What’s next for the Tower Theater in Little Havana?
It was just a few weeks ago when Miami Dade College officials handed over the keys to the iconic Tower Theater in Little Havana to the city of Miami, ending a relationship that dates back two decades.
It’s unclear exactly what led to the breakup, but Miami city officials said they have ambitious plans for the theater at 1508 SW 8th Street.
Miguel Ferro, the artistic director for the Bayfront Park Management Trust and city of Miami District 3, told WLRN that city officials plan to make the Calle Ocho theater building more than an art house cinema to watch independent and award-winning films.
“It will be a perfect communion of the performing arts, music, cinema, and also exhibitions that can be placed in the lobby,” he said. “So it will actually become like a cultural center that goes beyond the cinema.”
The place will double as a tourist center, according to Ferro, who said it will be a centerpiece to guide tens of thousands of tourists who annually visit Calle Ocho.
The plan calls for re-opening the venue very soon, within the next three to four weeks, said Ferro, but he said a lot of work must be done to — at the very least — make it available as a theater for moviegoers.
He said Miami Dade College removed all the movie-related equipment from the building.
“We have nothing in Tower Theater,” he said. “No movies, no projectors, no sound. Nothing.”
A spokesperson for Miami Dade College, Sue Arrowsmith, told WLRN via email that the equipment was owned by the school and that it was removed after the city of Miami terminated its lease.
“We had no choice but to vacate the Tower Theater,” Arrowsmith said.
Miami Dade College officials previously told WLRN that the college had spent more than $1 million into capital improvements and was spending $500,000 each year to maintain and operate the venue.
Tower Theater history dates back nearly a century
The arthouse cinema has a long history. It first opened in 1926 as a state-of-the-art theater on the prominent Calle Ocho and now serves as one of Miami’s oldest cultural landmarks.
In the early 1960s, films at Tower Theater were an introduction for Cuban families to American culture. Adapting to its audience, the theater modified its programming to include Spanish subtitles in its English-language films and began displaying Spanish-language films. However, the theater was closed to the public in 1984.
In 2002, the city of Miami allowed MDC to reopen the venue and manage it. Since then, the theater has become home to the Miami Film Festival, GEMS Film Festival and Brazilian Film Festival, among others.
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Fans of the Tower Theater, along with local filmmakers, are concerned about what the city will do with the space, given its history with other venues like the Coconut Grove Playhouse and the Miami Marine Stadium. They wonder why those places have been closed.
“When you're not seeing [the theater] being used, you wonder, what's the catch?” said Gia Adams Wheeler, an avid visitor of the theater. “Is it because the city doesn't have the resources at the moment, or is it something, you know, more political? And if that's the case, it's just not fair to the public.”
A home to local filmmakers
Chris Molina, a filmmaker and programmer, launched a petition last October on change.org to advocate for keeping the management of the Tower Theater in the hands of the college. Since then, it has gathered more than 8,300 signatures.
“Miami would not be Miami without the Tower Theater,” Molina wrote in his petition, noting the theater’s lineup of Spanish-language and other foreign films cannot be found elsewhere.
The announced closure last fall sparked a protest in Miami among fans and filmmakers.
Amid the protest, Nicolas Calzada, who is now the former interim executive director of the Miami Film Festival and the Tower Theater, penned an op-ed in the Miami Herald criticizing the closure.
“The most troubling thing is that no segment of the community has called for this change, and there has not been a bad word spoken about MDC’s impeccable administration of the theater for two decades. Why fix something that isn’t broken?”
Rene Rodriguez, a former film critic for the Miami Herald and the director of the Bill Cosford Cinema at the University of Miami, says closing a place like Tower Theater hurts the city on a cultural and artistic level.
“Miami Dade [College] really made great use of that venue and turned it into a vital movie theater. And it’s at such a great location,” he said.“The Tower was kind of like a vital component of Miami's arthouse scene.”
Tower Theater's management switch comes at a time when theaters across the country are closing their doors — fallout from the global pandemic.
Last week, Regal Cinemas announced they are closing their South Beach Stadium 18 theater on Lincoln Road.
Rodriguez says he still doesn’t understand why the city decided to make this decision. “I’m angry because I still have not heard a reason why. Why turn it into a tourist center?”