|By David Smiley, The Miami
HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
May 3, 2010--And away we go.
A plan to drastically overhaul and expand the Miami Beach Convention Center -- while far from certain but steadily progressing -- has already created a stir.
And in the middle of everything is The Great One, or rather, the theater Jackie Gleason made famous in the 1960s.
The latest wrinkle in the city's germinating vision for a modern, larger and more competitive convention center includes an option to demolish The Fillmore Miami Beach at The Jackie Gleason Theater in favor of a hotel.
Consultants drawing up the plans have said a hotel serving the convention center is an important component of an expansion and is more attractive if on-site. Business boosters, along with the city's mayor and chief administrator, have called the Fillmore site a better option than one proposed to the north.
But while even the aspect of a hotel is uncertain, reaction to the mere mention of tearing down the Fillmore has been intense.
Thousands have taken to Facebook to protest a potential demolition of the recently renovated 60-year-old venue and some city commissioners are hesitant to embrace a vision that erases the place where Gleason announced weekly that Miami Beach audiences were the greatest in the world.
"This came out of left field for me," Commissioner Michael Gongora said.
The idea surfaced this month, when Arquitectonica planners noted that the Fillmore site would place a convention center hotel next to the New World Symphony building and the to-be constructed Lincoln Park.
Drawbacks, however, include demolishing the former Miami Beach Auditorium, where The Jackie Gleason Show was taped beginning in the mid-1960s.
Gleason's widow, Marilyn Taylor Gleason, said she will "shed a tear" if the venue comes down. But the Fort Lauderdale-area resident also said the city's convention center expansion plan should be weighed on its merits and her late husband's ghost alone shouldn't stand in the way of plans for a convention center revamp.
"I don't think sentiment should really come into it in that sense," she said.
Gleason's time in South Florida is remembered fondly by many.
Gleason, the Honeymooners and variety show star who hollered "and awaaay we go," came to Miami Beach in 1964 when WTVJ-TV founder Mitchell Wolfson and publicist Hank Meyer convinced him to move his show and TV company from New York to Miami Beach.
Gleason filmed his show there until 1970. He was a enthusiastic promoter for Miami Beach, historian Paul George said.
"He would go on and on about how he loved it down here," George said.
But regardless of the history that happened there, the venue does not qualify as historic, according to William Cary, head of historic preservation for Miami Beach. Substantial modifications have been made to the building since its 1950 construction, Cary said -- too significant to warrant historic protection.
Still, some, including Commissioner Deede Weithorn, feel Gleason's time in the venue carries weight.
"Maybe it's not historic, but it's certainly iconic," she said.
Others are expected to weigh in, including the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday and the community during a May 13 workshop.
Discussion of the theater's possible end is a dramatic turnaround from 2007 when Cirque du Soleil and concert promoters Live Nation and AEG Live talked of turning the venue into a world-class facility. Cirque du Soleil dropped its bid at the last minute and Live Nation ultimately signed a contract through at least the summer of 2017.
The company reportedly spent $3.5 million in renovations leading up to the theater's 2007 reopening as The Fillmore, where acts from Jay-Z to Earth Wind & Fire and Pat Metheny have performed.
Live Nation indicated last week that it is willing to talk about a Fillmore demolition. Financial reports show the company lost about $700,000 during the first two years on the venue, and the city expects numbers for 2009 will show another loss.
City Manager Jorge Gonzalez said a theater could be included in a new hotel and people shouldn't take an "either or" approach to the proposal, which has driven more than 5,000 to join Darren Bruck's Save the Fillmore Facebook group.
"They did a great job renovating it and it's a fantastic place to see a show," said Bruck, who lives in Mid-Beach. "To hear news that it may be torn down was pretty frustrating."
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