George Hamilton, Sly Stallone, Rod Stewart, Billy Joel, Howard Stern, and Jon Bon Jovi? John-and-Yoko-come latelies. Ever since it sprang from the Gilded Age sand, Palm Beach has been “a staged setting with a distinctive MGM backlot quality” and a place “to see and be seen,” says the social historian and AIA Palm Beach Historic Preservation Award recipient Augustus Mayhew. Its courtyards, balconies and terraces, drawing rooms and music rooms were performance venues for the well-born and wealthy. In the Roaring Twenties, those swells even outshined the stars, who were often hired to stage private performances, two decades before Preston Sturges made The Palm Beach Story. So, Mayhew adds, it was inevitable that “klieg-light openings” would come to the island on the night of January 9, 1927, when the Paramount Theatre opened on North County Road.
There had been movie theaters in Palm Beach since its first nickelodeon opened in 1916, but the debut of the Moorish/Spanish Revival–style “millionaire’s movie theater,” which featured the local premiere of Beau Geste starring Ronald Colman and a 16-piece orchestra from New York, was something new. All of the Paramount’s 26 $1,000 per-season private balcony boxes, dubbed the Diamond Horseshoe, had been booked by Palm Beach habitues such as department store heir Rodman Wanamaker II, Henry Phipps—one of Andrew Carnegie’s partners in the steel business—Broadway’s Florenz Ziegfeld, and Wall Street financier Edward F. Hutton. Hutton’s stepdaughter Eleanor would shortly marry Preston Sturges in an early, but by no means unusual, coupling of Hollywood and Palm Beach. The Paramount’s opening also attracted several guests who brought bodyguards to protect their jewels.
Four years later, live theater followed film when Muriel McCormick, daughter of the Chairman of the Board of International Harvester Company and a granddaughter of John D. Rockefeller, opened the Palm Beach Playhouse, beginning a tradition of winter stock theater on the island. But by 2020, the curtains had come down. Both the Paramount and the Playhouse’s lineal successor, the Royal Poinciana Playhouse, were shadows of their former selves: the former home to a church run by an atheist dermatologist-turned-pastor, the latter vacant for years.
Then, in spring 2021, the complex containing the Paramount Church was sold to Lester Woerner, a preservation-minded local mogul whose fortune is rooted in sod, and, a year later, long-gestating plans to revive the Playhouse were revealed, with members of another local family, the Glazers, owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and majority owners of England’s Manchester United football team, in the lead.
The show biz ghosts of Palm Beach are stirring.
Resort architecture is often flamboyant; Palm Beach is no exception. The copper-domed Mediterranean-moderne Paramount, centerpiece of the mixed-use Sunrise Building—a complex that also included stores, offices, and apartments—is entered through a dramatic two-story pointed archway leading to a rough stone courtyard. The fan-shaped auditorium originally had 1,080 theater seats in 23 rows, a huge Wurlitzer pipe organ, glass chandeliers, and underwater-themed décor complete with surreal sea creatures and beams rippled to resemble waves.
Its architect, Vienna-born Joseph Urban, had a theatrical flair from the start of his career, when he undertook royal and aristocratic commissions in Egypt and Austria before segueing to designing stage sets for German and Austrian theaters, operas in Paris, Boston, and New York, and Ziegfeld’s Follies on the latter city’s Great White Way. He also art directed films for William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Pictures, all of which brought him to the attention of Wall Streeter Hutton and his wife, Marjorie Merriweather Post, who lured Urban to Palm Beach to finish decorating their new villa, Mar-a-Lago.
Commissions to redesign Club de Montmartre, a nightclub that would feature a Ziegfeld revue with Urban stage sets; the Oasis, a men’s club; and the Paramount followed. Two earlier theaters in Palm Beach, the Garden and the Beaux Arts, were considered insufficiently elegant by the Paramount’s backers, Hutton, Anthony J. Drexel Biddle Jr. (a partner with Ziegfeld in the Montmartre) and a steel mogul, J. Leonard Replogle. They hired Urban to create a theater worthy of the local population, which would soon include the sort of financiers who, not coincidentally, backed film studios. The aquatic décor was first sketched on a tablecloth by Urban, who dressed its young women ushers in red-striped white flannel pants, scarlet waistcoats with silver buttons, and royal blue jackets.
Though the Paramount opened in the silent film era, it was designed to accommodate orchestras, charity showcases, and live performances by the likes of Will Rogers, W.C. Fields, Billie Burke, Eddie Cantor, and Al Jolson. So its transition to talkies in 1929 was seamless. In succeeding years, the theater would change hands several times, but kept showing first-run films until 1980, when the town of Palm Beach briefly considered taking it over for public meetings. Instead, the theater closed (offices and stores remained) until August 1994, when the Paramount Church held its first service there. In 2002, the church began screening classic movies, Beau Geste among them. Though the theater had been gutted and its interior décor—aside from its ceiling—removed, it maintained an extensive museum of photos, posters, and memorabilia from the movies that played there and the visitors it attracted, which remains open today.
In November 1932, with many of Palm Beach’s largest homes dark for the mid-Depression winter, it was announced that the Royal Poinciana Hotel, a Gilded Age grande dame already closed for several seasons, would not reopen. Conceived by the island’s founder Henry Flagler, and owned by his Florida East Coast Hotel Company, the hotel had long been a local hub; it was there, in 1928, movie star Gloria Swanson claimed to have seduced Joseph P. Kennedy. But in the depths of the economic disaster, the 1,800-foot-long wooden hotel was sold for scrap, and its material—six million feet of lumber and “enough nails to sink a battleship,” according to the New York Times, plus all its furnishings—fetched about $70,000 prior to the year-long process of razing it.
Out-buildings survived, notably a domed conservatory, or slat house: a winged pavilion on Lake Worth, just south of today’s Flagler Memorial Bridge, where the hotel had kept potted palms out of season. It then served as a potting shed for the next owner, the Phipps family of Pittsburgh’s Bessemer Properties, which in 1949 hired John Volk, an Austrian-born, New York–raised architect with a society practice and experience designing theaters (among them the Mecca Temple that would become New York City Center), to turn the slat house into a new home: a 550-seat theater, for the latest iteration of Muriel McCormick’s Palm Beach Playhouse. Along with Addison Mizner and Marion Sims Wyeth, and later, Maurice Fatio and Howard Major, Volk was one of the architects who defined Palm Beach style with homes and public buildings like Mizner’s Everglades Club; Urban’s Paramount and the Bath & Tennis Club; Mar-a-Lago, which Wyeth began and Urban completed; and Volk’s Four Arts Gallery and Everglades Colonnade.
Mary Howes, an heiress and Broadway understudy whose father had led the Bath & Tennis Club, who served on the board of the Everglades and long dreamed of opening a theater, now took the lead. She and Messmore Kendall, a Broadway producer who was also president of the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution and a noted collector of George Washington memorabilia, took over programming at the new Playhouse. “I think when you are a millionaire, you should have everything: music and theater and art and ballet,” Howes said in what Town & Country called her “throaty international accent.”
The new Playhouse opened in February 1952 with The Animal Kingdom, starring Veronica Lake and receiving press as far north as New York. “The rule is, dress to the teeth,” New York Daily News noted. It was an immediate hit, and the Playhouse later presented Eva Gabor in Blithe Spirit, attracting polo player “Laddie” Sanford and his wife Mary, a former starlet; actor Peter Lawford, who’d been a Palm Beach parking lot attendant in his youth; and the widow of playwright Philip Barry, whose son directed the Playhouse’s first season, which also brought Burgess Meredith and Zachary Scott to town. Then, in 1955, Bessemer sold off the southernmost 11 acres of the Royal Poinciana site, which became Palm Beach Towers, a $3.5 million development, the first major construction in Palm Beach since the Depression. It included 273 apartments, offices, a restaurant, gardens full of royal palms and orange trees, a 120-foot pool, and cabanas. The rebirth of Flagler’s Royal Poinciana began a new Palm Beach era.
Soon, the Playhouse was under new management. Frank Hale, a former vaudeville hoofer and president of the National Yeast Company, took over, and the Phipps family hired Volk to replace it with a larger theater that was better suited to Palm Beach’s self-image as an international haven for the wealthy. Volk proclaimed it “the first legitimate professional theater” constructed in the United States since 1928, and announced that it would be state-of-the-art, with, as its production director said, “the finest acoustics in the country.” When the $1.5 million Playhouse reopened in 1958, still unfinished, the modern Regency-style theater boasted red, white, and gold Empire décor, Austrian chandeliers, 200 more seats, and had a new name restoring its historic connections: the Royal Poinciana Playhouse.
The new complex also included the Celebrity Club, for season ticket holders: a glass-enclosed fine-dining restaurant and nightclub with a broad terrace overlooking Lake Worth, supervised by John Perona, the society arbiter who ran New York’s El Morocco nightclub. Looking down on it all over a trompe l’oeil Venetian-style balcony was a 45-foot-long mural on the domed ceiling with portraits of 125 social, sports, and show business celebrities, including Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, and local luminaries like Lilly Pulitzer and the Massachusetts Senator and winter resident John F. Kennedy, whose father Joseph had bought Rodman Wanamaker’s house in 1933. Thanks to new closed-circuit television facilities, the restaurant also served as an overflow room for the theater. Many patrons preferred it there, as they could eat, drink, and merrily gossip even as each evening’s secondary entertainment played on.
Volk and his Phipps estate employers then turned their attention to the rest of the property, and in spring 1957 began work on the Royal Poinciana Shopping Plaza, also in the modern Regency style. Nodding to Palm Beach’s evolution from posh resort for the few centered on hotels and a strip of shops on Worth Avenue to a residential enclave, its nine acres of parking lots surrounded the three-acre complex but did not block views of shop windows, an appealing prospect for early tenants like Gucci, Hattie Carnegie, Abercrombie & Fitch, and F.A.O. Schwartz. They were entertainment, too.
By 1960, as the resort got fresh attention due to Kennedy’s election as U.S. President, the Royal Poinciana became a cultural magnet. Broadway producers booked the Playhouse to try out shows during the ten-week season that began each January; and Hale established the off-season Academy Royale to teach theater crafts and develop new plays. That year, the legendary Helen Hayes opened the season in The Cherry Orchard, followed by June Havoc and Gypsy Rose Lee in Old Acquaintance, and Tallulah Bankhead in The Little Foxes. By 1965, the New York Times social reporter Charlotte Curtis would observe that the local “Rolls-Royce brigade” and the “$30 million worth of haute couture, furs, and economy-size jewels” displayed on opening night rivaled any display of wealth she’d seen in New York. Opening night seats were so coveted, subscribers bequeathed them in their wills.
Trying to keep things fresh, as well as exclusive, in 1973 Mary Sanford and another millionaire, Albin Holder, a former chairman of Cartier, leased the Celebrity Club for ten years (covering up the famous mural with a red canvas canopy), and after a renovation supervised by Volk, turned it into the Poinciana, a private club run by the Coconuts, two dozen local bachelors whose annual ball, which would henceforth be held there, was a coveted invitation. The club—its membership was initially limited to 300 souls chosen by a secretive subcommittee—would survive into the early 1990s, when, according to one of several contradictory accounts, its forgotten mural was rediscovered and the fading venue was renamed the Celebrity Room in a vain attempt to revive its old glamour. It closed in 1999.
By 1981, Zev Buffman, an Israeli-born theatrical producer who’d gained a national profile through a brief partnership with Elizabeth Taylor, had taken over the Playhouse, likely thanks to one of his partners, the son of a Palm Beach official and manager of the Phipps’ Bessemer Properties. But by 1988, Buffman had sold his lease to another partner, a production group that took Broadway shows on national tours. In 1998, it in turn was sold to the live entertainment promotion company SFX, which was then acquired by Clear Channel two years later, and operated the Playhouse until it went dark in 2004. Was it the end of an era? The following year, a plan to redevelop the entire Royal Poinciana complex and build condominium apartments was floated by Clear Channel’s successor and greeted with protests in Palm Beach, which had only begun to officially protect its landmarks in 1979 after decades of teardowns. “We try very hard to ensure that won’t happen anymore,” says René Silvin, a past chair of the local Landmarks Preservation Commission. Though the Playhouse wasn’t landmarked yet—its façade and the mural would gain that status in 2008—a 1979 covenant between the latest owner of the land under the Plaza and the town limited the use of the Playhouse until 2014 to “a theater of the performing and/or visual arts and for lectures or other special events.” Though it did allow the demolition of some of the theater, it limited renovations to what remained.
Meantime, in West Palm Beach, the Kravis Center had opened in 1992 to great success. “It was better organized for theater and put Palm Beach out of business” as a show business force, says Silvin. The protesters charged that the latest Playhouse lessee, Sterling Group, a developer and manager of real estate in the Midwest and Southeast, was seeking to demolish the space through neglect, while Sterling claimed in 2010 that it couldn’t find an operator “with real money and a real plan.” The town encouraged them to keep trying to preserve the architecture and the Playhouse as a cultural venue. That would take another dozen years.
In 2015, while retaining a small interest, Sterling sold the remainder of its 99-year ground lease and option to buy the entire Plaza complex to Up Markets, a retailing division of Boston’s WS Development for a reported $22.5 mil- lion. Three years later, Up Markets reopened the shopping plaza. The Playhouse, a trickier challenge, was handed to Alexandra Clark, newly hired by WS as its Vice President of Asset Strategy. She saw theaters and met operators from around the world, she says, while working with Palm Beach to bring the building up to code, reviewing “no less than 20 business plans,” and talking to “people who’d randomly call,” “to learn about the people who’d expressed interest” in running both the cultural programs and the restaurant, one of the few waterfront dining venues on Palm Beach island. Among the aspirants, someone close to the process says, were “a lot of people who think they can run a playhouse because they’ve seen a play,” ranging from gallerists to film experts to hedge fund runners. The problem, says Clark, who’d realized that success depended on expansive programming that ranged from live performance and nonprofit events to film, conferences, and TED Talks, was that the ideal candidate to run the place “couldn’t be just one thing.” But many of those she consulted could be “pieces of the puzzle,” she concluded.
Avie and Jill Glazer appeared at the start of the pandemic, “the week the world shut down,” Clark continues. That Christmas, they returned, insisting the world would, too, “and saying, ‘We want to be a part of this,’” Clark recalls. Residents of the island for two-plus decades, committed preservationists, and the parents of local business owners (daughters Kendall and Libby run Stoney Clover Lane, which has a store in Royal Poinciana Plaza), the Glazers also wanted local “social involvement,” says Avie, whose publicly traded conglomerate, Innovate, with holdings in infrastructure, life sciences, and broadcasting, had just moved its headquarters to Palm Beach. “Innovate is what the company does,” he continues. “So, our goals are the same” as those of WS Development, which has agreed to rename the theater complex The Innovate. Though their precise plans remain uncertain, the top-to-bottom reconstruction of the Playhouse has already begun. Glazer is “hiring the best people—what I’ve done all my life,” he says, and the reopening is projected for November 2024.
The reinvention of the Paramount Theatre is also a work in progress. The plans proposed by Lester Woerner; his development partner, Anthony Fisher Cummings, a former executive of the real estate giant Related Companies (as well as the grandson of oil magnate and influential Palm Beach resident Max Fisher), and their architect, Robert A.M. Stern, have yet to be approved by the Landmarks Commission and Town Council. But Woerner hopes to relocate the adjacent parking lot underground and build four single-family homes—“call them mansions,” he says—above it. Stern will also preserve the landmark façade of the theater, create “a multipurpose event center” with at least 250 seats, and establish retail and hospitality spaces in its courtyard and on the building’s perimeter.
“We’ve gone to great lengths” to “position [the Paramount] for the next one hundred years,” says Woerner, whose biography reveals a man as resolute as he is successful. The one-time Alabama farm boy who moved to Palm Beach in 2004 has broad interests, having expanded his original business—one of the world’s largest turf grass companies, growing sod for golf courses and residential lawns—into interests in agriculture, real estate, and financial securities. He is also well connected, having bankrolled many Republican candidates, and last year married María Elvira Salazar, the Republican representative for Miami Beach, South Miami, and Coral Gables in the U.S. Congress. A devout Christian who keeps a Bible in his office with favorite verses highlighted in yellow, he started Woerner World Ministries, a nonprofit foundation that sponsors evangelical, missionary, Christian leadership, youth, and marriage encounter programs. Woerner also confirms his desire to continue using the building for what he describes as Sunday “faith services.”
“It’s an iconic property with a tremendous historic legacy, but it no longer served the community,” Woerner says. “We’re bringing it back to its original and even greater grandeur to reengage the community.” He calls the Paramount “a personal legacy” investment. But like the Royal Poinciana Playhouse, it is also a community treasure. “Young people want the arts brought back to Palm Beach,” says René Silvin. The Glazers agree. “Palm Beach is transforming,” Avie says. “This is part of the transformation.”