Miami Herald, The (FL) - February 24, 1985

Author: CRAIG GILBERT Herald Staff Writer

It was a normal Tuesday night at the Surf, musty of smell and meager of company. Twenty rows back sat Julian Weiss, Canadian tourist.

"I was driving by and I saw a movie," he said.

"I didn’t expect to be by myself."

On Miami Beach , wide open space is a 633-seat moviehouse. Once a picture lover’s fantasyland, the Beach is now a theater graveyard, haunted by ghosts named the Plaza, the Flamingo, the Variety, the Cinema, the Beach and the Carib.

Industry changes and the scarcity of young moviegoers have made dinosaurs of the Beach’s old single screens.

Today, aside from porno houses, only five survive: the Surf, the Normandy, the Lincoln, the Cameo and the Roxy .

Struggling along in the age of the eight-plex, these old picture houses make theater-going on Miami Beach an experience all its own. Lonely, maybe. Different, for sure.

Where else can you choose among Yiddish vaudeville, cheap B movies, and Japanese Samurai with English dubbing and Spanish subtitles?

South Beach, for starters. Down on Washington Avenue, the four o’clock double feature at the Roxy was letting out. Maxx Isaac, 19, and Oneida Huete, 16, played a game of pinball in the tiny lobby before hitting the street.

"You don’t get that kind of double feature for $2.50 in New York," said Isaac, a Park Slope transplant who goes to the Roxy often, and usually finds friends.

"He comes here because they give pretty disgusting horror movies," Huete said. "Ones you don’t see in other movie theaters. They show pretty bad movies. Maybe you can’t sleep at night."

"But it’s worth it," Isaac said. Silent Madness, about a disturbed mute who kills several sorority sisters, was worth it. It played with the remake of Where the Boys Are.

"Not like the Lincoln," Isaac said, "where they show movies for old people."

The Lincoln, in fact, was playing more than movies this Tuesday evening. It was playing vaudeville, American-Yiddish vaudeville, starring Bernie Berns. For $4, there was a picture, too: George Segal in Where’s Poppa?

"I see all the movies that come out, but this is something special," said Helene Goldflus, a snowbird from Toronto. "There’s no other place where you can see a Jewish movie and a Jewish show."

Yiddish vaudeville, Grade B horror, vacant beach antics, that’s not all Beach theaters offered this Tuesday evening. Just south of the Roxy at 1443 Washington Ave., the Cameo featured a Swedish sexpot and a Mexican comic: Britt Ekland in The Ultimate Thrill, and Cantinflas in Pepe.

It’s not that first-run movies can’t be found on the Beach. Wometco’s Byron-Carlyle, now a three-plex, shows the big new releases.

But for the other five general audience theaters in the city, having one screen means showing cheap double features (like the Lincoln, Roxy and the Cameo) or first-run leftovers (like the Normandy and Surf, also operated by Wometco).

"Your day of the single screen is practically over," said Stanley Stern, president of Wometco Theaters in Miami.

The reasons are many.

Studios are making fewer pictures, and theaters that bid for them are forced to show them longer. Multi-screen houses can carry a stale film, because the theaters are cheaper to operate. But most single screens can’t.

All moviehouses are getting tough competition these days, especially from cable TV. Faced with paying up to 90 percent of their gross receipts to the studio, a lot of first-run theaters would go broke if it weren’t for candy and soda. And the more screens, the more concession business.

"It’s no longer a joke when people say, ’How do you pick out a theater location? You find a good place for a popcorn stand and build a theater around it,’ " Stern said.

Theaters on the Beach have also suffered from a changing population.

"Your main audience is 15 to 35 years old," Stern said, "which more or less eliminates about 90 percent of the Beach."

So the Plaza, 206 Biscayne St., is now a parking lot across
from Joe’s Stone Crab.

The Cinema, 1253 Washington Ave. is now Club Z, the disco.

On Lincoln Road, the Flamingo is a luggage store, the Carib a shopping mall, the Beach theater a bank.

On 41st Street, the Sheridan has been razed and the Roosevelt has gone porno.

Despite that trend, two men in South Beach last December reopened what is now the largest single screen theater on the Beach. With its open balcony, the Cameo has room for 1,056. For most $2.50 double features, though, it draws well under 100.

The Cameo survives the way the Lincoln and the Roxy survive: by shunning costly first-run movies for second-run pictures or cheap B movies. It lets them charge less for tickets, and switch films as often as once a week, to keep the regulars coming back. First-run pictures demand a longer run.

Cameo owner Luis Izquierdo said he is "very happy" with business so far. Instead of paying up to 90 percent of his gross to rent first-run films, he gets cheaper movies and pays 30 or 35 percent.

"The people around here, they just want to pass the time," Izquierdo said. "They pass by, they don’t have anything to do, they sit down for three or four hours."

To save on overhead, he and his partner, Rafael Aguila, run the whole show.

Because his expenses are low, Izquierdo said, his break even point is a mere 100 people a day, spread out over five shows. His all-time best is 425.

"I think we have a good location," said Izquierdo, who also owns the Mr. Food cafeteria next door.

There’s a lot of people on South Beach, he explained, and many of them don’t own a television.

Izquierdo figured his audience is about one-third Latin, one-third young Anglo and one third elderly Anglo. He first planned to show Spanish language films, but "the whole problem is that eliminates the Americans. With American movies, we’ve got the Hispanics and the Americans."

One week, Izquierdo tried something completely different -- a Japanese twin bill: Squadron Alliance and Desert Giant, a Samurai flick dubbed in English and subtitled in Spanish.

"We’re still experimenting," he said.

Just up the block from the Cameo is the Roxy , run by Gus Vega. Clint Eastwood plays there. So do double features like Jungle Warriors and Octofist.

Vega says his crowd is increasingly young and Latin, especially at night, when the older people are afraid to go out.

"It has gradually changed from non-action to action," Vega said. "I have more horror movies now, more martial arts then I had."

Like Vega and Izquierdo, Sonny Ovedin claimed "I get both crowds... I have both the Cuban and the old people."

But his theater, the Lincoln, plays second-run movies you aren’t likely to see at the Roxy or Cameo: romantic comedies, or critics’ choices like Places in the Heart and Soldier’s Story.

For four or five weeks a year, the Lincoln also plays Yiddish vaudeville to elderly audiences.

He said he brings in 2,500 people a week, but "I used to make a lot of money. Now it’s less. They got us killed, the film companies and the twins and the triples and all this. They’re holding the picture too long. I can’t play with them. I can’t bid with them... I don’t know, I used to like it more."

Ovedin talked of leaving the business. "The small guys are out of it," he said.

Some of the big guys are getting out of it, too. Stern said Wometco is looking to leave the film business after half a century. Its 31 screens in Dade are up for sale. The company decided it’s better off putting all its resources into something more profitable, such as television.

Wometco, which leases the Normandy and owns the Surf, is trying to sell its theaters as a group. No one would want the Surf or Normandy alone, Stern conceded.

The Normandy, at 7401 Collins Ave., seats 525. The Surf, at 7400 Collins, seats 633. But the crowd that sat through Mischief Tuesday night -- a dozen people -- is not uncommon.

The two houses "just about" break even, Stern said, and that’s only because they share expenses, like a manager.

Carl Jamroga, who takes two days a week from his retirement to oversee the Surf and Normandy, worked at the Colony, Sheridan and Beach theaters in the 40s.

He remembered when world premieres brought stars like Ginger Rogers and Ronald Reagan to town.

"Whether they turn them into dollar houses, or buck and a half houses, I really don’t know," he said of the Normandy and Surf.

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