MIAMI — With its boarded-up facade eerily lit by a round Miami Beach moon, the Ocean Terrace Hotel looks abandoned. But when the blank metal doors swung open on a recent February evening, history suddenly came to life.
In one room, a relentless Christian temperance crusader described how she brought down a Prohibition-era den of iniquity on the corner. In another, an exuberant Jewish couple on their 1956 honeymoon decided to abandon Brooklyn for the glamorous beachside neighborhood outside their window. “It feels wonderful,” said the honeymooning husband. “Like paradise.”
Elsewhere in the hotel, a black shoemaker shared admiring tales of Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge, while Andrew Cunanan, who murdered Gianni Versace in front of his South Beach mansion, raved in an imaginary disco and a young Hasidic man negotiated his reluctant attraction to a flamboyant gay bartender.
They were all actors in “Miami Motel Stories — North Beach,” the fourth edition of an immersive theater project that uses forgotten history to bring this city’s diverse, eclectic — and often gentrifying — neighborhoods to life.
The Ocean Terrace is a derelict structure named for this picturesque but rundown beachfront street in North Beach, a quiet area 50-some blocks north of tourist-packed South Beach.
Audiences chose one of four themed tracks (including “Glamour” and “Crime”) and were guided in small groups, to tiny, elaborately designed rooms in which the interactive scenes played out. Tickets for the show, running until the end of March and co-directed by Ana Margineanu and Tai Thompson, are $70.
Even as “Motel Stories” reveals North Beach’s multifaceted past, the area is headed for more change. The development company Ocean Terrace Holdings, which owns the former hotel, will soon turn the street — much like Ocean Drive in pre-boom South Beach — into an upscale complex of condos, stores, and a public park, restoring two historic hotels but leaving just the facades of the rest.
The project is part of a wave of development flooding Miami’s culturally distinctive neighborhoods, including those where other “Miami Motel Stories” have taken place.
Tanya Bravo, the producing artistic director of Juggerknot Theater Company, which produces “Motel Stories,” said the series honors a community’s history during an inevitable transformation.
“We know there’s gentrification,” said Bravo, a Miami native. “What we can do as artists is tell the story before the change comes. A heightened reality happens in this building. We’re peeling off the wallpaper, archiving history.”
Bravo and Juan C. Sanchez, the project’s playwright and co-creator, aim not only to entertain, but to foster connection in a city where decades of arrivals often split into ethnic enclaves. One result is Miamians tend to know little about the city’s history or groups besides their own.
“Once we know we’ve all had a place here, we begin to see ourselves in each other more,” said Sanchez, who spends months researching each show.
The pair, longtime friends, came up with the concept in 2016. Sanchez, whose parents emigrated from Cuba, had just finished “Paradise Motel,” a traditional play that told the story of Little Havana through decades at a fictional motel.
Bravo, returning to the arts after years in corporate marketing, had discovered immersive theater by acting in the New York City show “Broken City,” set on the Lower East Side. She suggested staging a version of Sanchez’s play in a real Little Havana hotel.
The 2017 production, the first significant immersive theater produced here, was a hit, drawing a diverse, youthful crowd. That led to “Motel Stories” in the MiMo, or Miami Modern, District; in Wynwood, famous for its street murals; and now in North Beach.
The veteran theater critic Christine Dolen, who has seen all of the iterations, said the latest version had “fewer clear standout” vignettes. “Yet what Juggerknot reliably delivers — a dramatic deep dive into a neighborhood’s changing character throughout time — shines through again,” she wrote in ArtburstMiami.com.
One theme in the North Beach show is the area’s history of discrimination. Until the Civil Rights Act, blacks had to have work permits to be on Miami Beach, and to leave at sundown.
Luckner “Lucky” Bruno, 42, who plays the black shoemaker (based on an elderly man who’s owned a nearby shop since the 1970s), remembers how tense family trips to the beach were for his parents.
“There are so many rights that are threatened now, in Miami and America,” he said. “I feel even more responsibility to remind people we are all part of this patchwork.”
Sanchez also featured the neighborhood’s notoriously colorful past, with a ’60s gangster lamenting the loss of a mobster’s paradise. A quarreling, undocumented Argentine couple represents the many immigrants who led to the area being dubbed “Little Buenos Aires” in the early 2000s.
The historic segments mesh with a parallel plot, a fictional indie film shoot that can seem like ironic commentary on the show’s idealism. “I love history!” proclaims the actor Alex Alvarez, as a bombastic film director. “North Beach is where dreams come to live — they kick ass!”
Yet there’s a tension underlying the project. All the “Motel Stories” have been hosted by hotel owners and developers who are likely to change neighborhoods in ways that push out the culturally distinctive, working and middle-class people portrayed in the shows.
Ocean Terrace Holdings recently emerged from a sometimes contentious five-year process over plans for the neglected North Beach street, where several picturesque hotels have been closed for years. Some neighborhood activists opposed a project they saw as threatening to turn their affordable community into another pricey, tourist-driven South Beach.
“I’m tired of giving in all over Miami Beach to developers’ greed,” said Marsha Gilbert, a lifelong North Beach resident, at the City Council meeting last August where the Ocean Terrace project was approved, according to a story in the Miami New Times.
Sandor Scher, who owns Ocean Terrace Holdings with his partner Alex Blavatnik (a brother of Len Blavatnik, the multibillionaire international entrepreneur), said it’s not surprising that residents would have concerns about a project that he said will be “transformational.”
He predicted that new business and visitors to Ocean Terrace will restore the neighborhood’s dynamism — which is what attracted many of the characters portrayed in “Motel Stories” in the first place. The company did repairs and got permits so the show could use the abandoned hotel, and is hosting the production for free.
“Arts and culture have been a big part of finding a way to activate our buildings, give back to the community, do something that creates interest in North Beach and Ocean Terrace,” Scher said.
That is something the “Motel Stories” artists believe is worth doing.
“I don’t think any city has come up with a solution to gentrification,” said June Raven Romero, who plays the temperance crusader. “Every city is battling this monster. Maybe this is not an answer, but a conversation.”
Not long after the show closes, all but the facade of the Ocean Terrace will be demolished. “All the ghosts we’re evoking now won’t have a realm,” said Bruno. “But we are at least giving it that last energy. Remember me, and I’ll always remember you.”