MIAMI — This is one of those “you’ve got to see it to believe it” type projects.
Former Miamian Monty Hilburn, now living in Munich, Germany, has built a detailed model of the Coleman Theatre using Lego plastic bricks. It's on display in the lobby.
“It was a little project of love,” said Hilburn, who worked at Miami’s crown jewel back in the 1980s while growing up in Quapaw and Miami.
Frank Love was manager at the time.
“I was kinda his maintenance guy, too, so I have been in every nook and cranny,” he said. “I just knew the place inside and out and I had lots of pictures. It was a combination of my own knowledge of the theater and pictures.
He used Google Maps’ Sky View (which uses satellite pictures) to view the top of the building. From that, he was able to get some proportions, such as lengths and widths of the building itself.
“I was able to scale that so the model has the same proportionate scale, so the building is correct,” Hilburn said, noting that this was about the third version of his plans.
“You build it one way and ‘no, that’s not going to work,’ so you tear it down and start all over.”
Legos are plastic construction toys that were first introduced by the Danish based Lego Group in 1949, and continue to be hugely popular — both with children as well as adults.
There are six Legoland amusement parks that have been developed under a brand that surpassed Ferrari as Brand Finance’s “world’s most powerful brand.”
There have been countless Lego based movies, video games and short films.
The name “Lego” is an abbreviation of the two Danish words “leg godt,” meaning “play well.”
According to its website, The Lego Group was founded in 1932 by Ole Kirk Kristiansen. The company has passed from father to son and is now owned by Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, a grandchild of the founder.
About eight or nine years ago, Hilburn purchased a set for one of his older daughters as a birthday present.
“She and I got to putting it together. It was the first one we’d ever had,” Hilburn said. “We started putting it together and I thought ‘wow, I like this.’ It appealed to the engineer in me.”
He now has a whole room in his house dubbed the “Lego Room.”
“I have all the sets. I have all of my inventory separated by color and type with an inventory drawer system,” Hilburn said. “It’s become a bit of an obsession over the last five or six years.”
Hilburn said the Coleman project took 75 or so hours to complete.
“What really made it so satisfying was the reception from Danny (managing director Danny Dillon) and the Coleman team: they were like ‘yes, of course we want it! Bring it! We will put it on display,’” Hilburn said. “That made me so proud, not that they were just willing to, but very excited to put it in the Coleman so a little piece of me is with the Coleman — a big piece of the Coleman has been with me my whole life. It had such an influence on me.”
Hilburn is guessing he used between 4,000 and 5,000 pieces in the project, using a lot of small pieces to help maintain scale.
The model features all of the trappings of the theater, which opened April 18, 1929 and was built by local mining magnate George L. Coleman Sr.
At the time of it’s opening, it was called the most elaborate theater between Dallas and Kansas City, Missouri.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, it has hosted vaudeville acts, musical groups and movies.
“I was a bit obsessive about trying to get as much of the detail as I could into something with such a small scale,” Hilburn said.
He achieved that and even has cars parked in front.
Hilburn said he does many of the Lego store-bought set (one website estimates there are 16,378 sets in its catalog).
His particular interests are the Star Wars sets, but has done several MOCs — “my own creations.”
“The Coleman is a MOC of mine, but there are guys who build MOCs of Star Wars ships, star destroyers and those kind of things that might have 15,000 pieces.” Hilburn said.
“They tend to be very difficult and detail oriented.”
Currently a resident of Munich, Germany, he’s been visiting friends in the Miami area for the past couple of weeks.
Getting the model to its final destination was a big challenge.
“I built it in Germany and had to get it here,” he said.
It was packed it in a cardboard box and he carried it on board flights with his checked baggage.
As a result, he had to pass through checkpoints in Munich, Amsterdam, Holland, Detroit and Kansas City.
“There were more than a few of the security people that said ‘open this up — what is this?’ and then it was “ah!” Hilburn said. “The model has LED lights, so when you X-ray it, I am sure all of this wiring was showing up.
“We got their attention, but there were no problems getting on through.”
Hilburn called the early 80s when he worked at the Coleman “a pivot point” in the theater’s legacy.
“It was still an active movie theater, but the roof was leaking and some other things were starting to take their toll,” he said. “Like probably anybody that grew up there and spent so much time as a kid going to movies and working there, I am so thankful that the city leaders in the late 80s made the decision that this was an asset worth saving because we might have lost a piece of the northeast Oklahoma history, our heritage and our culture. It would have been such a crime.”
The Coleman family donated the theater to the City of Miami in 1989.
A civic group, The Friends of the Coleman, took on a huge restoration project, bringing it back to life, complete with its Wurlitzer organ and a second-floor ballroom.
“Being able to go in now after being away from the area for 30 years, being able to visit and see the theater — just the preservation of our history — makes me proud that they as a group recognized it, took action and did something remarkable,” Hilburn said.
“Being at the Coleman completely changed my life because I wound up becoming a theater manager in Texas and that led me to bigger and better things.”
Hilburn encourages donors to participate in fund raising efforts at the theater.
A December visit to the Coleman when he visited with managing director Danny Dillon about doing seat tags via donations spurred his interest in doing the model.
He made donations for tags in his name and those others who worked with him in the 1980s.
”From that visit, this is what motivated me to finish this model that I always wanted to do,” Hilburn said. “If I have the opportunity to use this as a platform to encourage other people to come by and get their name on a seat tag, put their name back into the Coleman, that money can be used to keep the Coleman alive and it also puts them in the history of the Coleman.”