Ace Theater in Coconut Grove, once the heart of South Florida’s black community that has hosted movies, graduations, proms and touring shows but has been closed for decades, is on the verge of to reopen, thanks to the recognition of the National Park Service.
The Park Service, in a new program to preserve sites linked to the country’s equal rights battles, awarded $ 398,199 to the Ace Theater Foundation, the Miami nonprofit that works to preserve and the restoration of the theater at 3664 Grand Ave. The foundation was one of six projects nationwide received a grant under the Park Service’s History of Equal Rights program. The grants, awarded earlier this year, totaled $ 2.4 million.
“This grant from the National Park Service is truly a blessing from God!” said Patricia Wooten, President of the Ace Theater Foundation. “The Ace Theater Foundation will provide a venue to share the rich history of Coconut Grove and the Miami Black community with the greater Miami community.”
Heart of Grove’s Black Community
The Ace Theater was built in the 1930s by the Wolfson-Meyer Theater Company, which would become Wometco Enterprises. At the time, it was a “only color” theater during the Jim Crow era of the nation’s racial segregation. The Ace was one of six such theaters that Wometco built, owned and / or operated in Miami from 1925 to 1950, and the only one still standing, according to the report submitted to the National Register of Historic Places.
The Ace was the centerpiece of Grove’s long-established black community, Miami’s oldest, drawing customers far beyond Grand Avenue.
“Blacks from as far south as Homestead, sometimes even Key Largo, made the weekly Saturday or Sunday pilgrimage to ACE to feast on the double diets of the Elvis Presley, Hercules and Jason & the Argonauts films, Tom & Jerry and Looney Toons cartoons. Before each feature film, black and white reels of Fats Domino, hair slicked back and dressed in an ironed suit, moaned: “I found my thrill, on Blueberry Hill,” according to report presented to the Preservation Council history and environment of the city of Miami. .
Today, Ace is owned by the Ace Development Company, whose directors are Dorothy Wallace and her daughter, Dr. Denise Wallace, a third generation Grovite who remembers the influence theater had on people’s lives. .
“Every time I opened the door, someone would walk by and say, ‘May I look inside?’ And they’d say, ‘Oh my God, I was setting right there.’ They were showing where they were sitting. To see them transported back in time, it was just magical, ” said Denise.
Denise’s father Harvey Wallace, who moved to South Florida from Macon, Georgia with his family in the early 1920s when he was 2 and would become a prominent black businessman in the Grove, bought the theater in 1979. Wometco closed the theater in the 1970s.
Wallace dreamed of building a five-story Bahamian market with shops on the ground floor, an auditorium / entertainment on the second floor, and apartments on the upper floors.
But the McDuffie Riots in Miami in 1980, which impacted access to capital for black businesses, and a nationwide recession killed those plans. Wallace, who was the first director of Coconut Grove Local Development Corp., an agency formed by the City of Miami to revitalize Grove’s black business community, died of cancer at age 67 in 1988, never seeing his dream come true.
“He loved Coconut Grove,” his widow, Dorothy, now 92, said in Harvey’s Herald obituary. “He felt there was no place in this universe that had more advantages.”
Dorothy and Denise were determined to keep Harvey’s dream alive. They researched the history of the theater and presented their findings to the City of Miami Historical and Environmental Preservation Council, which designated the Ace a historic site in 2014.
“For those of us familiar with ACE, it becomes much more than a holdover from yesterday’s apartheid fading away,” Denise, president of Ace Development Co., wrote in a statement. importance presented to the board of directors. “ACE shelters our pain when we saw Sammy Davis, Jr. standing alongside The Rat Pack and realized he couldn’t sleep in the same hotel as the others. ACE shines with our smiles and pride as we applaud our children who accept graduation certificates. ACE shook with laughter as we watched the Tom and Jerry cartoons, always in favor of the mouse. ACE helped shape our courage as we applauded when Mighty Mouse came to save the day. “
In 2016, the mother-daughter duo listed the Ace in the National Register of Historic Places, a truly remarkable achievement.
The Ace is a ‘rare surviving resource from Coconut Grove’s [racially] past segregated and, as such, meets the exceptional standard, ”according to the US Secretary of the Interior’s report on the historic designation. “The clean design details are consistent with the Art Deco style common in the 1930s. Despite some minor deterioration, the building retains its character and integrity. Owner, ACE Development Company, Inc. is currently looking to rehabilitate the building, which is easily the most recognizable landmark in the historically African-American section of Coconut Grove.
Pioneers in the West Grove
The Wallace family is steeped in Coconut Grove history, stretching back five to six generations.
Dorothy, originally from Missouri, met Harvey while attending Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. They got married and moved to Coconut Grove. She broke many racial barriers, including being one of two black women to enter the University of Miami’s School of Education in 1963, earning a master’s degree in guidance and counseling.
Dorothy has worked as a teacher, counselor, vice-principal and administrator in the Miami-Dade School District for over 30 years. She was a long-time administrator of COPE Center South, 10225 SW 147th Terrace in Richmond Heights, a school and daycare for pregnant teens and teen parents, now called the Dorothy M. Wallace Cope Center.
Denise, a lawyer, attended Frances Tucker Elementary School, GW Carver Middle School and graduated from Our Lady of Lourdes Academy. She worked as an assistant lawyer for the city of Miami before embarking on a legal career as a general lawyer at the university level. Today, she is Vice President of Legal Affairs and General Counsel of Florida A&M University in Tallahassee and returns regularly to Grove, where she was Vice President of the Coconut Grove Village Council.
The National Park Service grant will be used to begin the gradual restoration of the theater, focusing on the marquee and structural components, to bring the building up to code.
“Finally find his voice”
For Denise, preserving and restoring the Ace, amid West Grove’s gentrification and its dwindling supply of shotgun homes, is especially gratifying.
“The face of Grand Avenue is changing so drastically that the Ace will likely be the only building left to say that’s where we were,” she said. “The theater will finally find its voice. He has been silent for so long. Now he is finally preparing to speak.
And while the roots of theater represent a dark side of American history, preserving that history is important in teaching future generations about the battles black people have fought for equal and civil rights.
“We’re actually talking about commemorating Jim Crow,” she said. “But we cannot ignore it. If we had to erase it by destroying it, what would we have done with this story? Replace it with a plaque saying this is where we were?
She thinks her father would be happy.
“My dad was the perfect Coconut Grovite,” she recalls wistfully. “He loved Coconut Grove. To see that the building is still standing and that it will eventually be used, he would be proud. He would be proud.
Miami Herald staff writer Joan Chrissos contributed to this report.
Send questions and suggestions for programming and events to Nichelle Haymore at [email protected] or 786-423-5841. Dorothy Jenkins Fields, Ph.D, is a historian and founder of the Black Archives, History & Research Foundation of South Florida Inc. Contact her at [email protected]