A combination of earlier magazine work and new blog posts

Three-Ring Circus

Cirque du Soleil’s ambitious plan to recast the Jackie Gleason Theatre in its own image could get tricky.

 

Thursday, September 1st, should have been the early start of the Labor Day holiday, but instead, many were transfixed by the unfolding tragedy in New Orleans. The New York Times that day detailed the grim situation: “Chaos gripped New Orleans as looters ran wild, food and water supplies dwindled, bodies floated in the floodwaters, the evacuation of the Super- dome began and officials said there was no choice but to abandon the city devastated by Hurricane Katrina, perhaps for months.”

 

That afternoon, there was a meeting of several dozen of Miami Beach’s shakers and movers in the conference room of Jorge Gonzalez, the City Manager. There, the five City Commissioners, entertainment executives and local convention and tourism leaders gathered to discuss an ambitious proposal to transform the venerable Jackie Gleason Theater. New Orleans was mentioned only once. Commissioner Luis Garcia, Jr., told the group, In light of what has happened in New Orleans, we have a great opportunity to take over some of the business that would have gone to New Orleans in the next couple of years. That is why it is important for us going forward to have a project like this.” It was good to know that no matter how great the national tragedy, nothing was going to derail Miami Beach from the business of business.

 

What had gotten everyone, including us, crammed into the fourth-floor conference room was a bold initiative by Cirque du Soleil-the French-Canadian theatrical troupe that has built a $600-million-a-year empire combining daredevil acrobatics, lavish productions and cutting-edge technology-to convert the Gleason into a $150 million entertainment complex of restaurants and shops, with the centerpiece a permanent show in a redone 1,700-seat theater. The Montreal-based Cirque had teamed with The Related Group of Florida’s Jorge Perez, South Florida’s luxury-condo king, and entertainment behemoth Clear Channel Communications for a slick audio-visual presentation.

Cirque picked a good time to make its offer. The Gleason loses $400,000 a year, and its biggest bookings, the Miami City Ballet and the Broadway Series-responsible for half its income-are moving across the causeway in 2006 to Miami’s Performing Arts Center.

“The things I have been going to there are moving out,” former City Commissioner Nancy Liebman told us.

“They should have thought of that before they built a $750 million performing-arts center,” says Roger Abramson, a local artist and member of the Cultural Arts Council. “They should be thinking of other ways to use it as a public theater instead of giving it over to three very rich corporations.”

“But it’s also what is best for the Beach,” Ray Breslin, chairman of the Collins Park Neighborhood Association, told us. “We are a tourist destination, and we have to opt for what tourists want. It’s plain and simple.”

“I’m 100 percent for Cirque du Soleil coming to Miami Beach,” says South Beach nightlife impresario Michael Capponi. But then he ominously cautions: “I am 1,000 percent against any nightclub components, especially paid by a resort tax, which might compete with our industry, which generates a mass amount of revenue for the City of Miami Beach.” In fact, will this new Cirque complex contain businesses that operate after midnight? Is this a Trojan horse or a Pandora’s box? ‘There can be no super nightclubs,” he adds. ‘This is a 50,000-square-foot space. Can you imagine the damage this would do to our industry?”

But for Miami Beach’s leaders fretting about even bigger losses at the Gleason, Cirque’s presentation was tailor-made. When the show Mystere opened 12 years ago in Las Vegas, “there was no money from entertainment,” according to Cirque president Daniel Lamarre. “It all came from gambling. Now we are sold out almost every night. Two-hundred people a day are waiting to get tickets to O.”

It is hard to argue with the figures. Zumanity premiered two years ago at Vegas’ New York-New York and improved the casino’s profitability by 25 percent. a which Lamarre calls the “most extravagant live show in the world,” cost $115 million to produce, on top of $105 million for the custom-built theater. It has sold out since its opening last year, and the MGM Grand, where it’s based, has increased its profits by 13 percent. 0 was a $92 million production, and the Bellagio spent $100 million on building the theater to Cirque’s specifications. Cirque’s four Vegas shows sell 67,000 tickets weekly at an average price of $100, ranging from a low of $60 at Treasure Island’s Mystere to $150 at O and KA.

Orlando-based La Nouba is in its seventh year but still fills _90 percent of its seats and brings 4,000 customers a day to Disney’s boutiques and restaurants. Cirque has become to circuses what Starbucks is to coffee. In addition to troupes crisscrossing continents and five permanent venues, more is on the way. A Beatles-themed show debuts next June in Vegas, and yet another one in Orlando. Tokyo Disney will have its own production in 2007. Cirque is also in late stage negotiations with New York, Paris, London and Macao and they’re beginning talks with Chicago. “I want to select my words carefully not to sound arrogant,” said Lamarre, “but I feel every city is seeking us.”

No Beach official seemed bothered that despite its enormous success, Cirque is facing growing competition from a number of entertainment spectaculars: Wynn’s $110 million LeR’eve example, is an aquatic Cirque knockoff design by Franco Dragone, who had created nine of Cirque’s early shows before striking out on his own. These have forced Cirque to spend lavishly to stay ahead of its imitators and keep its theaters filled. KA cost more than all 32 current Broadway productions combined. With a dozen shows soon to be running simultaneously, some analysts see a risk that Cirque could saturate the market for its ethereal brand of amusement “There are only so many touring shows and productions they can stage,” says Robert David, a professor of business strategy at Montreal’s McGill University. “There is a limit and they’re getting pretty close.”

But by the time Lamarre told City leaders that five percent of Las Vegas’s $38 million annual tourists said the reason they visited was to see a Cirque show, he had the room eating out of his hand. Then Johnny Boivin, who helped create Cirque’s O show, promised a striking tent-like theater with “walls that sweat,” cloud-topped roof, and a façade resembling a jewelry box. Cirque’s Miami production would cost $50 million, he said, and would celebrate “dance Latin music rhythms characteristics of Miami Beach’s reinvention of Havana’s Tropicana spectacular.”

But not all are convinced. One Beach power broker spoke off-the-record to us: “Culturally, Las Vegas is a joke. Cirque is the modern-day Ice Capades, that’s all. Feel-good family entertainment. Don’t forget, Jackie Gleason is the cultural heart of our city-and we’re turning it over to a bunch of trapeze artists and jugglers?” Still, if there was any concern that day among City leaders who might have wondered if all this would just convert the Beach into Orlando South, Related’s Perez delivered the knockout punch.

“Guy (Laliberte, Cirque’s founder] and Daniel are the foremost creative people in the entertainment business today,” Perez said. And no City official challenged Perez when he asserted, “Las Vegas has gone from 80- percent gambling to 80 percent being the shows, and Cirque is the biggest.” (According to the most recent Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority statistics, 49 percent of Clark County revenue comes from – gaming, with 51 percent coming from entertainment) Promising an extravaganza that would last 15 or 20 years, Perez predicted that a permanent Cirque show would “be a tremendous demand generator for local hotels and restaurants…and will anchor Miami Beach as a world-class tourist destination. When I travel to Milan, I ask what is playing at La Scala. I want people coming to Miami Beach to say, ‘I am coming because of Cirque.’”

Of course, there would be a price for all of this, such as the effect on the community from nightly traffic congestion caused by 1,700 theatergoers, noise from the complex’s outdoor venues and restaurants, and neighborhood disruption during the two years of construction, particularly since Cirque’s reformation of the Gleason would coincide with another enormous nearby project, the New World Symphony’s interactive performance space by architecture megastar Frank Gehry.

Stuart Blumberg, president of the Greater Miami & the Beaches Hotel Association, made it clear that to many locals the Jackie Gleason has a storied past “Will the name Gleason still be on the theater?” he asked. ‘To those of us who still believe in historical preservation and tradition, this complex is due to one man who was a great part of Miami Beach history, and I for one would be very upset if Jackie’s name was taken off that theater. It is a situation near and dear to a lot of people in this community.”

The theater was born in 1950 as the Miami Beach Auditorium and was home for both golden-era legends and boxing matches. But it gained its greatest fame when Gleason moved his wildly popular television variety show from New York to the Beach in 1964. His show was broadcast in front of live audiences until 1970, with Gleason always closing by proclaiming, “The Miami Beach audience is the greatest audience in the world.” Since then, the theater-renamed the Gleason in 1987-has been a regular stop for touring Broadway productions, dance troupes, award shows and musical performance.

While Cirque’s executives seemed uncomfortable with Blumberg’s assertion, Perez came to the rescue. “Yes, good point. I think we are intending to call it Cirque du Soleil at the Jackie Gleason Theater.”

But social effects and historic preservation are only part of the bill; the other is money. In Vegas and Orlando, the casinos and Disney foot all the development costs for the show and theater. In Miami Beach, Cirque and its partners would contribute $50 million. [Cash, Perez emphasized]. And want the city to fund the rest, about $100 million. Commission candidate Gabrielle Redfern suggested a voters referendum be held before using so much taxpayer money, but the city manager’s office shut her down, saying no vote was required.

Here’s the sticky part: Cirque is counting on $55 million in Miami-Dade County bond funds approved by voters last November, but that money was approved ostensibly to fund a 50,000-square-foot banquet facility at the Miami Beach Convention Center.

But any debate was quashed by Gonzalez, the City Manager, who announced firmly that the $55 million was passed for “the enhancement or expansion of the convention center. It never said ‘ballroom.’ Obviously, we will have to speak to the County about it, but I believe the bond language allows this to be the ultimate, sole decision of the City.”

The two-hour meeting ended with simply with a unanimous vote by City Commissioners directing Gonzalez to work out financial details with Cirque and its partners, but City officials might be in for a surprise. After the Cirque meeting, we called County Manager George Burgess, who plays a key role in how Miami- Dade bond money is spent We asked if anyone from Miami Beach or Cirque had called him.

“No one,” he said. “Never heard from anyone.”

And what about that $55 million? “It’s clear the intent was always to provide for a large banquet facility,” he said. “And that is not something I made up. Miami Beach hoteliers have always talked about a larger banquet facility, but for some reason it never gets done. That money was not approved for Cirque du Soleil.” And what about Gonzalez declaring that the Beach could unilaterally decide how to spend that money?

“Well, I’m sorry, it’s not his decision. It’s something the City cannot do on its own. If the City thinks that Cirque is a done deal, it’s not They are going to have to come to me and the County Commission board at some point”

Even all the magic conjured by Cirque might not be enough to avoid the bare-knuckle brawl that is often part of Miami politics when it comes to expensive public developments. And when $55 million is at stake, a lot of hands will try to divert it to their pet project. If Cirque opens at the Gleason in a couple of years, only then will you know with certainty that the gang from Montreal won.