What The Coconut Grove Playhouse Needs To Do

On Thursday, it was being widely reported that Miami's legendary Coconut Grove Playhouse had closed. We were the first to report on Thursday morning that the Playhouse was actually not going to close. However, the leaders and staff of the Coconut Grove Playhouse must take fast, and passionate action, to make sure the Playhouse is never in danger of truly shutting down. More about that shortly.

There are many ironies in this story. It was just a few precious days ago, Monday, April 10, that Arnold Mittelman, the Playhouse's Chief Executive Officer and Producing/Artistic Director was given the Carbonell's (South Florida equivalent to the Tony award) George Abbott Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts. This happened two days before the 'Closed' sign was placed at the theater.

A few weeks back, on March 25, the Coconut Grove Playhouse held its 50th Anniversary Gala, honoring Dick Van Dyke, famed publicist, Charles Cinnamon and hosted by Larry King. Cinnamon's car was totaled and he was bruised when a motorist ran a red light, while Cinnamon was wearing his tuxedo, enroute to the gala. This column has reported the events mentioned in past columns.

This crisis in the Grove happened and exploded in the media as many involved in the Coconut Grove Playhouse were observing the Passover holiday and therefore unable to conduct business.

Now I will share with you, dear Reader, an irony that has made this writer "almost" a tiny part of the story. Since the age of 18, I have spent the majority of my career as a professional fundraiser/community development specialist. About a dozen years ago, I met with Arnold Mittelman to discuss my joining the Playhouse staff (on my way to Mittelman's office, I had the joy of meeting Bea Arthur, Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna; as I walked through a rehearsal they were having of "Bermuda Avenue Triangle.") I was interested in being second in command at the Playhouse to Mittelman. Actually, it was Arnold Mittelman's job that I truly had my eye on. We had a delightful meeting and have remained casual acquaintances for years. We did not come to terms with my joining the staff of the Playhouse. A few months later, Mittelman contacted me and offered me a position as a "development consultant." Sadly, I had to decline.

Let me be clear. Arnold Mittelman is a great man. He is savvy in his business dealings and has the talents and gifts of a very special producing/artistic director. However, I must also inform you that I have received more than one email from Playhouse vendors who say they were 'stiffed' by Mittelman and the Coconut Grove Playhouse. They add that their phone calls and emails to Mittelman and his general manager yield no response.

It is said that Mittelman was hand selected by his predecessor, Oscar winner Jose Ferrer. There have been times when it has seemed that Mittelman has had difficulty in controlling his Board of Directors and their actions.

About 15 years ago, the Playhouse embarked on an inspired advertising campaign, which featured Mittelman in the ads. The campaign was, something to the effect of, "While You're Watching Us, We're Watching You." The ads had Mittelman peeking through a curtain. That was a wonderful advertising venture. It was cutting edge, interesting, catchy, accurate and much too short lived. Mittelman began getting a lot of heat, because he himself was pictured in the ads. His Board was largely comprised of community leaders who, in their leadership experiences with other nonprofit organizations, were taught that, the professional is never seen. Always have the spotlight on the contributors and/or the leaders, never on a paid professional from a nonprofit organization. This was quite a controversial time for Arnold Mittelman. The Board, was wrong.

In the theater we have learned that it is most often the talents of a single visionary to create and/or produce true greatness. This is also accurate in the worlds of television and film. Arnold Mittelman and his face peeking through the curtain was not only an appropriate advertising device; had they maintained it I suspect it could have embellished the Playhouse's financial and artistic life.

The Coconut Grove Playhouse must embark on an emergency fundraising drive with several tiers. The Board and its Chair, should be under the firm guidance of their CEO, Mittelman. If it is not working this way, something must change. Leadership wise, staff wise or both. The chief job or obligation of any Board member of any nonprofit organization must be giving money and asking others to give money. People must be ASKED to give money. People give to PEOPLE.

After Hurricane Andrew devastated South Florida, the great Alvah Chapman chaired the "We Will Rebuild" fundraising efforts. The ARTS ARE IMPORTANT! Surely, there are financial saviors for America's best known regional theater. The Grove's Board needs to be raising funds. They need to be ASKING.

There are many extraordinarily philanthropic families and corporations in South Florida. The Playhouse simply needs a benefactor to immediately, readily and happily give the Playhouse a gift of Ten million dollars. The huge hearted donors are out there. They must be ASKED. The Playhouse needs a knight in shining armor to give it the cash it desperately needs and the knight in shining armor should be asked to lend his or her leadership skills to the Playhouse's Board. In return for this, the potential benefactor should be offered a "naming opportunity." Let their name or their company name or their family name be forever above the words Coconut Grove Playhouse, in recognition of their divine generosity.

South Florida has citizens who have proven to change the course of history. May one of our community's giants step forward and safeguard the Coconut Grove Playhouse forever.

The Board must mount a fundraising crisis campaign. They need to contact every prior donor to the Playhouse and if possible, ask to meet with them in person. They must ASK the donor to give the biggest gift they can to "save the Playhouse." I suspect the Board can use some training from a seasoned leader or professional fundraiser. The correct way to ASK for a contribution, is an art. Simply making an appointment to ask someone for a gift, is an art unto itself. The Board must clearly learn their jobs.

This is what a nonprofit theater MUST do. The eye must always be on the cash flow, the bank account and fundraising. If not, there will be no eyes to see anything on stage. Most regional theaters cannot and do not survive on profits from ticket sales. They must have patrons, donors, corporate sponsors and a Board, appropriately trained and actively ASKING for contributions.

The leaders of the Grove Playhouse must contact, as well, everyone in their "list base." This would include all those who have purchased tickets in a fashion that supplied the Playhouse with the theatergoer's contact information. The Playhouse should also contact each and every arts organization in South Florida and ask for a "one time borrowing or exchange of donor lists," to help raise the much needed funds.

A Board Recruitment effort with a powerful chair must be established. The Coconut Grove Playhouse must have more people of affluence and influence on their Board of Directors. From this, great things can follow.

We in the theater community are thankful to Lucie Arnaz for her personal financial contribution and her fundraising efforts for the Playhouse. Interestingly, Lucie Arnaz says her love for theater and her love for working in the theater was instilled in her at a young age, not by her parents, but by Broadway veteran, Vivian Vance. So, by extension, we are of thanks to "I Love Lucy's" Ethel Mertz. Ms. Arnaz is show business royalty. Of course, her parents were Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. She is married to the fine actor, Laurence Luckinbill. Together, they have their actress daughter Katherine (co-starring with Arnaz soon in "Sonia Flew" at the Playhouse) and JUSTARLUCK productions. Ms. Arnaz will in the near future, take over the Joanna Gleason role in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels on Broadway. Long may this lovely lady reign.

It would be a great joy if one of South Florida's philanthropic giants stepped forward as a result of this article. I doubt if a "request from me" will work. Someone of the greatest stature involved with the Coconut Grove Playhouse must ASK one of our charitable icons to be the Playhouse's savior. If they try hard enough and ASK the right person in the RIGHT way, history will be made.

The eyes of America's theater community are on Miami's Coconut Grove Playhouse. May it remain that way forever!

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From This Author Beau Higgins

Currently spending his time between New York and Florida, Beau was born to a theatrical family in Brooklyn. He studied drama at the Lee Strasberg (read more...)