sea-life motif reliefs. The Baroque and Rococo-style ceilings and walls were painted in colors of coral, gold, white, and silver gray. Dramatic curvilinear staircases and ornamented archways proceeded to each floor. The lobby's focal point was Bergere's large mural of the continents of the Americas with depictions of the Americas' peoples and countries flags. It is appropriate that a theater located in such a diverse and international city as Miami earned the reputation as the "Showplace of the Americas."

The theater's two-tier balcony auditorium was a simple linear composition with the structure's shape leading towards the proscenium. Bands of indirect lighting framed the proscenium and a lavish curtain hung in swags that scaled the stage's great arch to a reasonable screening size. The auditorium's walls were also decorated with large sculptures in relief. The theater provided hearing aids for those with hearing difficulties. A little box and small receiver, which required no plug-ins and could be used at any seat, picked up the film's sound from wires underneath the carpet. Concealed lights also prevented customers from stumbling down the steps in the dark auditorium.

While the Miami Theatre is considered to be one of Lee's finest and largest, it was the last of his major motion picture movie theaters done in the grand tradition of 1920s and 30s theaters. The Miami Theatre celebrated its underwater moviegoing experience only for a short period. Around 1978 Wometco closed the theater, sold it to architect Oscar Sklar and his associates, who in the 1980s reconstructed the building into mini shopping mall. Though Sklar admired the theatre's unique interior design, the building's Downtown location was the central spot for high volume tourism, domestic and international trade, and commercialism. The Capital Mall housed the offices of Capital Bank and the former kitchen-basement space for Huyler's Restaurant was renovated and made into Floridita Bar and Restaurant specializing in Cuban cuisine.

The property's current owner Marlon Avneri purchased the building for $3 million in 1998. Though the Miami Theatre may seem a thing of the past, Avneri launched new initiatives to bring back Lee's tropical theatre from the dark. In 2011, after coming across some vintage photographs Avneri contacted Sklar and wanted to restore the building's façade back to its original grandeur. With the city's approval and around $200,000.00 later the glass windows are back up along with the theater's monumental cartouche.

The Miami Theatre is one of many early twentieth century movie theaters in the nation that attracted crowds for its screenings, amenities, and overall leisurely enjoyment. After 1950 though with the explosion of drive-in theaters and household televisions, the lavish moviegoing experience was becoming increasingly a thing of the past. Yet the Miami Theatre is a prime example of a theater as a place where one escaped from the realms of the everyday world and entered a serene environment surrounded by life's pleasures. From the second one entered a theater to that switch of the auditorium's lights, the moviegoing experience was an intimate and individual act that unfortunately cannot be replicated in the digital age.
—Marvin Aguilar