Olympia Theatre/Miami, FL>John Eberson

The Miami Herald

Thursday Sept. 23, 2010

SOUTH FLORIDA CULTURE

White knight executive to save Gusman theater

An unexpected benefactor has stepped forward with a plan to save the landmark Gusman theater from going dark due to a budget crisis.

BY ANDRES VIGLUCCI aviglucci

As supporters of the beleaguered Gusman theater lined up to beg Miami city commissioners not to shutter the historic venue recently, Chairman Marc Sarnoff told them to relax: A mysterious benefactor had stepped in with a plan to save it; details to come.

Now, after a week of speculation over the white knight’s identity, the benefactor has lifted his veil of anonymity:

It’s former Hialeah politician and well-connected advertising executive Herman Echevarria, who was not on anyone’s list of likely suspects.

City leaders and Gusman administrators say Echevarria, 55, who had never set foot inside the famed auditorium until this year, represents the best — if not the only — chance of keeping the publicly owned theater alive.

“He will not allow the Gusman to close,” Sarnoff told The Miami Herald. “This is a very credible person. I have every expectation he will fulfill his commitment. If he doesn’t, there is no plan to save the Gusman.”

Echevarria, who is CEO of BVK/Meka, the Miami branch of a big national advertising and marketing firm, would establish a nonprofit organization to assume management of the Gusman, now owned and operated by the Miami Parking Authority, city and MPA officials say.

They say Echevarria is also securing financial commitments from unidentified business leaders. They would pledge over the next five years to close the approximately $475,000-a-year funding gap that would be left if the city, as planned, ends its subsidy of the theater next month under a trimmed-down budget. Without the city subsidy, which represents about a third of the theater’s budget, the Gusman could not stay open, administrators say.

The Echevarria plan aims higher, though: Supporters hope to raise enough money and devise a strategy to secure Gusman’s long-term survival, as well as increase the number of productions and performances at the theater, which Regalado said has been underused.

“This is a very serious effort,” Regalado said. “He’s looking for a commitment from dozens of people.”

In a phone interview Wednesday, Echevarria declined to disclose details of the plan, which he described as well under way, until they are finalized. But he did identify two firms that will provide pro-bono services to the theater for five years: Coral Gables law firm Ralph Patino and Associates, and accountant Carlos Trueba.

“It is urgent and we’re moving fast. It’s going to be a big splash when we announce it,” Echevarria said.

Ironically, Echevarria said he had never been inside the Gusman’s phantasmagoric Italianate interior until June, when he attended a performance of a play — and was smitten.

“It’s so beautiful,” he said. “Gusman center is an icon to our community. It would be a disgrace to close it down.”

When he learned shortly afterward that it could close, Echevarria approached Regalado with an offer to help. He has since been working with Gusman managers, city officials and the city attorney’s office on formation of what several officials referred to as a “trust” to take over running the theater.

Echevarria was a 12-year Hialeah councilman and political arch-rival of longtime mayor Raul Martinez, whom he unsuccessfully challenged in the city’s 1997 mayoral election. He then retired from politics and has been a Miami Beach resident for years.

He serves on the board of the Beacon Council, Miami-Dade County’s business-development arm; and Mount Sinai Medical Center, and was formerly chairman of the Miami Symphony Orchestra.

The 1,567-seat Gusman theater, which opened in 1926 as a Paramount movie house, has long been a treasured Miami landmark, widely regarded as one of the city’s architectural showpieces for its elaborately decorated interior. The principal venue for the Miami Film Festival since its inception in 1984, the theater has also been a linchpin of downtown Miami’s ongoing revival.

Formally the Olympia Theater , the venue was donated to the parking authority in 1975 by businessman and philanthropist Maurice Gusman.

But the semi-autonomous parking authority, which generates substantial revenue, is barred by its charter from spending money on the theater. The authority, which contributes some $5 million to $7 million a year to city coffers, is now contesting a takeover attempt by the city.

City and Gusman officials say they are confident Echevarria and his backers can pull off the last-minute save.

“For this theater to have a champion is phenomenal,” said Gusman Director Margaret Lake. “I think it’s going to be a viable plan. The city supports it, which is really important. I believe it’s going to happen. I just want to have the funding to run the theater and make this a better place.”

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