(For more South Florida history, visit my history blog, Jane's History Nook at janeshistorynook.blogspot.com)
Miami’s tourist season used to span six weeks, beginning in February and running concurrent with horse racing at Hialeah Park. Times were tough for the young city after the 1926 hurricane and during the Great Depression so the city’s movers and shakers got together at the Biltmore Hotel in 1933 to brainstorm a way to extend the winter season. The winning idea was a football game on New Year’s Day.
The first Palm Festival game was held in 1933 and was a match up between the University of Miami and Manhattan College. Manhattan was guaranteed $3,200—the Hurricanes nothing—but the Florida team routed the northern college with a 7-0 victory. The Palm Festival was held that year and the following in Moore Park at NW 36th Street and 7th Avenue. Both games were a sellout of 8,000 seats.
A charter was issued to 27 Miamians forming the new Orange Bowl Committee, which included Miami Herald editor and namesake of the John Pennekamp Coral Reef Park. Oranges were not a big crop in South Florida then but the name resonated with the committee headed by Director Ernest Seiler. The inaugural Orange Bowl Festival game was held Jan. 1, 1935 between Bucknell University and Miami; Bucknell prevailed 26-0. Ground was broken for a stadium in 1936 at 1501 NW 3rd Street; the sports facility was named Burdine Stadium until 1959. (Orange Bowl Stadium closed in 2008.)
Seiler was able to keep the new stadium filled; he was the consummate public relations practitioner. He developed elaborate 12-minute shows for halftime that were heralded as a popular highlight of the games. His PR skills paid off for the 1939 game when he traveled to Oklahoma to meet with the Sooners and enticed them south with pictures of beaches and palm trees for a bowl game. Seiler asked the team coach to call Tennessee to suggest they play their big game in Miami and it was a go; the bowl game of 1939 propelled the Orange Bowl into the nation’s lineup of major bowl games.
Seiler kept adding to the Orange Bowl festivities with a parade along the Miracle Mile in Coral Gables, a boating regatta, beauty pageant and more. By the 1940s, it was the place to be New Year’s Day. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was the honored guest in 1947; President-Elect John Kennedy attended in 1961.
Today the Orange Bowl is a tradition in Miami and across the nation – and the winter tourist season runs five or six months instead of six weeks. The game is now played at the Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens at 199th Street or 347 Don Shula Drive.
For the Orange Bowl during the 1940s:
Sun Life Stadium
Discover Orange Bowl (Discover Card is current sponsor)
Miami News, Jan. 2, 1963
Miami News, Dec. 27, 1946
Tags: Miami history, Orange Bowl history, Orange Bowl sponsor, Palm Festival, first Orange Bowl game, Florida film researcher, film researcher