Throughout the 1980s and the early 90s, Woody Vondracek became one of South Florida’s foremost Art Deco graphic artists. We recently had the opportunity to interview Woody, who reminisced with us about the best years of his life living in South Beach. He told us, “the first time I came to Miami Beach was in the 60s when I was in the Air Force…driving up Collins Avenue I remember all the buildings were white with curved lines…it reminded me of one big appliance store…I was instantly intrigued by the district”.
By 1977, Woody moved from Detroit to Miami where he worked as a mechanic for Eastern Airlines. “I started drawing the buildings because I was so inspired by their shapes and forms, and the typography of the 30s architecture with its black and white lines. I always had artistic abilities, but besides taking one semester of drafting, I never had any formal training in art. My first design of an Art Deco building in Miami Beach was the Plymouth Hotel, which I drew on my coffee table.”
After reading a Miami Herald article about Barbara Baer Capitman’s fight to have the buildings historically designated, Woody contacted her and they met at MDPL’s first “office” in her home on the Venetian Causeway. Thinking he could use his artistic abilities to help out in some way, he brought along his sketch of the Plymouth Hotel. Barbara immediately signed him up to be MDPL’s graphics director and create more posters to sell in support of their preservation mission. That meeting was the start of a long partnership, with Woody Vondracek creating many iconic Art Deco Weekend posters for the next thirteen years, “the exception in 1983 was when my poster featuring a naked woman was banned by the Miami Beach Junior Chamber of Commerce.”
In 1979, Woody moved to the beach and rented the top floor center apartment for $300 at the Cardozo Hotel, which would also be his artist’s studio. As he remembers, “the location where I was living was glorious…from my open window I could hear and smell the waves on the shore…yes the neighborhood was a mixture of a lot of seniors and some criminal element around, but growing up in a rough part of Baltimore, it didn’t faze me at all. I enjoyed rummaging through all the old thrift and souvenir shops on Collins Avenue, eating at the local restaurants that had amazing food that was cheap and buying the freshest breads at the bakeries. I loved that I was living in a historic building that still had so many of its original features like the terrazzo floors and the vintage elevators with those manual iron gates”. In 1982, MDPL became his neighbor when their office and gift shop moved into the Cardozo Hotel. When the Cardozo was being restored in 1984, he moved to the Victor Hotel for a while and then the Ocean Front Apartments at 1236 Ocean Drive. In 1984, MDPL would also move their office and gift shop to 1236 Ocean Drive.
At the time, most of his creative work for MDPL was done as a volunteer. Feeling the exposure would springboard his name within the art community, he was hopeful it would lead to more jobs for actual pay. It was a rough beginning, but work soon started coming his way. Woody worked with Tony Goldman, who in the early 80s bought and restored around twenty buildings in the district as well as Jerry Sanchez who owned a number of hotels and Club Z. Before long, he was designing posters for the district’s Art Deco hotels such as the National, the Avalon, the Victor, the Cardozo, the Leslie, the Park Central, the Clevelander, the Edison, the Imperial, the Penguin, the Tides and the Ritz Plaza….just to name a few! Beside hotels, he designed the poster and murals for the new club Ovo at the Warsaw Ballroom and the signage and murals for the new 30s Cafe at 622 Lincoln Road and the Promenade Shops at 1300 Washington Avenue.
Woody Vondracek’s use of mediums progressed over the years. In the early 80s, he began drawing with ink using an illustration board. A couple years later, he would be designing his posters using colored acrylics and gouache, an unforgiving opaque watercolor. By 1987, he was using Adobe Illustrator which was way more user friendly. He told us that without several key people at the time believing and supporting him, he would not have been as successful. “Jerry and Jane Goodman, true art patrons, covered all my printing and publication expenses in exchange for getting the 1st print of every new series I created. Later, I could not afford to buy a new computer with Adobe Illustrator. Jim Matthews, the owner of the Washington Storage, purchased a 15K cutting edge new Mac just for me and then leased it to me for an amount that I could afford”.
Some of the other people he remembers from that time, “When it came to Barbara, nobody around would have put half of the effort she put into saving the district…Leonard Horowitz was a fun, controversial character that was brave enough to want to colorize the buildings when most of the community was against it…Lynn Bernstein was also one of the early dedicated pioneers at MDPL…Felicia Phillips was the manager at the Cardozo Cafe and a good friend of mine…Lisa Klausner who lived at the Cardozo Hotel was a very talented photographer who subsidized her rent by working as the switchboard operator…Freddy Pacheco was a talented artist who painted fantasy scenes on broken sea shells….and Paul Silverthorne was a good friend too who painted murals at many of the restaurants and hotels…”
Around 1984, the opportunity came about for Vondracek to open his own art gallery with a studio upstairs at 1224 Washington Avenue. The owners were trying to attract hip businesses to the area and offered that space up without a lease. It soon became apparent that his business at “Graphics Moderne” was challenging as it was mainly seasonal. In ’86 and ’87, to supplement his income, he worked for Les Feldman, the publisher of Playbill magazine, designing feature covers for his local publication “Miami Beach Magazine”. After a few years, Woody discovered some employees were stealing money from him. In addition, one of his biggest clients skipped out on paying him close to forty thousand dollars owed to him for work already done. Describing it as a “hand to mouth business”, he decided to close up the shop in 1988. Now that he was married, he accepted a full-time job as an illustrator for the Miami Herald. When he was more financially settled, he bought a spacious Art Deco apartment at 8th and Lenox Avenue. Satisfied with getting a steady paycheck, he had a successful career there for the next five years.
In 1993 after hurricane Andrew struck, Woody Vondracek and his wife made a move to Raleigh, N.C. where he worked as an illustrator for the family run newspaper News and Observer. Three years later, the owner of the South Beach Avalon Hotel wanted him to design a poster for the new hotel he was opening and flew him back to the beach. Once back, Woody realized the South Beach that he fondly remembered was no longer around, having given way to much gentrification. Sadly, he felt the old saying, “you can never go back” rang true .