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Upon its reopening under the auspices of Wometco, its new owner, in 1931, Nelson Tower, the appropriately named theater manager, explained this neighborhood cinema’s reach and philosophy:
A large percentage of Tower Theater patrons live in the community surrounding it and are residents of Miami the entire year. For that reason, the admission fees will be low enough to meet their desires. Two shows will be given every evening at 7 and 9 o’clock, and on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays continuous showing will prevail, beginning at 2 pm. Many proven talking picture hits are in store for Tower Theater patrons.
The theater remained a mainstay for the neighborhood for several decades. And it also experienced at least one major brush, albeit tangentially and long-delayed, with history. That moment began in 1939 when young Jerry Parr, who lived near the Orange Bowl, visited the theater, in the company of his father, to view actor Ronald Reagan in a leading role in Code of the Secret Service. Nine year old Jerry found the movie so riveting that he came back to see it again. And he also vowed to become a secret service agent when he grew older. Indeed, that would happen. In 1979, agent Jerry Parr headed the Secret Service White House detail. Two years later, Ronald Reagan was president and Parr was still in charge of the Secret Service White House detail.
On March 30, 1981, the new president was walking to his limousine after delivering an address to a labor group at the Washington Hilton Hotel, when a deranged John Hinckley began firing at him. One bullet ricocheted off the presidential limousine and entered President Reagan’s lung, lodging an inch from his heart. Parr, who had been standing just behind Reagan, grabbed him, and shoved him in the backseat of the car before jumping on top of the wounded president, while ordering the driver to “haul ass” out of there. From his vantage point, Parr saw that the president was spitting up “red, bright red, frothy blood,” while complaining that he was having trouble breathing. Parr was also alarmed at the sight of Reagan’s lips turning blue, a sign of bleeding in the lungs. The Secret Service agent quickly ordered the driver to bring Reagan to nearby George Washington University Hospital rather than the White House, which was the original order.
Minutes later they were in front of the hospital’s emergency room, with Parr barking, as they entered, “This is the president.” Critically wounded, Reagan underwent surgery to extract the unexploded bullet lodged next to his heart. Parr’s decisive actions saved the life of Ronald Reagan, forty-one years after a younger version of the agent had been regaled by his performance in Code of the Secret Service.
The theater remained a mainstay of a neighborhood hosting a large Jewish population, along with residents with roots in the American South, in the middle decades of the 20th century followed by a rising Cuban exile demographic. It also remained a favorite Saturday haunt of neighborhood kids in that era, for where else could a teen, for 14 cents, enjoy all day video offerings, including cartoons, newsreel, previews, matinee movie and the main feature. Sometimes, yoyo contests took place across its broad stage. For the older crowd, the movie listings offered a wide run of recent releases, and for at least a small segment of tourgoers the opportunity to cross the busy Tamiami Trail for a drink and sometimes live music from some of America’s most accomplished entertainers at the Ball & Chain, itself a neighborhood mainstay.
In response to a growing Cuban presence by the outset of the 1960s, the Tower became the first theater in Miami to add Spanish subtitles to its movies. The cinema was also used for special events related to the increasingly Cuban character of the neighborhood.
The Tower Theater experienced hard times in the 1980s, beginning with an unprecedented wave of refugees, estimated at 125,000, who poured into Dade County in a six- month period in 1980. The Mariel Boatlift, as it was known, brought with it not only persons hungering for opportunity and freedom, but also a small percentage of persons with criminal backgrounds. Their presence in the area, as well as a steep rise in drug-related crimes, proved problematical for Calle Ocho and for the Tower Theater, which closed in 1984.
In 1991, the City of Miami purchased the old cinema and began a lengthy rehabilitation of the venerable building with the aim of creating there a center for Spanish language films, inter-American film festivals, and a center for performing arts organizations. The theater reopened at the beginning of the new century. Today, Miami-Dade College, in partnership with the City of Miami, operates the theater, which is considered one of America’s premier venues for foreign films. It is also a major venue for the Miami International Film Festival and is an integral component of a neighborhood sizzling with tourists, events, and attractions. Here’s to the next century of success for one of the City of Miami’s most venerable institutions!!
Paul S. George