The Olympia Theatre - Miami, FL

Construction of the Olympia Theater on East Flagler Street at SE 2nd Ave. - 1925
Photo by W. A. Fishbaugh courtesy Florida Memory Project

John Eberson, born in Cernauti, Bukovina in 1875, a region of Romania, was the master of “atmospheric” theater design.  The atmospheric theaters give the illusion of sitting in an exotic setting and reflected his European heritage, especially in statuary and interior motifs. In addition, Eberson's theater interiors contained landscape and garden influences with numerous fountains and grottoes.1  Built in 1925 by Paramount, the Olympia Theatre at 174 E. Flagler Street, in Miami, Florida, is one of the few Eberson buildings still standing. 

Construction of the Olympia Theater on East Flagler Street - 1925
Photo by W. A. Fishbaugh courtesy Florida Memory Project

The Olympia Theater after the 1926 hurricane
Photo by W. A. Fishbaugh courtesy Florida Memory Project

The Olympia, with its 10 stories of office space, is noted as being the first air-conditioned building in the South. The exterior is brick faced with terra cotta and has wrought iron detail.

The Olympia Theater on East Flagler Street - 1928
Photo by W. A. Fishbaugh courtesy Florida Memory Project

Ticket booth - 1926
Photo by W. A. Fishbaugh courtesy Florida Memory Project

The theater first opened in February of 1926 as a roughly 2000 seat silent movie palace and amazed the public with its stunning Moorish architecture, perfect acoustics and simulated night sky - complete with rolling clouds and twinkling stars.

Interior views of the Olympia Theater on East Flagler Street - 1926
Photos by W. A. Fishbaugh courtesy Florida Memory Project

From 1929-1954, the theatre featured vaudeville performances. In 1954, it was converted back to a movie theatre.

On August 3, 1956 Elvis, Scotty, Bill, and DJ began a tour of shows in Florida and New Orleans with performances at the Olympia.  It had been a month since their last performance, at Russwood Park in Memphis on July 4, during which time Scotty and Bill's salary had been reduced to $100 a week since they weren't working.  According to Scotty in his book, in Miami, Elvis told reporters he was tired of being called the "Pelvis."  He had picked up the hip slinging moniker earlier in the summer from Pinckney Keel, a reporter with the Clarion-Ledger, a Jackson, Mississippi, morning newspaper. Keel had done a 15 minute interview with Elvis and was headed back to the newsroom when the phrase "Elvis the Pelvis" popped in his mind.  To Elvis' displeasure, the tag stuck.

The review of Friday's opening show by Denne Petitclerc in the Miami Herald read, Elvis Presley, a big shouldered kid in a pink coat and long black pants, staggered onto the stage at the Olympia Theater Friday like a drunken Brando.  And the mob, which stretched way up into the darkness of the theater, stood up and shrieked. Even when Marciano was belting the sense out of Moore in the ball park in New York there was no such shriek. It vibrated the air, piercing everything like a trillion tiny knives in the dimness.2

Oh, go man, go!" one girl in shorts screamed, her frantic hands at her black hair, eyes stunned and face contorted. And how they screamed. Presley jogged around the mike, and opened his mouth, and the mob drowned the sound away. He loosened his white tie and licked his lips and tried again, but the jam of teenage girls wouldn't let his voice go.2

They had started lining up outside the theater at midnight Thursday. Before noon Friday, the crowd had grown into a line around the block, and then packed the theater to standing room, waiting just to see this mumbling, swaying kid in the pink coat.  The bedlam trembled. "I want you," sang Presley, "I need you..."2

Ad in Miami Daily News - Aug. 3, 1956

Elvis and the crowd at Olympia Theater - Aug. 1956
Photo courtesy Web

Elvis and the crowd at Olympia Theater - Aug. 1956
Photo courtesy FECC/Elton

The mob of girls surged to the stage, where they knelt, arms upraised. A band of policemen, who were shaking their heads in disbelief, rushed in and pried the kids from the stage. Presley smiled, his shaggy brown hair began to fall like a horse's mane, and even that brought a thundering of delighted squeals.2

"Nothing like it since Sinatra started," one cop said. "I don't see how these kids can get so excited." Excitement was the word. Among the hundreds of teenage girls, some clutched photographs of Presley fondly, others wore straw cowboy hats, others had magazines with his picture printed brightly on the front. And on the stage, the kid in the pink coat closed his eyes and strummed his guitar and swayed passionately. "I need you-oo, I want you-oo." And a 1956 hysteria swelled and smashed away the sound of his music.2

Stage Door Glimpse of Elvis Starts Riot - Aug. 3, 1956
Miami News Photo by Charles Trainor

Other reviewers had less flattering takes on the shows.  The Miami Daily News reported,  After the first Olympia Theater appearance of the shouting shake-dancer, known to teenagers as "The Pelvis," a crowd estimated at 2000 became hysterical, tried to break a police line in rush for the SE 2nd Avenue stage entrance when Presley was seen briefly at an upstairs fire escape door. Police, losing to waving fans later regained ground in a big push back to the sidewalk line at the barber pole (top right in photo). The street was blocked off. What's all the fuss about? Fans wanted just a signature or sign from the vaudeville Valentino. 3

Bill and Elvis onstage at the Olympia - Aug 3, 1956

Miami News Photo by Charles Trainor courtesy FECC/TIGERMAN-GB

Elvis and Bill onstage at the Olympia - Aug 3, 1956

Miami News Photo by Charles Trainor courtesy FECC/TIGERMAN-GB

Jack Anderson, the Herald's Radio and TV editor wrote, Elvis Presley, the tousle headed high priest of a momentary (everybody old enough to vote sincerely hopes) teenage cult in which the litany is a sustained scream, made his Miami debut Friday at the Olympic Theater. Don't ask this reviewer what the Tennessee wonder sang. And if anyone of the 2000 kids who packed the theater tries to tell you, he's spoofing. Nothing very much was audible on stage.4

 Elvis and Bill onstage at the Olympia - Aug 3, 1956

Miami News Photo by Charles Trainor courtesy Time & Life Pictures

Scotty, Elvis and Bill onstage at the Olympia - Aug 3, 1956

Miami News Photo by Don Wright and Charles Trainor

From the time Elvis staggered (he staggers more than he wiggles) into the spotlight until he left, the auditorium was filled with an unrelenting high pitched shriek which must have made the old theater's stuffed peacocks start molting. I heard only one word of one song -- the opening song. The word was "This..." The rest of that song and the others which followed were covered up by the tumult. You wonder why the kids put out a buck and a half to hear him until the celebrated Presley body movements get under way.4

Elvis onstage at the Olympia - Aug 3, 1956

Miami News Photo by Don Wright and Charles Trainor

Scotty, Elvis, DJ and Bill onstage at the Olympia - Aug 3, 1956

Miami News Photo by Don Wright and Charles Trainor

These movements have been damned by writers from coast to coast as contributing to the delinquency of our minors. It may be that Elvis' joints weren't well oiled Friday but I found them more hilarious than lascivious.  Most of the time he stands on stage with his feet spread apart and sways clumsily back and forth clinging to the microphone which he whips up and down like a pump handle.4

Elvis onstage at the Olympia - Aug 3, 1956

Miami News Photo by Don Wright courtesy FECC/ColinB

Elvis onstage at the Olympia - Aug 3, 1956

Miami News Photo by Charles Trainor courtesy FECC/E-Cat

When he really gets with it, his alleged indecencies consist of awkward knee dips, foot twistings and a sort of overall palsy. Its all about as erotic as the courting session of a pair of whoopings.4

Elvis onstage at the Olympia - Aug 3, 1956

Miami News Photo by Charles Trainor

Presley is preceded on the show by singers Frankie Connors and Nancy Ford; The Headliners, an instrumental group; the Jordanaires vocal group, which also takes part in Presley's act, and a comedian-magician, Frank Maraquin. Elvis will be on hand again today. The shows are at 1:30, 3:30, 7 and 9 p.m.4

Backstage at the Olympia
Photo courtesy Gusman Archive

Del Puschert and Elvis backstage cutting up ripped pants
Photoplay magazine photos by Stan Wayman courtesy FECC/ Brian Petersen

Fans in line on SE 2nd Ave catching fragments of clothing
Photoplay magazine photo courtesy FECC/ Brian Petersen

Del Puschert, a tenor Saxophone player from Maryland, had first met Elvis, Scotty and Bill in Texarkana in 1954 or 1955 while they were still performers of and enroute to the Louisiana Hayride.  Del was now, by this time, attending barber school in Miami.  He was part of the local union band put together to augment the tour orchestra backing the acts performing in Miami at the Olympia this tour.  He was backstage with Elvis when pants torn by the crowd were cut up and then tossed to the fans in line from an upper window of the theater overlooking SE 2nd Avenue across from the Ingraham Building.

Saturday's Ad in the Miami News - Aug. 4, 1956

Miami News Staff Writer Damon Runyon Jr. called the show obscene and contrived in his review.   He wrote, For the second day Elvis Presley, the vaudeville Valentino, rocked along his bumpy road to success here today after his fanatical followers engaged in a small scale street riot. More than 8800 fans, ranging from agitated adolescents to old ladies fallen from Liberace's grace, were expected to shriek, rattle and roll again at Presley's shake dancing in the Olympia Theater. Police were braced for the most exuberant exhibition audience fantods in the afternoon shows, 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. which usually are the stomping grounds for the youngest affected by Presley.5

Scotty and Elvis onstage at the Olympia - Aug 4, 1956
Photo courtesy FECC/hilton22000

Young girls (many less than teen age), not a few youths, and even a number of elderly deserters from Liberace's ranks, witnessed their "lover boy," as they call him do the most obscene burlesque dance this reporter has seen in more than 20 years of getting around.  From the theater wings it was possible to see that the 21 year old Presley's ribald routine is not of the emotions, as he's been telling the press around the country -- his pelvic performance is clearly contrived. Also far from fervor of the uncontrolled type are his other million dollar stage mannerisms -- the slack jawed gibberish, the glassy gape of a hypnotized hillbilly, the unmannered gesture of wiping the nose, the staggering and shaking as if he'd a bad fit.5

Scotty and Elvis onstage at the Olympia - Aug 4, 1956
Photo courtesy FECC/hilton22000

Toward the end of his last 20 minute performance late last night we witnessed from the wings his quick glance at his wristwatch.  At the time he was as far as the screaming audience could see, in the process of a convulsion that a psychiatrist would find interesting. However, a psychiatrist, like the reporter, would probably be engaged in studying the audience hysteria, which had even Presley grinning from time to time.  There was nothing wrong with Presley that a count of his money won't cure.  Maybe that's why he grinned.5

Elvis onstage at the Olympia - Aug 4, 1956
Photo courtesy FECC/hilton22000

It was after the first of yesterday's three capacity rock-'n'-riot performances--which fetched a total 7,000 jumping jacks and jills -- that about 2,000 almost broke a police line to rush the stage door. The teeming teeners, who turned from screaming to scheming for a glimpse or grasp at their hero of Heartbreak Hotel, blocked SE 2nd Avenue at about 5 p.m. as stable citizens were jammed in rush hour traffic.5

Fans getting over excited and managing to tear Elvis' lavender (pink) jacket
Photoplay magazine photo courtesy FECC/Brian Petersen

During one of the performances at the Olympia, the fans close to the stage got hold of Elvis lavender (pink) jacket and tore parts of it from him.  In a retrospective article in the Miami Herald on the 50th Anniversary of the Miami concert, Margaria Fichtner quoted local Miami historian Arva Moore Parks who was in line waiting to see the show, "The line from the box office zigzagged for blocks, and I was standing right about where the side door of the Gusman is. So the first show came out, and there were grown women, I mean not teenagers, carrying pieces of his pink coat."6

Fans getting over excited and managing to tear Elvis' lavender (pink) jacket
Photoplay magazine photo courtesy FECC/ Brian Petersen

When asked recently, Arva recalled, I remember a pink jacket but that was a very long time ago and I was quite young. I would have been standing right where this picture (of the clothes being tossed) was taken. I do not remember pieces of his clothes being thrown to the crowd. I remember people coming out of the theater with a piece of his clothing in their hand. I cannot say if I was there on Friday or Saturday. I am sure I was there at the last show because it was nighttime and I was waiting in line in the dark.

z5603ripoff37oh.jpg (56735 bytes)
Fans getting over excited and managing to tear Elvis' lavender (pink) jacket

Photoplay magazine photo courtesy FECC/ Brian Petersen

All the reviews of the opening performance on Friday mention the pink (lavender) jacket and black pants but the photos in Saturday's morning papers show Elvis only dressed in dark clothes, which would suggest they were taken at evening performances on Friday.  Subsequently, other photos show Elvis in the pink (lavender) jacket and light colored pants, as do the photos of the crowd ripping it from him.  This would suggest that Arva was there on Saturday.  In any case, both the remnants of the jacket and pants went home with Del Puschert and wound up in a trunk at his mother's house in Hollywood, Florida.  After her passing, Del found them and has since displayed them in his Annapolis barber shop.

Remnants of Elvis' coat and pants on display in Del's Barber Shop - 2003
Photo by Nikole Albowicz courtesy Maryland Newsline

In addition to the jacket and pants, Elvis also had to replace his new Lavender Lincoln while in Miami.  Brian Petersen in "The Atomic Powered Singer" wrote, his fans got to his brand new Lincoln Premiere and wrote endearing notes all over the car. Elvis turned the car in for an all white Continental Mark II at the local Lincoln Mercury dealer. The new car was in the $10,000.00 and over class and provided an added touch of distinction to the Presley driveway parked alongside his three remaining Cadillacs.

Press Scimitar photo courtesy Brian Petersen's "The Atomic Powered Singer"

courtesy FECC/Terry

During the seven performances in the two days in Miami, Elvis performed to approximately 15,000 fans.  It is probably no surprise then with review(er)s and events like these from Miami, when coupled with the events that happened the year before in Jacksonville, that Judge Marion Gooding was having cause for concern about Elvis' upcoming appearance at the Florida Theater less than a week away.

Margaria, in her article, also wrote, Elvis "was on his way to somewhere else,'' says biographer Peter Guralnick, who details the Miami gig in Last Train to Memphis. ``This was really the tail end of his touring of the South. He'd been doing that for almost two years. . . . But now, you know, the Florida tour was really an interlude on his way to making the first movie, which was, in essence, the end for almost 15 years of his career as a live performer.''5

Box office and Marquee at the Olympia - c 2005
Photo courtesy web

After many years of showing films, the theatre was nearly demolished for a parking lot but was purchased in 1970 by Maurice Gusman for the Miami Philharmonic Orchestra. Renamed as the Maurice Gusman Cultural Center, the theater reoperned in 1972. In 1975, the theatre was donated to the City of Miami and underwent an extensive renovation from 1975-1977, in part, by the famed architect Morris Lapidus

Photo by Dan Forer courtesy Gusman Center for the Performing Arts

Photo by Dan Forer courtesy Gusman Center for the Performing Arts

By the late 1990s virtually every structural system of the theater was in need of repair and replacement. The roof had several leaks that had damaged the theater’s historic paint and plaster as well as the seating and carpeting in the auditorium. The HVAC system had to be entirely replaced. Electrical, sound systems, and plumbing all required upgrades.

While the structural repairs were underway additional projects were launched to make the theater more attractive to promoters. The stage was enlarged and new lighting and audio equipment were installed. The theater’s already sublime acoustic properties were left intact. Today, as the restoration work nears completion, the venue has retained its stature – just as it was in 1926.  The building, now the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Aerial images of SE 2nd Ave. stage entrance
Photos courtesy Microsoft Corporation © EathData

page added May 23, 2008

1 courtesy The John Eberson Collection
2 "Ocean of Screams Breaks Over Elvis" by Herald Staff Writer Denne Petitclerc, Miami Herald, Aug. 4, 1956 page 1a
3 "Stage Door Glimpse of Elvis Starts 'Riot'" Miami Daily News Photo caption, August 4, 1956
4 "Were Presley's Joints Jumpin? Bah!" By Jack E. Anderson, Herald Radio-TV Editor, Miami Herald, Aug. 4, 1956
"Elvis' Dance 'Obscene,' 'Contrived' to Runyon" by Damon Runyon Jr. Miami News staff writer, Miami News Blue Streak edition Aug 4, 1956
6 "Fans still love him 'true,' 50 years after S. Fla. debut" by Margaria Fichtner, Miami Herald, Aug 3, 2006 courtesy Elvis Information Network

Much of the history of the actual theater itself presented here was obtained from several sources on the web, particularly the website for the Gusman Center of the Performing Arts.

1956 Miami News and Herald ads and articles courtesy John Shipley, Reference Librarian - Helen Muir Florida Collection Miami-Dade Public Library System

Photos from Miami's Olympia Theater from contact sheets courtesy Ger Rijff








Photos added March 25, 2009


Miami Daily News - August 4, 1956

Hey, Gals! Elvis has 2 Steadies 
by Sandy Schnier and Damon Runyon Jr.

Elvis Presley, the rock 'n' roll Romeo millions of girls scream about, is "going steady" with two of them. At the moment, The Miami News was informed, one has the upper hand. She's a shapely Biloxi brunette who was passed through police lines to Presley's Olympia Theater dressing room where she reportedly stroked his brow between stage shows.

Before millions of apparent losers throw hysterics and maybe hit someone, possibly Presley, we hasten to add that this first report on his romances comes from the Mississippi miss herself. Furthermore, June Juanico, 18, the Biloxi beauty whom Presley evidently prefers to aspirin, admitted that Elvis is as unsteady in love as he is on the stage.

"It would be nice if Elvis loved me as much as I love him," June sighed. "But right now he is married to his career and he isn't thinking of marriage." "If Elvis doesn't marry it'd be a sin to let something like that go to waste."

A blue- eyed girl built on the order of the Mississippi River - long and with lots of curves - June sportingly reported that Presley has another "steady," a 19 year old Memphis miss. "So," she confessed, "its hard to tell whether I'm No. 1 or No. 2 in his life - but I'm happy being one or the other."

June, whose hair is bobbed Italian-style, said she's going on the Presley tour of six Florida cities and New Orleans. But when he returns to Memphis, she said, "I don't know just what I'll do."

Interviewed by The News in the tunnel underneath the Olympia stage, June explained she met the rising young guitar holder and shake dancer in Biloxi a year ago. She added, "I went backstage to see him and saw a big crowd, so I went to the ladies room. When I came out -- there he was. "Within five minutes he asked me to show him the town. I accepted, naturally. We went to see two or three floor shows in night clubs. "I knew then that this was the real thing.

"Well you know how love is. Eight months went by and I never heard from him. No letters or anything. Then I went to Memphis and it started all over again. "He's a wonderful guy when you know him, I mean if you really know him, real deep down under he's a real warm individual and treats everyone so nice."

She can't miss a show. Overhead, while June was talking and posing for us deep down under the stage, Presley was warming up and she didn't want to miss even one performance. Standing in the wings with her, we noticed that June didn't scream like the other girls. She only bounced a bit (rather well, too) while Presley did standing knee jerks for the audience.

We asked why the girls, especially the younger set, threw such hysterics -- and how come she didn't scream. Without missing a knee jerk or bounce June replied, "If you were a member of the opposite sex you'd appreciate him, too. And I do feel like screaming."

article include with original page May 23, 2008


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