Monday, August 24, 2015

Plans before Fort Lauderdale's Parker Playhouse: What were they thinking?

Not theater patrons
By Jane Feehan

Fort Lauderdale’s Parker Playhouse lifted the curtain on its first production Feb. 6, 1967*.  The theater is located at the fringe of Holiday Park off Federal Highway near Sunrise Boulevard, but few remember another theater was planned in 1959 for a site off A1A near the Galt Ocean Mile.

The participants in the two projects were different – and so were the plans. George S. Engle, owner and producer of the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami, teamed up with famed Florida architect, Alfred Browning Parker (no relation to donor Louis W. Parker of the Parker Playhouse), to draw up elaborate plans for the A1A location.

The $2 million project would include features “never before attempted in the entire country.” For starters, its marquee was to be so large that 30 automobiles could pull up at once to discharge passengers. A drive-in ticket window would be available where patrons could view available seating and purchase tickets before parking their cars. A restaurant and lounge seating 1,000 theatergoers would operate near another lounge with a soda fountain and dining area for teenagers.

There’s more. Much more.

The ambitious plans also included a library for playwrights, producers and directors, a private room for the press, an art gallery and exhibit hall for artists and students, and a theater memorabilia room featuring thespian history since Greek and Roman times.

A penthouse and club would operate late into the night for dining and dancing. Also, a model of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre would be constructed featuring manikins draped in clothes of that era. A drama and art school was to operate at this very busy facility. The entire complex and its offerings were to be run by a Society of Theatre Arts that would coordinate activities and performances at the Coconut Grove Playhouse … and a theater in Nassau, Bahamas (a tropical paradise teaming with theatergoers).

Engle proposed a 99-year lease on an 800-ft frontage property along A1A. A condition of the project would be a substantial advance subscription sale. That never happened. What were they thinking? People came to Fort Lauderdale (and still do) for surf, sun and fun, and depending on the age group, the fun might be boats, booze, and babesnot theater.

Theater sanity arrived with electrical engineer and inventor, Louis M. Parker, Ph.D., who tired of driving to Miami and Palm Beach to see plays.  In 1966 it was announced that Dr. Parker would
Parker Playhouse
donate $700,000 for construction of a theater on land near Holiday Park. The City of Fort Lauderdale would pay $300,000 for the property. Some papers reported that Parker donated up to $1.5 million.

The theater, run then by Zev Buffman, opened with about 2,000 seats, 48 shimmering chandeliers and two cocktail lounges, a much more realistic venture than the one proposed earlier.  Its architect, John Volk was the last of the early 1920s Palm Beach architects that included Addison Mizner. Volk  had also designed the Good Samaritan Hospital, parts of the Everglades Club, the Royal Poinciana Theater—all in Palm Beach—and a long list of other landmarks.

The Parker Playhouse is now run by the Performing Arts Center Authority, which includes the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. Jane Feehan.

*The play that night was Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” starring E.G. Marshall and Dennis O’Keefe. It was directed by Danny Simon, the playwright’s brother.

New York Times, Nov. 15, 1959
Pittsburgh Press, Nov. 25, 1966
Palm Beach Daily News, Feb. 22, 1984

New York Times, Feb. 6, 1967

Tags: Fort Lauderdale theater, Parker Playhouse, Jane Feehan, film researcher, Alfred Browning Parker. Louis M. Parker, Fort Lauderdale in the 1950s, Fort Lauderdale in the 1960s

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