Our Town with William Kelly: Mixed-use plan unveiled to renovate and revive Royal Poinciana Playhouse

William Kelly  |  Development  |  Our Town  |  January 12, 2022

The management of the Royal Poinciana Plaza announced on Wednesday plans for the renovation and reopening of the long-shuttered Royal Poinciana Playhouse.

The plan calls for the redevelopment of the historic landmark into a cultural arts venue with up to 400 seats and a stage with a retractable backdrop wall, enabling the space to transform into an “alfresco waterfront event venue,” according to WS Development.

Massachusetts-based WS Development is a mixed-use developer and the parent company of Up Markets, which manages the Royal Poinciana Plaza under a long-term lease.

The proposal calls for renovation of the vacant “celebrity room” on the south side of the building into a 200-seat restaurant with outdoor waterfront dining.

The playhouse auditorium seating would be collapsible instead of fixed. The number of seats could be adjusted to allow for flexibility of use. The playhouse lobby and box office would remain intact.

An additional 8,000 square feet would be added to the building as part of the plan to create a total of 12,000 square feet of retail and gallery space.

INNOVATE, a publicly held company chaired by Palm Beach resident Avram “Avie” Glazer, would operate the programming for the cultural arts center. Glazer and his family are owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Avie Glazer is co-chairman of the United Kingdom’s Manchester United Football Club.

With town approval, groundbreaking could occur as early as this summer with sights set on a 2023 opening, according to a press release from WS Development.

Alexandra Clark, vice president of asset strategy and experience at WS Development, said it has worked for seven years to reopen the playhouse in a way that would ensure its long-term success. An integral part of the process has been identifying the right operator.

“Our overwhelming passion to execute this project in a compelling way has always been top of mind and to finally be in a position where we are so confident in our development plans and operator,” Clark said. “There are almost no words that capture our happiness.”

Avie Glazer said INNOVATE expects to develop the playhouse into a world-class multi-purpose cultural and performing arts space that will be a major asset to Palm Beach.

“The playhouse has languished vacant for far too long and we are very excited to be able to be a part of its rebirth,” Glazer said.

A development application has been with the town and is on track for review by the Landmarks Preservation Commission on Feb. 16 and the Town Council on March 9, according to the Planning, Zoning and Building Department.

Helmed by the architectural teams of Smith Moore and Spina O’Rourke, the redevelopment plan would preserve the original details on the theater’s main façade, including the Roman statues, quoins, and curved designs, according to WS Development.

Avie Glazer said he and his wife Jill have been full-time Palm Beach residents for 20 years.

“We’re thrilled to be involved,” he said. “What I saw was people for 20 years yearning for something to be there. That’s why we stepped in to fill this void in the community. At the end of the day, I think people will be very happy with what we do.”

Glazer said he envisions year-round activities at the playhouse including “the whole spectrum” – conferences, lectures, children’s programming, art exhibitions, films, music, dance and plays.

The playhouse will be operated by a team of on-site professionals with expertise in theater. It will not be a for-profit venture and it won’t seek to compete with Broadway theater or the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, he said.

“We are taking a much more holistic and realistic approach to what we can do and what can benefit the community,” Glazer said. “It’s not just a theater. It’s much more than just a theater.”

The playhouse was designed by architect John Volk, who added the regency-style structure to The Royal Poinciana Plaza’s footprint in 1958 with the intention of creating a community center for the island.

The Royal Poinciana Plaza and playhouse are two of John Volk’s most significant and enduring works,” said Amanda Skier, president and chief executive officer of the Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach.

“WS Development’s commitment to reopening the playhouse with a viable business plan is commendable,” Skier said. “Their successful restoration of The Royal is a strong indicator that this beloved cultural venue will once again enrich our community for many years to come.”

The venue was a social juggernaut in the 1960s and 1970s, featuring Broadway plays, ballets and musical performances, all further enhanced with the regalia of nightly dinners and dancing in The Celebrity Room positioned on the south side of the theater.

In its storied history, the playhouse attracted A-list celebrities including Burt Reynolds, Jackie Gleason, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope as well as social and political royalty such as the Duke of Windsor and the Kennedys.

The debate about what to do with the historic theater has stirred since its last tenant, Clear Channel Communications, vacated the building in 2004, saying it was no longer viable as a Broadway show road house.

It has stood empty as developer after developer wrestled with the problem. Over the years, proposals ranged from razing it and erecting condos on the prime waterfront location to a $45 million plan to resurrect it as a multi-use rental house and producing theater.

A 1979 property-use agreement between the town and Royal Poinciana Plaza’s owners mandating that the playhouse be leased “only for use as a theater of the
performing and/or visual arts and for lectures and other special events” has withstood principal owner Sidney Speigel’s court challenge.

The Town Council has stood behind the provision but has not compelled developers to reopen the playhouse. The town’s stance has been to work cooperatively with developers leasing the plaza.

Up Markets and the town struck a deal in March 2016 reducing the number of seats from 860 to 725 to free more parking for other uses in the plaza.

During the long debate about its future viability, the playhouse has had nostalgia on its side. But even if it can be successfully revived, the question remains whether it will return as the glamorous social center that it was in the 1950s and 1960s.

Clark said the plan calls for preservation of important historical features, including the original staircase leading to the playhouse lobby, and a mural, featuring 125 portraits of celebrities and prominent Palm Beachers, in the celebrity room.

“It becomes this jewel box, a community hub that is modern in its technology but with interior elements that have historical significance being maintained or repurposed,” she said. “The Glazers are embracing that. That is why I am so excited that they are on board.”

Royal Poinciana Playhouse

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