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Coconut Grove’s Ace Theater, once the heart of South Florida’s Black community that hosted movies, graduations, proms and traveling stage shows but which has been shuttered for decades, is on the road to reopening, thanks to recognition by the National Park Service.
The Park Service, in a new program aimed at preserving sites related to the country’s equal rights battles, awarded $398,199 to the Ace Theater Foundation, the Miami nonprofit working to preserve and restore the theater at 3664 Grand Ave. The foundation was one of six projects nationwide awarded a grant under the Park Service’s History of Equal Rights program. The grants, awarded earlier this year, totaled $2.4 million.
“This National Parks Service Grant 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 Miami’s Black community with the greater Miami community.”
Heart of the 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 “colored only” theater during the nation’s Jim Crow era of 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 presented to the National Register of Historic Places.
The Ace was the centerpiece of the Grove’s long-established Black community, Miami’s oldest, attracting patrons far beyond Grand Avenue.
“Black folks from as far south as Homestead, sometimes even Key Largo, made the weekly Saturday or Sunday pilgrimage to the ACE to feast on double feature diets of Elvis Presley, Hercules, and Jason & the Argonauts movies, Tom & Jerry and Looney Toons cartoons. Before each feature, black and white reels of Fats Domino, his hair slicked back and wearing a pressed suit, wailed, ‘I found my thrill, on Blueberry Hill,’ according to the report presented to the city of Miami’s Historic and Environmental Preservation Board.
Today, the Ace is owned by the Ace Development Company, whose principals are Dorothy Wallace and her daughter, Dr. Denise Wallace, a third-generation Grovite who remembers the pull the theater had on people’s lives.
“Whenever I would open the door, somebody would come by and say, ‘Can I look inside?’ And they would say, ‘Oh My God, I would sit right there.’ They would point to where they sat. 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, purchased the theater in 1979. Wometco closed the theater in the 1970s.
Wallace dreamed of building a five-story Bahamian marketplace with retail on the ground floor, an auditorium/entertainment on the second floor, and apartments on the top 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 the Coconut Grove Local Development Corp., an agency formed by the city of Miami to revitalize the Grove’s Black business community, died of cancer at age 67 in 1988, never to see his dream materialize.
“He loved Coconut Grove,’’ his widow, Dorothy, now 92, said in the Herald’s obituary of Harvey. “He felt there was no place in this universe that had more going for it.”
Dorothy and Denise were determined to keep Harvey’s dream alive. They researched the theater’s history, presenting their findings to the city of Miami’s Historic and Environmental Preservation Board, which designated the Ace a historic site in 2014.
“For those of us who know the ACE, it becomes much more than a fading relic of yesterday’s apartheid,“ wrote Denise, president of Ace Development Co., in a Statement of Significance presented to the board. “The ACE houses our pain as we witnessed Sammy Davis, Jr. alongside the Rat Pack and realized that he could not sleep at the same hotel with the others. The ACE beams with our smiles and pride as we applaud our children accepting graduation diplomas. The ACE shook with our laughter as we watched Tom and Jerry cartoons, always rooting for the mouse. The ACE helped shape our courage as we cheered when Mighty Mouse came to save the day.”
In 2016, the mother-and daughter duo got the Ace listed on the National Register of Historic Places, quite a noteworthy accomplishment.
The Ace is a “rare surviving resource from Coconut Grove’s [racially] segregated past, and as such meets the exceptional standard,’’ according to the U.S. Secretary of Interior’s report on the historic designation. “The streamlined design details are consistent with the Art Deco style common in the 1930s. Despite some minor deterioration, the building retains character and integrity. The owner, ACE Development Company, Inc. currently seeks to rehabilitate the building, which is easily the most recognizable landmark in the historically African American section of the Coconut Grove.”
Pioneers in the West Grove
The Wallace family is steeped in Coconut Grove history, going back five to six generations.
Dorothy, a Missouri native, met Harvey while attending Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. They married and moved to Coconut Grove. She broke many racial barriers, including being one of two Black women to integrate the University of Miami’s School of Education in 1963, graduating with a master’s in guidance and counseling.
Dorothy worked as a teacher, counselor, assistant principal and administrator in the Miami-Dade school district for more than 30 years. She was the longtime administrator of COPE Center South, 10225 SW 147th Terrace in Richmond Heights, a school and childcare center for pregnant teens and teen parents, which is now called the Dorothy M. Wallace Cope Center.
Denise, an attorney, attended Frances Tucker Elementary, G.W. Carver Middle School and graduated from Our Lady of Lourdes Academy. She worked as an assistant city attorney for the city of Miami before carving out a legal career as general counsel on the university level. Today, she’s vice president of legal affairs and general counsel for Florida A&M University in Tallahassee and returns regularly to the Grove, where she served as the vice chair of the Coconut Grove Village Council.
The National Park Service grant will be used to begin phased restoration of the theater, focusing on the marquee and structural components, getting the building up to code.
‘Finally get its voice again’
For Denise, preserving and restoring the Ace, amid the gentrification of the West Grove and its diminishing supply of shotgun houses, is particularly gratifying.
“The face of Grand Avenue is changing so dramatically that the Ace will probably be the only building left that says this is where we were,” she said. “The theater will finally get its voice again. It has been silent for so long. Now, it’s finally getting ready to speak.”
And while the theater’s roots represent a dark side of American history, preserving that history is important to teach future generations of the battles Blacks fought for equal and civil rights.
“We are actually talking about memorializing Jim Crow,” she said. “But we cannot ignore that. If we were to erase it by tearing it down, what then would we have done with that history? Replace it with a plaque saying this is where we used to be?”
She thinks her father would be pleased.
“My father was the consummate Coconut Grovite,” she recalled wistfully. “He loved Coconut Grove. To see that the building is still standing and that it will eventually be utilized, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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@example.com