Olympia Theatre at Gusman Center
174 E. Flagler Street,
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Originally the site of Miami’s first Hippodrome Theatre & Airdome. Built in 1926 by Publix Theaters Corporation and designed by John Eberson, the Olympia Theatre was the first of many Atmospheric style theatres, and was the first air-conditioned building in the South. It was equipped with a Wurlitzer theatre pipe organ. The Olympia Theatre was opened on February 18, 1926 with Adolph Menjou in “The Grand Duchess and the Waiter” on the screen accompanied by the Olympia Symphony Orchestra and the ‘mighty’ Wurlitzer concert pipe organ. Paul Whiteman and his greater concert orchestra also appeared on the opening program.
The ‘talkies’ and vaudeville soon arrived at the Olympia Theatre, and for more than 40 years the theatre was the number one entertainment center in Miami. It was one of the last theatres in the country to showcase vaudeville acts. After years of showing films, the former Olympic Theatre was purchased in 1975 by South Florida business tycoon and philanthropist Maurice Gusman, saving the aging theatre and adjacent Olympia Office Building from demolition. It was donated to the City of Miami and became home to the Miami Philharmonic Orchestra.
Throughout its history, the Olympia Theatre has been host to the world’s most exciting performers in the arts and entertainment community. Cultural icons such as Elvis Presley, B.B. Kings, Luciano Pavarotti and Etta James have proved memorable evenings under the theatres twinkling ‘stars’. The theatre has also hosted today’s best-known pop stars and is a favoured venue for MTV concerts.
Renamed as the Maurice Gusman Cultural Center, extensive restorations in the 1970’s were overseen by famed architect Morris Lapidus, and the theatre was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.
Time continued to take its toll on the theatre however, and by the late-1990’s virtually every structural system of the theatre was in need of repair and replacement. The roof had several leaks that had damaged the theatre’s historic paint and plaster as well as the seating and carpeting in the auditorium The HVAC system had to be entirely replaced. Electric, sound systems and plumbing all required upgrades.
Noted restoration architect Richard J. Heisenbottle, AIA, was retained to develop an ambitious, multi-year plan for additional stabilization and restoration work. In order to minimize loss of income for the theatre, construction was planned to occur during only the summer months, when bookings were normally at a minimum. Critical components were broken down into construction segments that could be completed in three months. During the rest of each year, the architectural and engineering team completed plans and theatre management secured funds for the next round of work.
While structural repairs were underway additional projects were launched to make the theatre more attractive to promoters. The stage was enlarged and new lighting and audio equipment were installed. The theatre’s already sublime acoustic properties were left intact.
The theatre owes its distinctive character to architect John Eberson, the master of ‘Atmospheric’ theatre design, and it is one of the few Eberson theatres around the world still standing and in regular use. Restoration of Eberson’s original design scheme, including colors and finishes, was another top priority of the construction plan. Following detailed analysis, decorative painters restored the original, vibrant paint scheme to the decorative plasterwork throughout the theatre. 1970’s vintage plastic seating was replaced with wood and brass seats boasting historically appropriate detailing. Even the new carpeting was custom-loomed to match the 1926 original pattern.
Today (in 2014), as the restoration work nears completion, Miami’s most beloved cultural venue has retained its stature in a downtown that continues its own transformation. High-rise office buildings and glittering luxury condominiums have replaced many of the theatre’s aging neighbors. Downtown Miami is once again becoming a place to live, work shop and play, and the newly renamed Olympia Theatre at Gusman Center is at the heart of the action – just as it was in 1926.
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