Coconut Grove goes fallow

Theater briefly shuttered due to lack of funds

MIAMI — Locks were changed May 8 after the bulk of staff was laid off at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, which lies paralyzed both financially and administratively while a rift widens between longtime producing artistic director Arnold Mittelman and at least part of the board.

Operating funds apparently ran out in March and early April on the eve of the company’s 50th-anniversary season finale, Melinda Lopez’s “Sonia Flew” starring Lucie Arnaz.

South Florida’s largest and best-known regional theater was briefly shuttered amid reports of a $4 million-plus deficit and worries over lapsed insurance. The latter problem has since proved unfounded.

Since the announcement of the deficit, board members have admitted the entire $4 million is carry-over, having doubled in the past two or three years, thus confounding the administration’s attempts to stem the bleeding.

The theater’s recent annual operating budgets hovered around $6 million. The amount of new debt from the just-ended season is a question mark, according to board chair Shelly Spivack. The board has authorized a committee to launch a forensic audit to determine the current total and track how it mushroomed. But at least one board member admitted that until recently, “We weren’t paying attention.”

The board has undergone considerable change in recent years, with a new crop of business honchos pressing for financial controls. A number of longtime board members and Mittelman supporters have been shifted to a new panel designated trustees, without voting power.

A leading factor in the latest reversals were last summer and fall’s hurricanes. The final blow, Wilma, struck the area just as the theater’s season was getting under way. The storm wrecked short-term sales and long-term marketing, especially for a costly planned transfer to Fort Lauderdale’s Parker Playhouse for an extra week.

“Sonia Flew” ultimately went on for just 10 days of its scheduled four-week run, due to a $50,000 pledge from Arnaz to match the same amount staked by Bacardi Liquors and a reported $25,000 from relatives of Mittelman. Some previews were scrapped, the final week in the Grove was cut and the Parker transfer was canceled.

Most of the employees were laid off during the production, and others have been let go since the show’s close April 30, leaving Mittelman plus two finance staff, two in maintenance and one in human resources. Mittelman, however, has been relieved of administrative duties by the board.

The normally talkative producer has been mostly silent in the month since the crisis became public, except for prepared statements. In mid-April, he brushed off the suggestion that he should resign, saying he wants to help the theater’s recovery.

The Coconut Grove building was constructed in 1926 as a movie theater. Community theater first was presented there in 1953, and it became a professional legit venue in 1956 with the U.S. premiere of “Waiting for Godot.” Mittelman was appointed a.d. in 1985, succeeding Jose Ferrer.

The latest on the infighting May 8 was a reply to a request from the Miami-Dade County Dept. of Cultural Affairs to explain a $125,000 bank loan in March, for which restricted funds from a state grant were used as collateral. The grant money is earmarked for a reconstruction project.

Mittelman claimed in the statement that he had board members’ consent to take out the loan. Board members disagree.

The loan issue in recent weeks appears to have become a central sticking point over management control and further progress concerning the larger debt and recovery issues. The grant used as collateral is one of a series of local and state appropriations totaling more than $20 million, earmarked to renovate the building in the next year or two.

Per recently appointed spokeswoman Lynn Martenstein, all plans are now on hold while the board meets at least weekly to deal with issues as information becomes available.