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Little Havana’s Tower Theater

Tower Theatre

That Calle Ocho is enjoying an unparalleled renaissance—with much more to come—is a given.  And its most enduring element, the magnificent Tower Theater, whose origins reach back to 1926, is a major part of that achievement.

Before there was a Tower Theater there was a dirt road, known till 1920 as 20th Street, representing the right-of-way of today’s S.W. Eighth Street.  The real estate boom of the mid-1920s brought radical changes to this picture.  Suddenly there arose on the south side of what was now a paved S.W. 8th Street, retail housing stock, from 15th to 16th Avenues, where there had been nothing before.  Behind or south of this physical plant was the rising Shenandoah neighborhood. Anchoring the new retail presence was the Tower Theater, whose initial offerings were silent movies, or least movies without dialogue or even monologue.

Designed by Henry J. Lawrence, the Tower Theater contained elements of the era’s dominant Mediterranean style.  Its interior, which also contained elements of the Spanish Mediterranean motif, was the handiwork of Herman Hasse.

This is how the Miami Daily News and Metropolis, the city’s first newspaper, explained the opening program and other elements of the new “movie palace”:

Miami’s newest movie (theater) will open Thursday at 7 pm, when the Tower Theater, SW 8th St and 15th Ave, (will) inaugurate its first performance with a showing of Bebe Daniels in “The Palm Beach Girl.”

According to J.A. Donnley, vice-president of the Rodendon Corp., owners and operators of a group of moving picture houses in north and south, a prologue of bathing beauties will take the stage before the picture begins.

The theater was completed recently and is one of the most attractive in Miami.  The seating capacity is approximately 1,000.  The interior has been done in a semi-Spanish style of architecture, with indirect lighting effect.

One of the latest type pipe organ has been installed and later; it is contemplated; (sic) singers will supplement the program…

Artic Nu-Air ventilating system has been installed, insuring complete circulation of cool air at all times.

The Miami Herald wrote of the theater’s inaugural presentation as well as an upcoming entertainment and screening:

…At the end of the 7 o’clock showing, the audience was given a treat in the appearance of Giuseppe Argentino, noted tenor, who sang two numbers. Stanley Spoehr, manager of the Tower, announced that Mr. Argentino has been engaged to sing each night for one week as an added attraction.

Jack Holt and Noah Berry in Zane Grey’s, “The Light of Western Stars” is the picture for Saturday at 3, 7, and 9 pm.  A Lloyd Hamilton comedy and novelty reels will be featured.

In 1931, the rising Wolfson-Meyer Theatrical Enterprise of Miami (Wometco) theater chain purchased the Tower Theater and modified its exterior, adding a 40-foot structural tower with neon lighting visible from blocks away (an RKO-like tower), a rounded contour and glass brick, the last two items reflective of the emerging Streamline Moderne/Art Deco style. The architect who designed and administered these alterations was Robert Law Weed, who was in the early stages of a formidable career that would bridge the era of World War II. It was said that Weed’s designs here had resulted in the first art deco façade applied to a theater in Miami.

In the next installment of this column we will bring the fascinating story of the Tower Theater to the present.

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