It might have been be so very easy to write about the beloved Tower Theater in only the past tense, but, happily, there is no end in sight for that gloriously revered icon which, unlike other wonderful Greater Miami movie houses such as the Plaza, the Shores, the Surf, Normandy, Carib, Flamingo, Beach, 163rd Street, Byron, Carlyle, Gables, Biscayne Plaza and others will not meet the ignominious fate of either being closed, torn down or converted to other uses. Indeed, through the hard work and dedication of innumerable volunteers and the caring (and financial good deed-doing) of those volunteers and Miami-Dade College, that grand edifice has become not only a show place for what can be done to save beautiful and noteworthy buildings but, also, as a renewed and revived living, working theater, in the heart of Miami. It is through caring works such as these that Miami’s time-worn but beloved sobriquet of being “the magic city” is returning to reality.
The Tower was built by the Robdendon Corporation and was, according to historical sources, opened as a first-run movie house by the then Wolfson-Meyer Theater Company (later Wometco) in December of 1926, several months following the horrific September 17th and 18th hurricane of that year which caused extensive damage to Miami and Miami Beach. According to the National Weather Service’s historic archives, the Red Cross reported that that hurricane had killed 372 people with 6,000 more being injured. Damages in 1926 dollars were estimated to be $105 million, which, if extrapolated to today would be more than $100 billion. Suffice to say that, for an area desperately trying to rebuild itself and restore its national image as a wonderful place to live, work and raise a family, the opening of the Tower Theater was nothing less than perfectly timed.
As silent films made the transition to “talkies,” movie theaters became the ideal venue and gathering spot for teenagers on dates, families seeking an inexpensive night out and as entertainment locales for “the kids” on Saturday mornings. Indeed, as Miami grew, the Tower, as did so many other Miami-area cinema emporiums “reached out” to the younger people by offering a Saturday movie-going experience that would cement those fans as lifelong movie aficianados.
Blessed with (as Miami grew) a plethora of elementary schools in the neighborhood including, among others, Miramar and Southside, the Tower management, in concert with other Wometco operations, offered an almost full day of “Saturday at the movies” for “the kids” featuring (for twenty-five cents admission, by the way) two westerns, a serial, ten cartoons, the news and, if one could hold out, the adults' matinee. The Tower was the center of it all for the neighborhood’s kids and they would wait anxiously for school to be over on Friday so they could head for Southwest Eighth Street and Fifteenth Avenue on Saturday mornings so that they could be on line for the 11:00 AM door opening by 10:30. “Hold my place in line!”
The theater was extensively remodeled in 1931. After a complete re-design and architectural enhancements by famed architect Robert Law Weed, the Tower, now with an art-deco style and a prominent forty foot tall steel tower that quickly became a neighborhood landmark, re-opened to anxious and excited patrons with a gala event on October third of that year.
Remaining open through the Depression and during the World War II and Korean War years the Tower, even as newer and more elaborate movie houses opened, steadfastly remained a neighborhood anchor. With the Cuban revolution the theater drew larger and larger numbers of Cuban émigrés, who migrated to the general neighborhood of the theater, eventually showing movies in Spanish to accommodate the by-the mid-1980s majority population of the Shenandoah neighborhood. Finally, however, with times changing and mega-plex type theaters opening throughout Greater Miami, a somewhat worn-out theater closed in 1984, its fate at the time uncertain.
The incredible story of the Tower, unlike so much of and so many of Miami's once beloved and revered landmarks, which met their fates with disuse or demolition, has a happy ending.
That happy ending is perhaps nowhere more exemplified than through the voices and words of two of the theater's most dedicated fans, both of whom loved the movie house as children growing up in the Shenandoah area and who now frequent it regularly as adults.
Jose Morales waxes rhapsodically about the theater, calling it "one of the happiest memories of my childhood here in Miami, but, more importantly, and unlike so many other theaters throughout Greater Miami which no longer exist, it is a place to which I can still go, enjoy a movie, munch on popcorn and feel as if I am 'home!'"
Katherine Nemser echoes those sentiments: "My friends and I loved going to the Tower," she says, "loved the movies, loved the setting and loved everything about growing up in Miami. Best of all, though, I still have that wonderfully happy feeling every time I go back, now with adult friends and family, but to a place filled with memories which I can share with all of them."
And what a place it is today.
From showing the Oscar-winning movie "A Separation," with the highest box office numbers in the nation to setting new attendance records, the Tower, which was saved by the city and the county and turned over to Miami-Dade College for inclusion in their cultural arts program in 2002 and which has brought it back to life as one of the most vibrant entertainment entities in South Florida today, Miamians now recognize that the Tower Theater is now as robust and relevant as ever from both programming and architectural perspectives. And it's still a place that's creating memories: In April of 2012 the theater was the setting for a marriage proposal from one of our patrons to his girlfriend in auditorium #1. And she said YES!
The theater has been--since its "salvation"--nothing but a winner. Among the events that have brought national interest was Outsider Pictures exclusive premiere of "Juan of the Dead," which broke the house attendance record, and foreign language specific programming which features films that are voice distinct from other local cinemas. Along with the presentation of challenging, exciting and thought-provoking foreign language films the Tower continues to not only increase its return audience but almost weekly adds to its fan-base by attracting locals who had never before enjoyed one of Miami's grandest theaters.
Indeed, the Tower Theater of yesterday is now the Tower Theater of today, and, happily for every film buff and every Miamian, will be the Tower Theater of tomorrow. Long may it reign.