Margaritaville Forgets Hollywood Bandshell Performers

Hollywood Beach Theatre
Hollywood Beach Theatre

It was the Monday after Christmas, 2014. Night had fallen, and the air was crisp. In front of the Hollywood Beach Theatre — a pale-yellow concrete bandshell located where Johnson Street meets the ocean — a crowd of a few hundred people danced to a cover of Duke Ellington's 1940s hit "Take the A Train."

Cozy Michaels, dressed in a suit and tie and with a perfectly shaped pencil-thin mustache, was front and center on the stage playing drums. Bandmates backed up the 65-year-old on piano and bass — just as they had every month for decades.

"The bandshell has been my home for over 22 years," Michaels says. "It has been an incredible thing and very interesting at that. It brought people of all ages, countries, and cultures together. There was a bond."

But the bandshell, for decades the nexus of Hollywood's 2.5-mile Broadwalk, is today blocked off and half torn down. All Michaels has left is an eerie feeling about the last night he performed there. In late November, Michaels learned his services would no longer be needed. The Margaritaville resort, a $147 million, Jimmy Buffett-themed hotel slated to open soon, is taking over.

Plans call for the hotel, which is adjacent to the bandshell, to get a 99-year lease with the City of Hollywood. In exchange, the resort will refurbish it and take over programming. Margaritaville can also sell naming rights and has an exclusive right to sell alcohol there. Though an agreement states the city and Margaritaville will work closely to provide high-quality entertainment, longtime performers feel forgotten. To some, this change, more than construction of the hotel itself, signifies the end of an era.

"This is the last place that's around where you have 'Old Florida,'" says Wayne Libman, age 56, star of a one-man act called the Wayne L. Musical Fun Show. He has performed solo on Tuesday nights there for as long as he can remember — at least 20 years.

Richie Benjamin, 64-year-old business manager and drummer for the Fabulons, who regularly played the bandshell on Wednesday nights, feels the loss. "I've been doing this a real long time, and it's just a shame, because it's such a great venue, and few places up the coast have something like this," he says. "I mean really, who else has a bandshell? We got spoiled thinking it was going to be here like this forever."

In the 1920s, Joseph W. Young founded Hollywood. He envisioned a movie-making paradise that would rival California's. He paved Johnson Street to the beach — and, in 1924, built a wooden bandstand and benches to provide entertainment for residents.

"The big thing at that time was marching bands," explains Dr. Joan Mickelson, a historian with the Hollywood Historical Society. "Young hired these bands and paid them as city employees. Their songs probably date back to the 19th Century." But in 1926, a hurricane blew the structure to pieces.

Mickelson says, "No one remembers another bandstand in the '30s, '40s, or '50s." The City of Hollywood either lost or threw out records regarding the building of the current bandshell, but it was likely constructed in the 1960s. The Hollywood Historical Society's earliest documentation of the bandshell is a postcard from the early 1970s.

For more than 20 years, the city offered musical performances year-round. It was all gratis. Mondays were for "Theater Under the Stars," with bands performing hits from the 1930s and '40s. Tuesdays were "Dancing in the Moonlight" nights, for line-dancing, foxtrotting, and dancing the cha-cha and the twist. Wednesday's shows included rock, rhythm and blues, and musical tributes.

"When I performed, I'd have over a thousand people in and around the stage," Michaels remembers. "I remember when Huey Long, [the guitarist] from the Ink Spots, came onstage and did a concert with me."

Libman reminisced that "the winter season is when things really took off." He drew huge crowds from the small, two-story hotels that line the beach, which every year fill up with snowbirds from Quebec. "All the French-Canadians and locals would come out and always tell me how happy they were to see me," Libman says.

"You could grab a slice of pizza and a cold beer for a few bucks," Michaels says.

But some saw the need for reinvigoration. For years, city officials had talked of bringing new business to the beach. In summer 2009, Hollywood issued a proposal for the redevelopment of nearly six acres of city-owned land, and in 2011, commissioners approved Margaritaville. And in summer 2013, construction began.

Cozy Michaels: "Never really about the money."
Cozy Michaels: "Never really about the money."
Justin Rosenberg | JSR Photos

"I've been hearing rumors for years but never thought it was actually happening," Michaels says.

Adds Libman: "I never thought it would affect the bandshell."

The lease stipulates that Margaritaville will refurbish the theater and add portable seating as well as utilities and technical equipment. The agreement also allows Margaritaville to sell naming rights to the theater, though the city would have to approve any name change. Taxpayers will get 25 percent of proceeds from the deal. So far, the city has not received any official proposals or requests to rename the beach theater.

Margaritaville will provide programming at least five nights per week and holds the exclusive right to sell food, drink, or alcohol within ten feet of the property line on the north side of Johnson Street. Public and Margaritaville officials will meet quarterly to establish what "caliber, kind, and quality" of programming will be offered. The agreement is to be revisited in five years.

Margaritaville has repeatedly announced that it was on track for summer 2015 opening, but so far, the resort has not pinned down a date. And planners have offered no specifics about the bandshell. Luz Castillo of Margaritaville's public relations team says the resort is currently taking reservations for October 2015. The resort will continue working with the city in support of regularly scheduled community events, she says.

The City of Hollywood's public affairs director, Raelin Storey, hopes to mix new acts with old favorites once the hotel is up and running.

Will Jimmy Buffett perform there? "I don't make Jimmy's plans," says Margaritaville's general manager, Cate Farmer. "Everything is done on his own schedule."

In June, Margaritaville held auditions for local acts. A form on the resort's website asked local bands for a photo, current playlist, and a link of sample music. If a band was approved, it was given the opportunity to audition, by appointment only.

So far, Michaels, Libman, and Benjamin say they have been left out. "The city had told me about the auditions, but how can I audition when I'm a one-man entertainment show? I can't just send in a demo tape," Libman says. "It would never work for me. I'm an entertainer, and part of my show is audience participation. I'd look like an idiot in a studio auditioning."

Benjamin says, "They told me they'd contact me after I sent in a submission form for the auditions, but I never heard back."

Adds Michaels: "I'm one of the longest-standing performers at the bandshell, and Margaritaville hasn't reached out to me. And you know, it was never really about the money. It never really paid a lot, maybe $150 to $300 for each band member depending on how long we were onstage, but us musicians got great exposure, which is why none of us would ever turn it down."

The last theater performance was on New Year's Eve by the Latin-style, blues-rock band Los Turistas Permanentes. Since the closing of the bandshell, Libman has picked up gigs in Hollywood's Gulfstream Park and Casino. "It's a little bit of an inconvenience to be moved up the road," he says, "but we really have faithful followers." Michaels often plays at the Miami Shores Country Club, and the Fabulons perform across South Florida, frequently hitting venues in Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood.

But all agree, it's just not the same. "Performing there would always be a breath of fresh air," Benjamin says. "In other places, you have to hold back a lot, you know? But when you are on the beach, it's different. There's just a certain quaintness about that."

For now, the metal benches that used to welcome the bandshell's audience are gone. But a new building with 349 rooms, eight bars and restaurants, and a spa has risen nearby. It's almost ready for tourists.

Michaels speculates: "I'm sure Margaritaville will bring business, but it'll bring a very different type of business."

The bandshell, says Benjamin wistfully, "it's a part of history. It was such a fun place to play, and it's the music that really connected with people. It feels like Margaritaville is this sparkling new gem coming in like a meteor wiping everyone else out. I think we all just feel like we lost a great space."

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