by Ray Allen
Part 1 - Mama and Papa
Chapter 5: The Roaring Twenties
The Twenties and Miami were a time and place meant for each other. It was when young Miami came into its own as a city, and carved out the glamorous personality it still projects today. Right from the beginning of the decade, the growth was so meteoric that the city's population doubled in three years--between 1920 and 1923. That was the beginning of Miami's rapid growth that's never really ended. The Dillon family lived it all, and enjoyed everything as their little hometown became a big booming resort.
After being Chief of Police, Papa returned to sea, and had various jobs on various ships. One interesting one we've always heard about was being Captain of the Ballymena, a converted private yacht that took passengers back and forth to Nassau in the Bahamas. The Ballymena had been the private property of Nicolas Brown, from the founding family of Brown University. The Browns were one of the first families of Newport, Rhode Island, so this yacht was famous, and wealthy Miami tourists enjoyed sailing to the Bahamas in such luxury. Papa also served on various ships sailing to Havana and Key West, just as his father had before him.
The Dillons were all doing well as Miami grew, and all of Papa's sisters and brothers were raising families as he was. His sister Alice had married in Key West and moved back down to the keys, but all the rest of the Dillons were in Miami to stay. Juliet had married John Tompkins who started Tompkins Variety Store on Flagler Street, and was fast becoming one of the city's early millionaires. Rafaela had married Henry Russell, and already had four sons, to be known forever, it seems, as “the Russell boys.” Charlie, or Uncle Charlie as we always called him, was a partner in the Dillon Cigar Store, also on Flagler. Papa's youngest brother, Joe, had graduated from law school, had a beautiful wife named Julia, and was considering a run for the Florida Legislature. During these years, the growing Dillon clan still gathered regularly, Charlie played the piano, and everybody laughed and sang. Mama told me she always loved the “Dillon parties.”
The 1920's in Miami can only be called tumultuous. It was the time of the now-famous “Boom” when real estate went crazy, the population skyrocketed, and whole new cities like Coral Gables and others were born practically overnight.
As the boom gained speed, residential and commercial lots were sold and resold several times during a day, and prices spiraled. As with all the real estate bonanzas Miami has been through, during the twenties, our family members were mostly observers, while all the investors from out of town made big money. But during the 20's boom, Papa did participate. He bought the lot on Biscayne Boulevard at NE 21st St. where the beautiful award-winning Bacardi Building stands today. It was just a vacant lot in Papa's day, and he loved to tell how the day after he bought it for $800, some "crazy Yankee" bought it from him for a thousand. He thought that was a great real estate deal. Of course, today, it's worth millions.
But the mad swirl also had another side. The twenties brought in the glitz and glamour of nightlife and the big-time crime that often comes with it. Gambling and prostitution expanded and with them, various elements of organized crime, mostly from New York.
Pleasure palaces went up as fast as the population. Places like the Hippodrome downtown, a big dance hall, hosted all-night "Dance Marathons". And even though there were several other movie theatres in town, one of the big events of 1925 the Dillons all remembered was the grand opening of the spectacular movie palace called The Olympia on Flagler Street. The Olympia Theatre was immediately acclaimed the most beautiful and elaborate movie house in the country.
It's one of those grand fantasy theatres that transports an ordinary moviegoer into a world of gods and goddesses, castles and palace gardens. Like the Fox in Atlanta and the Roxy in New York, the Olympia was so fabulous, that if the movie was bad, you could always watch the theatre. The whole auditorium, with its plush red velvet seats, was designed as though you're sitting in an elaborate Spanish castle garden. The high, columned garden walls reach all the way to the ceiling, and feature balconies strewn with blooming vines and beautiful statuary. Goddesses peer down at you from niches, while half-opened windows in the high walls hint at beautiful rooms beyond. Emerald green light shines from a window here, a flickering red lantern hangs there. And to top it all off, the deep blue dome of sky above is filled with twinkling electric stars--there's even a "cloud machine" that projects moving, fluffy white "clouds" across it all! The Olympia's lobbies make the fanciest hotel lobbies look plain, and even the marble and gold bathrooms are fit for kings and queens.
In addition to all the glitz, the Olympia had something else new that no other building in Miami could boast--air conditioning! All this cost just 50 cents for adults, 25 cents for children, and you got more than a movie. The Olympia was fitted with a "Mighty Wurlitzer" organ. This wonder was hidden behind latticed window screens just to the right of the stage. When the show was to begin, first, the organ would boom, the lattice screens would open, and the organ along with the organist pounding its triple keyboard would descend into view. The famous organ played for the silent movies that were the first to show at the Olympia, and my mother and her sisters also remember a piano player on some days when the organ would be silent.
In 1929, the Olympia introduced stage shows, and became a regular vaudeville house. Each movie came with a complimentary stage show, newsreel and cartoons. From then until 1954, every famous entertainer in the United States appeared on the Olympia stage. Rudy Vallee was there in the twenties, and Elvis Presley in the fifties. Sophie Tucker, Vaughn Monroe, Desi Arnaz, Jackie Gleason, and Xavier Cugat were frequent headliners. When the Olympia quit the "between movies" stage shows, only New York's Roxy continued the tradition, and that ended a few years later.
Best of all, unlike the Roxy which was demolished, the Olympia survives. Just when the city was about to take it down during the 1970's, a man named Maurice Gusman donated millions of dollars for its restoration. It was restored yet again in 2006, and is as beautiful as ever. The cloud machine rolls. The organ plays. Today, this Miami treasure is a much-loved venue for various ballets, visiting chamber orchestras, and other events.
The Olympia Theatre stands as a symbol of the fact that Miami in the twenties was a small city with big ideas, and the local movers and shakers made sure anything that was going on in the big cities "up north" was going on in Miami, too.
Throughout the twenties, the boom was fed with some of the most aggressive and innovative advertising the United States had ever seen. The tourism interests created the "Bathing beauty" and made it Miami's trademark. Local girls posing among the palms in then-shockingly brief swimsuits were printed on flyers and postcards, and mailed everywhere. Miami had arrived, and the city made sure everybody knew it.. What had been just a small tourist village a few years before was now a full-fledged neon-lit boom town with a beach.
And of course, on top of the tourism, real estate was really always king. Developments were everywhere, but clearly the best of them all was Coral Gables. The beautiful color ads for home sites in "the Gables" ran in the New Yorker magazine and are collector's items today. The whole city within a city was created in the fantasy "Spanish Style" with broad boulevards, fountains, grand entrances and street after street of beautiful Spanish style villas. But it was more than just homes.
The "dreamer developer" who created it, George Merrick, realized his biggest dream with a spectacular new hotel in the middle of it all, Coral Gables' now world-famous "Biltmore." It opened in 1926 with an unforgettable celebration that drew movie stars and other celebrities from all over the country. And that was only the beginning. Miami's Biltmore became the playground of the rich and famous from day 1, welcoming people like The Windsors and other assorted European royalty. Film stars came by the trainload, including Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland, and Bing Crosby. But the locals were invited, too. My mother remembers the fabulous "Water Shows" at the Biltmore pool, still the largest hotel pool in the world. Johnny Weissmuller, who became Tarzan in the movies, was famous for his diving exhibitions which were open to the public, drawing crowds up to 3,000.
Miami's dark side enjoyed the Biltmore, too. Al Capone enjoyed the place often, and today a lavish suite in the tower is actually named The Everglades Suite (It's a two-story space with a 360 degree view, frescoed domed ceiling, huge stone fireplace and lavish carved furniture.), but everybody calls it the Al Capone suite. The buzz is that a few people disappeared right there while he was in residence.
The Biltmore was taken over by the government during World War II, and used as a Veterans Hospital until 1968, then closed. But in 1983, restoration began, and today it's more beautiful than ever. Surrounded by its own golf course, Miami's Biltmore is one of America's truly grand hotels, host to most of the Presidents from Taft through Clinton. To Miamians, it's a symbol of the city's incredible anything-was-possible attitude during the roaring twenties. But when it was built, of course, there were lots of big things happening beyond the Biltmore.
One of the big events of those days to Papa, I've always thought, was when Minsky's came to town. Everybody had heard the name, often in whispers, because Minsky's was famous, so famous it sort of set the tone for the city when it opened.
Minsky's was the big New York burlesque house that had made comedians like Phil Silvers and Bud Costello famous, and it was also the place that had made Gypsy Rose Lee one of the best-known women in the world.
It all began when the four Minsky brothers opened for business in 1908. Their New York shows were somewhat tame at the beginning, but the Minskys were the ultimate “envelope pushers.”
They tried clean comedians, and they tried dirty talk. They tried classy strippers, and they tried the other kind. The brothers spent about 15 years perfecting their product, and it ended up being what one of them called “Racy stuff in classy clubs.” Billy Minsky wanted to be the next Florenz Ziegfeld, so in the midst of it all, he took a trip to Paris to scout the Folies Bergere and Moulin Rouge. What he found was the runway. As the Minsky's girls strutted onto the first runway in the US, the crowds went wild.
The Minsky management was always anxious to be sure the public understood what they were offering. Once in New York, Billy Minsky himself posted a sign out front that left no doubt: “Burlesque as you like it. Not a family show.”
Then, after years of raids and shut-downs in New York, the Minsky brothers went national with their formula for risqué glitz and glitter, and one of their first choices for one of the new clubs was Miami.
You can bet Papa was there opening night. As the former Chief of Police, he knew everybody, and was automatically part of the scene. I like to think of how he must have felt about what was happening all around him. After all, this man was from one small town and living in another, even though Miami was now bursting at the seams.. Unlike other people who have to travel to reach the big time, in Papa's case, the big time came to him. The twenties in Miami must have been paradise for Papa, especially the world of spotlights and sequins he now found right in his own backyard.
Minsky's was an immediate sensation, and very soon, Papa knew everyone there. That included the girls, and of course, he saw no reason why he shouldn't show them around town and help them have a good time.
One night, he showed up at home with three of the strippers, fresh from the stage. They were still in full make-up, and wearing tiny sequined costumes and big feathers in their hair. Papa brought them in, introduced them to Mama, and proceeded to set up the card table and deal poker. He and the three Minsky's girls played poker all evening, laughing and drinking, while Mama sat in the corner in her rocker, knitting.
Years later, we had a souvenir of Minsky's in our home. When the club was shut down and left town, they sold off all the assets, and of course, Papa was there. They sold tables, chairs, glasses and bar stools, but he had his eye on the piano. This was the big grand piano he had watched the girls sit on while they sang in the spotlights. And of course, Minsky's piano was not just any old piano. It was painted a pastel chartreuse. The liquidation price was $15, and Papa grabbed it. For years thereafter, Mama had to endure this light green piano in her living room. She never complained, and actually played it well herself, but she always kept a Mexican serape draped over it, which sort of softened the screaming color of the case.
In the late forties when my sister and I began piano lessons, Papa and Mama insisted the piano should be ours, and it was. But even though my parents were not big on home fashion, even they had a problem with the chartreuse. They had it painted a boring black, and that's how it was when I practiced. But as I played it, I always thought about the bright chartreuse paint that was still there from Papa's day, just under the surface.
The twenties boom ended with a huge bang when the 1926 hurricane blew through Miami. Already, the bubble was bursting, but the worst hurricane Miami had ever seen ended everything.
In those days, of course, there was almost no warning when a storm was coming. But Papa, with his experience at sea, had his own barometer. And he would always pace the floor and watch the barometric pressure drop, gauging how severe the approaching storm might be. In 1926, he made sure his whole family was safe inside the Old Nest before the big winds came. Many who were less cautious perished.
During the storm, when the eye passed directly over the city, the Dillons watched a neighbor's wooden garage fly directly over the Old Nest, and crash in their backyard. And they all remember that the Miami river rose so high that it was lapping up over the 4-foot high front porch, even though the river was several miles away. After the storm, all sorts of debris including lots of dead fish littered all the yards. Lives were lost, dreams were dashed, tourism was dead, and in many ways, the small city, so vibrant just months before, really had to start over.