How the Orange Bowl Gave Miami Its Groove Back
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
This festival helped improve Magic City’s economy and became one of college football’s greatest traditions.
By Michelle Bruton
The Orange Bowl, the annual college football bowl game held each winter, is as Floridian as sunshine. In fact, the trophy awarded to the winners of each year’s game — the second-oldest bowl game in America — is a large glass bowl filled with the tropical fruit. So you may be surprised to learn that Miami’s famous bowl game wasn’t always called the Orange Bowl.
The year was 1932, and Miami couldn’t catch a break. The area had been ravaged by the Great Miami hurricane in 1926 — to the tune of $75 million in property damage (1926 dollars) — which turned the city’s land boom of the 1920s into a land bust, threw developers into bankruptcy and portended the arrival of the Great Depression. The cumulative effects spelled bad luck for Miami’s businesses. Half of the citrus-bearing trees in the area were destroyed, impacting a huge export, and thousands of recent transplants drained their bank accounts and fled the state, sending the banks into bankruptcy. The city needed a way to generate revenue and promote tourism to hasten recovery from the depression. Miami’s most valuable commodity? Sunshine in the dead of winter.
“Miami was and is always a service community,” says Howard Kleinberg, author of Mad Genius: The Biography of Earnie Seiler and the Orange Bowl Stadium. “We have no factories, no major businesses. They had to rely on tourism. The weather worked with them.”
Today, the Orange Bowl is no doubt one of Miami’s most famous offerings, but many fans don’t know about its humble beginning.
Mid-winter festivals weren’t a new idea in Miami in 1932, but to that point, the city hadn’t achieved much success with them. In 1926, Miami had put on the Fiesta of the American Tropics, a modest exhibition football game and festival aimed at generating tourism. A group of local businessmen wanted to resurface the idea — but this time, they were thinking bigger, with an eye toward California. Pasadena’s Rose Bowl Game and Rose Parade, held annually since 1916, saw tens of thousands of tourists flock to Southern California in January. So why not Miami?
George E. Hussey, Miami’s official greeter — a PR director of sorts for the city — got the ball rolling. Hussey also worked as the recreational director of Florida Power & Light, where he organized social, musical and athletic events for company employees. As an extension of these roles, Hussey lent his talents to the organization of a football game between the University of Miami and the University of Oregon in December 1929, which Earnie Seiler, a former high school football coach and the recreation director for the city of Miami, had broadcast on local radio. Together, they teamed up with Coral Gables businessman W. Keith Phillips Sr. to plan a football game as part of the 1932 Palm Festival between the University of Miami and Manhattan College. The game was held at Moore Park in northwest Miami — now named Orange Bowl Field at Moore Park after the Orange Bowl committee donated funds to renovate it in 2011.
According to Kleinberg, the businessmen convinced some area hotels, such as the Floridian in Miami Beach, to open on the first of the year rather than their usual timing in late January. With Hussey elected president of the First Annual Palm Festival, the 1933 football game attracted an estimated 1,500 spectators — not quite the tourism boom the organizers had hoped. But the work they had done promoting the festival paid off. Journalists from New York papers had flown in to cover the Manhattan College team, and they reported the parade Seiler had organized as recreation director attracted an estimated crowd of 10,000. There were pigeons released from a parade car and a Palm Festival Queen, Marguerite Sweat, who, true to her name, arrived at midfield during halftime inside a cellophane football, completely drenched from the heat and humidity.
In its second installation in January 1934, the Palm Festival Game pitted the University of Miami against Duquesne University. The Hurricanes were not successful — they lost 33–7 — but the festival certainly was, drawing double the crowd of the first.
When Seiler, Hussey and Phillips, among other boosters, met to make plans for the following year’s festival, it was Phillips who suggested that the organizers take a cue from the Rose Bowl and name their event after Florida’s own native bounty — oranges. And thus, the Orange Bowl was born.
The first two Palm Festival football games aren’t recognized by the NCAA as official bowl games, as one team — the University of Miami — was guaranteed a berth. But on January 1, 1935, the first official Orange Bowl game took place between Bucknell and the University of Miami. The Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, and the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, Louisiana, also launched on that day. The 1935 game drew a crowd of 5,134, all of whom paid $1 for their general admission tickets and watched the game from wooden bleachers. But on that same day, in Pasadena, 85,000 fans were in attendance at the Rose Bowl to watch Stanford take on Alabama.
The Orange Bowl needed to grow, and fast. So Seiler headed to Washington, D.C., to lobby for funding to erect a proper football stadium. He was successful in acquiring a loan from the Public Works Administration, part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal of 1933, to build a new stadium, and construction began on the Miami Orange Bowl in 1936. It would be the home of the Orange Bowl through 1996, after which the bowl game moved to Hard Rock Stadium. Miami would not fully recover from the economic devastation caused by the land bust and the 1926 hurricane until the 1940s, but the Orange Bowl was an enormous catalyst in that recovery. Estimates show Seiler and the committee’s decision to move Miami’s tourist season up by 30 days in January in the 1930s was responsible for generating $50 million in tourist dollars to Greater Miami by the 1950s. In 2015–16, the Orange Bowl brought $227.2 million in economic impact for South Florida.
Today, the Orange Bowl is no doubt one of Miami’s most famous offerings, but many fans don’t know about its humble beginning. “It’s a very important institution in Miami, and we don’t have many that go back that far,” says Arva Moore Parks, a Miami historian and preservationist. “We were starting to come back together and get the tourists to come back too.” More than 80 years later, the tourists will be back, indeed, for the December 29 college football semifinal game — drawing 65,000-plus fans.
- Michelle Bruton, OZY AuthorContact Michelle Bruton