Movies are a part of the thread of our lives. Many remember the first time that they saw a classic film.
People like to go to the movies to experience them the way that their creators intended to be seen at the movie theater because of the special quality associated with the dark room, large screen, the wonderful sound, and the smell of popcorn.
It seems that the movie theater or cinema is the place to shut out the world for around two hours and slip into a new world — of light sabers and of talking lions. These wonderful places exist in Miami, but they are a dwindling breed.
Many of these movie theaters in Miami have gone into oblivion, but others have been repurposed serving a variety of other uses from presenting classic cinema to live theater, from night clubs to recital halls. In this periodic series we will look at some of the old movie houses that have found new purposes.
Picnic is a movie that premiered in 1956 and starred William Holden and Kim Novak. The Riviera Theater in Coral Gables, near the University of Miami campus, had just been constructed and the moviehouse debuted with Picnic.
Back then, the theater had 1,261 seats and was quite different than it is now. It had a “loge.” or place with 216 seats where people were allowed to smoke while they enjoyed the film.
Continuing the tradition, the Riviera was a great spot to take a date during the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. It was popular due to its proximity to the UM. Prior to the arrival of Shops at Sunset Place, the theater w really as the place to go for Gables and South Miami youth in order to see the latest movies.
Then, in the late ’90s, it experienced a decline and was purchased by a piano company, Hale’s Piano and Organ. They repurposed the building to create a recital hall, practice rooms and sales floor. The firm closed due to dwindling capital and was sold to another buyer.
The latest incarnation within the Riviera is managed by the Area Stage Company. It is a family owned business led by the Rodaz family, John and Maria. After spending 10 years on South Beach fronting a theater company there, they worked on different projects until they found the Riviera Plaza.
Now, the Riviera Theater is no longer a cinema or a piano hall, but a bustling, active community of theater professionals dedicated to bringing the magic of the stage to people of all ages within the community.
They use what was the Riviera Cinema for many different purposes. They have a program called ITP or Inclusion Theater Program which teaches dramatic arts to people with special needs. The theater features professional musicals and plays year-round presented by the Area Stage Company. They also have a conservatory which holds rigorous classes for students led by Maria Banda Rodaz.
“We need more room,” John Rodaz said.
Because of the year-round performances, the students’ theater and the ITP, there is a great need for more space. The place where films like Raiders of the Lost Ark were played now shows musicals that children can love like The Little Mermaid Jr. That performance ran for two weekends, with a cast of 50 children each weekend. Rodaz’s son John-John Rodaz directed that show. In March, American Idiot, a rock musical took the stage, directed by Rodaz. Ahead at the ASC is The Wizard of Oz with performances Fridays and Saturdays, Apr. 19-May 5.
The future of the Riviera Plaza as a place for theater is uncertain.
“We’ve just signed a two-year lease extension,” Rodaz said. “It’s worth the investment.”
The Area Stage Company has grown since moving to the Riviera Plaza. When the theater company arrived they were teaching 20 students. Now, it is 10 times that many. In addition to the purchase price, they made extensive renovations to change the space from piano recitals to theatrical performances. The company removed two rows of seats and changed the ones that they had, they put in new lighting and a new sound system plus added a rehearsal space and a costume room.
Between the family and the students, the old moviehouse now lives on as home to a differrent kind of performing art.
The Area Stage Company is located at 1560 S. Dixie Hwy., Coral Gables, FL 33146; phone 305-666-2078.