Fireflies of Memory Print
Written by Mark Sell, BT Contributor   
November 2018

Motel “guests” will relive MiMo’s fringe and celebrated past

IMotel_1n that fifth dimension beyond space and time, from November 30 through December 23, you’re invited to meet 30 souls who lived for a while in the rooms of the rechristened Gold Dust Motel at 7700 Biscayne Blvd.

You may meet a Playboy bunny, a would-be CIA operative, a hooker, an ex-boxer, and a lovelorn waitress. There’s also a bookie, the speakeasy manager, and a cast of tourists, residents, traveling salesmen, hustlers, and dreamers who’ve stayed at the motel through fat times and lean since 1957.

All are composites of real people, brought back to life by prize-winning Miami playwright Juan C. Sanchez and a cast of 30 actors.

This is the second edition of Miami Motel Stories, an immersive experience produced by Tanya Bravo, founder and executive director of the Juggerknot Theatre Company. The work is directed by Mia Rovegno, imported from New York. The first edition won raves last year at the 1920s-era Tower Hotel in Little Havana. Coming up in 2019: Overtown and North Miami Beach.

To be more precise, the production is called Miami Motel Stories MiMo -- a double-sided wordplay on Miami motels and mid-century modern, the term for the playful postwar architectural and design style that defined the row of motels along the Boulevard between 50th Street and the Little River Canal.

Tickets run $45-$75, are going fast, and are available at The lowest rate gets you into the 1957 opening tiki party, the grounds, the 1960 coffee shop, the speakeasy, the bookie joint, and a meeting with the talkative fisherman by the Little River Canal.

For $65, you get to pick a pink, blue, or yellow key, unlocking doors to the rooms and people inhabiting different decades, in décor befitting their times and psychic states. Only four can enter the room at a time, honoring the intimacy. The $75 ticket gets you all that and an after-party.

So much for the basics. The real story of this production goes ever deeper. It is one of executive intelligence and community collaboration. As with so much in Miami, it’s also about real estate. But the heart of the story is a passion to capture the fireflies of memory before they vanish in this fast-changing city.

And change is afoot at this site, too. Developer and historic preservationist Avra Jain, head of the Vagabond Group four blocks down the street, bought the motel, until recently Motel Blu, for $6.1 million in September, and rechristened it with its original name, the Gold Dust Motel.


In the past six years, Jain has snapped up motel properties like a smart player on a Monopoly board and is renovating them to recapture the neon-lit essence of their heyday along this stretch, known not so long ago for junkies, streetwalkers, police sirens, and darkness.

The Gold Dust itself is now a construction zone. The theatrical production will be confined to the north side of the property. Coordinator and designer Lee Harrison has been working to prepare the rooms and capture the historical and personal moments of each character and space.

In the second half of 2019, the motel is slated to reopen as Gold Dust Motel by Selina, a fast-growing lodging and co-working company with properties throughout Latin America. Selina is scheduled to open its first U.S. location in February in Little Havana at the Tower Hotel, with others to follow in Washington, D.C., Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Boston, and Los Angeles.

In the 1950s and 1960s, before I-95 replaced U.S. 1 as America’s eastern road artery, Biscayne Boulevard from 79th Street south to 50th Street was a motorist’s gateway to the Magic City, its motels offering air conditioning, TVs, and swimming pools for weary travelers.

The Gold Dust attracted road-trip families, new Miami transplants getting their sea legs, seasonal residents, and traveling salesmen. Visitors could enjoy the temptations to the east, where Mob-influenced North Bay Village beckoned with its Rat Pack entertainers, steak dinners, and hookers. The Hialeah racetrack was to the west along 79th Street.

Decline set in with the advent of I-95. In 1970 the Boulevard Theater just to the north shuttered after 30 years. Adult business entrepreneur Leroy Griffith reopened it as a burlesque house before repurposing it for various adult entertainment themes. Under new ownership, the theater is now the Gold Rush, billed as “a proper cabaret.”

The Playboy Club, which opened just across the street from the motel in 1961, coped through changing times and neighborhood decline before moving to LeJeune Road in 1983 and finally going out of business. It is now an Advance Discount Auto Parts outlet.

With the new millennium, the neighborhood sputtered to life and was designated historic in 2006. Chef Kris Wessel embraced the cleanup of the turbid Little River Canal, and manatees and fish returned. In 2008, Wessel opened the popular Red Light restaurant at the north end of the Motel Blu property. But the Great Recession hit, the motel changed hands, and the restaurant closed in 2012, the very year Avra Jain bought the Vagabond for $2 million four blocks to the south.

Jain is a patron of this Miami Motel event, and collaborated with artistic director Bravo well before closing on the property. Bravo has enrolled a growing cast of civic and corporate players as additional collaborators. Miami Motel Stories was funded in part by the Knight Foundation, and Chivas is a big sponsor (the speakeasy is called the Chivas Room). Miami-Dade Transit is supplying a 1950s bus, and Don Bailey is supplying the carpets. Other sponsors include Goodwill South Florida, Café La Llave, and HistoryMiami, the last a particularly vital link.


Attendees at this “real-time theater experience” will walk straight into 1957 and the opening tiki hut reception, with a greeting from actors playing Mr. and Mrs. Keith Wade, the managers from 1957 to 1961.

You can enter the 1960s diner, where a cast of characters through the decades wanders in and out, in a conflation of time and memory.

“These represent the people who stayed or worked in the motel at some point,” says Sanchez. “This is an homage to the past. This is how we got here.”

It’s quite a cast of characters. There’s the 1959 New Jersey couple seeing the USA in their Chevrolet; Kim, the lovelorn waitress from 1960; Greg, the braggart calling the CIA’s listed Miami number to offer his services and dynamite to blow up a Cuban power station; Stella, the Playboy Bunny from 1966, violating house rules with a Playboy Club customer.

Fast-forward into 1976 and decline, as you meet Linda, the hard-bitten disco-hippie prostitute pushing 40; Cecil, the 1993 homeless man touched by Jesus and trying to get on his feet; Rene, the washed-up Cuban-American boxer in 2000, down for the count on drugs and struggling to get up from the mat.

Then, as the Great Recession lifts, you can meet Carla and Carlos, would-be 2015 Instagram stars questing for luxe, glamour, and attention, and finding themselves a bit early to the party.

“You may meet these people in the rooms,” says playwright Sanchez. “You might encounter some of them in the diner or one of any number of environs in the hotel. That’s why this project is a dream project for me. Oh, my god, it’s like heaven to discover this stuff and do something with it. It’s fascinating information.”

Sanchez holds out his smartphone. “Because of this,” he says, “people want immediacy. For that, a motel is a perfect venue.”

Sanchez has written steadily since 2003, completing 11 plays, with productions in New York, London, Miami, Minneapolis, and Peru. He was born in Cuba and arrived in Miami when he was six. Theater grabbed him in high school, but he discovered he liked playwriting more than acting. He wakes between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m., he says, and writes until sunrise, takes a break and returns around 11:00, often working in a library. He quit cars in 2000 and takes public transportation because he can write while traveling.

“The type of theater we’re doing, immersive theater, is a vessel that brings empathy,” says Bravo. “You’re actually part of the story. I love Juan’s writing because he takes characters on the fringe of society and humanizes them.”I


In the Tower Hotel shows last year, Sanchez depicted the shifting populations layered in the history of Calle Ocho, from the original Anglos to the Jews to the Cubans, and even decorated a room with religious symbols from Protestant Christianity, Judaism, Catholicism, and Santería.

The Upper Eastside, he says, evolved through real estate and shifting fortunes. Sanchez lived in apartments near Legion Park in the 1990s and was struck by how relatively pristine the neighborhood has since become.

Jain has worked with a team of architects, HistoryMiami, universities, local historians, and individuals to help add flesh and sinew to the stories.

“I had the privilege of seeing the program at the Tower Hotel last year and was quite blown away,” Jain says. “With hotels and motels, you can underestimate the emotional impact of stories in time. Historic preservation is a public benefit and part of maintaining the heritage of communities. Otherwise, they might be lost forever. Not maintaining that context is a big loss to society and community-building. We believe preservation is an important aspect to doing thoughtful city planning. And Motel Stories brings attention to that.”

Last year, Bravo formed a partnership with Barlington Group, which is converting the Tower Theater into a Selina property. “Our relationship with developers is really important,” she says. “We want to change the conversation between the artist and developer, giving us that moment in time to tell the story of the neighborhood and the building. This change is happening in real time. We live, breathe, and sleep Miami Motel Stories 24-7. The developer allows us to tell the story of their neighborhood and communities.”

Amid all the change, the stories, and the hustle of changing buildings and deal-making are the tales of ordinary people. For Suarez, Bravo, and Jain, honoring their lives and struggles is like fashioning their stories into gold dust, if you will, and presenting them as small offerings.

“It’s not just from a point of view of neighborhood and communities,” says Bravo, “but from a point of service. And we are here to serve, right?”


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