Coconut Grove – Yesterday & Today

Coconut Grove Playhouse in 1940sCoconut Grove Playhouse in 1940s

The VIP list of writers who visited or resided in Coconut Grove by the mid-20th century were joined by the “royalty” of the entertainment world who made the village a stop on their circuits.  The roster of musical artists performing in Coconut Grove in the 1960s and 1970s, included Donovan, Joni Mitchell, and Jimmy Buffet.  A favorite venue for them was the Gaslight Inn on Grand Avenue near the community’s center.

Coconut Grove Playhouse in 1927

Figure 1: Coconut Grove Playhouse in 1927

Another prominent entertainment venue was the Coconut Grove Playhouse, a converted movie theater, known initially as the Coconut Grove Cinema, which opened in 1927.  After its conversion to a live stage venue in 1956, the new playhouse opened with a presentation of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.”  The playhouse was an instrumental part of the Grove’s hipness and creativity in subsequent decades till its untimely closing in the first decade of the new century. Many of America’s most notable performers over the past five decades, ranging from Tallulah Bankhead to Kathleen Turner, appeared there.

In 1963, the playhouse presented “Irma La Duce”, the Parisian themed comedy centering on a disgraced former police officer falling for a beautiful Parisian prostitute, Irma La Duce. To generate more publicity for the play, theater officials, with a big assist from powerhouse publicist, Charlie Cinnamon, turned the streets surrounding the playhouse into a Left Bank/Parisian setting by creating the Left Banks Arts Festival. Many Grove artists displayed their works in this setting, and tour goers turned out in droves, prompting a reprise of the festival the following year, now parading under the Coconut Grove Arts Festival banner.  Each year since the Festival has drawn artists and visitors from many parts of the region and beyond.  Today it ranks among the nation’s premiere juried arts show. In the meantime, the playhouse awaits a long-delayed reopening that may come with a radical overhaul of the original theater.

Peacock Park in Coconut Grove in 1960s

Figure 2: Peacock Park in Coconut Grove in 1960s

Coconut Grove has also flourished as the seat of South Florida’s Bohemian life with its coffee houses, boutique art galleries and as a popular gathering place, particularly in Peacock Park, for beatniks and hippies.  Many considered the Grove to be a center of “hipness” along the lines of New York City’s Greenwich Village. By the late 1950s, coffee houses hosted beatniks who sometimes read their latest poetic creations before an audience of like-minded people be it artists, writers, or even weekend hipsters. Hippies came in much larger numbers to the park and elsewhere in the Grove from the mid-1960s into the 1970s.  Their daily and even nightly presence brought young hipsters to the Grove from many areas of South Florida and beyond, but their growing presence vexed many business owners who pushed back against them.

Eccentrics continued to gravitate to the Grove long after the hippie era was over, paving the way for huge, costumed Halloween street parties, the annual Bed Race, and the celebrated King Mango Strut, which began in the early 1980s, and continues to spoof each year at holiday time  those politicians and others whose foibles make for splendid satire.  With its parades, art festival and parties, Coconut Grove remains a celebratory neighborhood.

iChing Building in Coconut Grove

Figure 3: iChing Building in Coconut Grove

Quirky stores were also a part of the Grove’s charm.  The I Ching store, owned and operated by a hippie family and standing where CocoWalk rests today, featured a bewildering array of Chinese memorabilia, while The Joint, which stood nearby, was a hip, low cost clothing store with its tie-dyed shirts and jeans. Its oversized logo of a marijuana stick, or “joint”, was visible to all who traipsed by its premises.

Across the street from The Joint, at the corner of Main Highway and Fuller Street in the onetime home of the Coconut Grove Bank, stood, in the late 1960s, an experimental laboratory operated by Dr. John Lilly, an associate of Dr. Timothy Leary, the guru of LSD.  Lilly’s “laboratory” featured two tanks containing porpoises, who were experimental subjects in the scientist’s attempt to gauge the impact of noise on their psyches. “Head shops,” with their rolling paper and hash pipes, were also part of the scene.

Mayfair in Coconut Grove in 1982

Figure 4: Mayfair in Coconut Grove in 1982

Following the “hippie era,” developmental change was in the air for the Grove. Home to many Coconut Grove “characters,” the modest, wood frame buildings on the ridge overlooking South Bayshore Drive gave way by the 1970s to high rise condominiums.  While the Mayfair in the Grove and CocoWalk, two ambitious malls that opened in that era and beyond, replaced many of the businesses dotting Grand Avenue.  In fact, it was the Grove’s uniqueness—along with its tolerance of a wide array of viewpoints and lifestyles—that catalyzed these changes.

However, changes of another kind directly and adversely impacted the aformentioned shopping initiatives.  By the late 1980s, South Beach’s Art Deco district came alive with a brisk pedestrian life and a rich offering of restaurants and clubs.  In the following years and decades, other long dormant Miami neighborhoods, including Little Havana, Wynwood, and Buena Vista/Design District, also experienced a renaissance, drawing many visitors and shoppers away from Coconut Grove.  By the early 2000s, the once brisk street life unique to Coconut Grove had diminished significantly.  The consequences were severe. CocoWalk is in the throes of an overhaul after experiencing financial difficulty. The long dormant Mayfair in the Grove now hosts offices of large enterprises.

Nearby, the imposing Coconut Grove skyline, which began changing significantly with the opening of a Ritz Carlton complex at the dawn of the new century, now hosts state of the art condominium towers, including the Grove at Grand Bay and Park Grove, designed by two of the Western World’s most prominent architects.

Regatta Park Path in Coconut Grove

Figure 5: Regatta Park Path in Coconut Grove

Beautiful Regatta Park, resting partly on the footprint of the late, lamented Dinner Key Auditorium, stands between the blue waters of Biscayne Bay and the Terra Group’s Grove at Grand Bay, known affectionately as the “Twisted Sisters” for the curving contours of its two buildings.

Architectonica, a world-renowned architectural firm that began in Coconut Grove more than forty years ago, has moved its offices back to the neighborhood and is heavily involved in its redevelopment. At the foot of historic Charles Avenue, with its rich black Bahamian ambiance, the most prominent home, the Stirrup residence, has undergone a major restoration and will reopen as a bed and breakfast facility.

Yet even as it continues to evolve, Coconut Grove maintains an ambiance, a vibrancy, and a spirit unlike that of any other community in southeast Florida. It will continue to stand apart from other communities in the region for reasons of these characteristics, ensuring that its future will bring more excitement, color, and accomplishments to one of America’s most compelling urban areas.  Here’s to the next 100 years of the Grove!

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Images:

  • Cover: Coconut Grove Playhouse in 1940s. Courtesy of Historic Designation report for Coconut Grove Playhouse.
  • Figure 1: Coconut Grove Playhouse in 1927. Courtesy of Historic Designation report for Coconut Grove Playhouse.
  • Figure 2: Peacock Park in Coconut Grove in 1960s. Courtesy of Miami Herald.
  • Figure 3: iChing Building in Coconut Grove. Courtesy of Miami Herald.
  • Figure 4: Mayfair in Coconut Grove in 1982. Courtesy of Florida Memory.
  • Figure 5: Regatta Park Path in Coconut Grove.

 

3 Comments on "Coconut Grove – Yesterday & Today"

  1. I went to St. Hughs Catholic school from 1965 -1974 and at that time it was on the corner of Douglas an franklin. It was a time of hippies ,vietnam war protesters ,race riots ,Nasa and women’s rights. My mother would turn down loquat ave to kumquat ave. My mother was from New York City and would honk and talk to everyone. She was “groovy “. We would wave to the Hare Krishna’s dancing in their compound ,to the gay men in their Speedos eating breakfast on their balcony ,and stop and talk to a lady artist who would walk with her pet peacocks down kumquat. Years later I heard there’s a wild peacock problem in the grove and I bet I know where that started.
    My Mom would take me to Lum’s on McFarlane for a hot dog after school . We would go to eskil’s clog shop , buy hippie beads ,and leather fringe hippie bags and arm bands with our names on them. The hippies were always in peacock park smoking marijuana and one guy would play a guitar and they would all sing . Years later working in an operating room in Dallas ,Texas the operating room superviser and I started talking about Miami. Turns out he was the guitar player. He said the cop on a horse that would patrol coconut grove would chase them on that horse into the bay at dinner key and they would swim for it.Small world.Just got back from Miami in June for my 40th high school reunion at Immaculata Lasalle. Stayed on tigertail in the grove. Ironically when my parent’s were first married they rented a duplex and lived on tigertail. Although it’s not as green and tropical due to overbuilding the groovy vibe is now hip and cool. It is still a place of diversity and fun.The grove will always have a special place in my heart and was a great part of my life.

    • Karen I am wondering if you coincided with my oldest siblings at St.Hugh and La Salle. My brother went to both around the same time. My brother was named Hector. Would love to connect and chat about it.

  2. Valentino Macor | September 12, 2018 at 5:38 pm | Reply

    Your history of the Coconut Grove Playhouse neglected to even mention the impact that Josè Ferrer had in bringing top theater shows, and who was also a long time resident of the Grove on Main Highway. I remember Josè because he was also my son’s Godfather.

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